A brief history of Spring Street, Grand Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue

Bridges crossing the Milwaukee River in Downtown Milwaukee

The Pfister Hotel is located on Wisconsin Avenue and sandwiched between Jefferson, Milwaukee, and Mason Streets. 424 East Wisconsin Avenue to be exact. That may seem like a simple enough fact; Wisconsin Avenue is a main street through the heart of downtown Milwaukee, a city not coincidentally located in the state of Wisconsin. However the history of Wisconsin Avenue is not as simple as one might guess. It’s actually a tale of Spring Street and Grand Avenue. To understand the story we actually have to delve into a tale of two cities. (Technically three considering George Walker and Walker’s Point, but for our immediate purposes only two are necessary to reference.)

Solomon Juneau relaxing for the camera.
Byron Kilbourn sported quite the beard.

Solomon Juneau was born in Quebec, Canada and arrived in Milwaukee in 1818. Juneau made his fortune as an employee of the American Fur Company. The American Fur Company was named by another man also imprinted in Milwaukee, John Jacob Astor. Upon moving to what we now call Milwaukee Mr. Juneau learned to speak fluent Menominee and Potawatomi before learning English. In the 1830’s the fur business was starting to appear less fruitful compared with real estate and Solomon had a ground floor opportunity to begin developing. The place where three rivers converge upon an enormous lake is not bad positioning for the start of a city. His portion of land was between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan and he opened an outpost store. Shortly after Juneau became the city’s first postmaster. He went on to be Milwaukee’s first elected mayor.

Byron Kilbourn arrived later than Solomon Juneau. He didn’t show up on our shores until the 1830’s. Kilbourn had already been involved with real estate in Sheboygan and Manitowoc and from the start seemed to have a much wider scope than Solomon Juneau. By comparison Kilbourn had more of a “fat cat” scope for his Milwaukee plans. Even though Chicago holds the title of the Windy City, Byron Kilbourn’s town was pretty liberal with bribes and corruption. Eventually Kilbourn’s railroad company was exposed for bribery relating to railroad land acquisition.

Looking west on Wisconsin Avenue. Notice the angle of the bridge across the Milwaukee River; crooked to accommodate for the angle of the two streets. This was taken during a 1919 parade.

In 1837 both men officially dug in their heels and named their plots, predictably, Juneautown and Kilbourntown (come on guys, a little creativity?). Competition between the two cities eventually came to a head during the Bridge Wars of 1845. Milwaukee’s east side is effectively an island between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. Bridges are a necessity to get to the larger mainland. Byron Kilbourn and the residents of Kilbourntown hoped to freeze Juneautown out of access to the mainland. A resolution was reached to build a new bridge as the current network of bridges was deemed inadequate. But Kilbourntown refused to share in payment for the bridge’s construction. Residents of each side spent weeks voicing their opinions. Eventually violence erupted and in protest residents smashed and burned two of the existing bridges. Eventually each side concluded they needed one another and merged to become the City of Milwaukee in 1846.

What does this have to do with street names? While each side of town operated independently they developed their own road system. They even laid their roads at different angles so their streets wouldn’t easily meet with one another.

Painting "Bridge War" by Clarence Monegar.

Spring Street was called such due to the luck of a spring that existed on the street prior to indoor plumbing. The street also came to be called Grand Avenue. The Grand had, and still does possess many theatres, department stores, and other entertainment. It’s likely the name was also a result of the grand mansions built farther West on the street (such as the Pabst Mansion). Eventually everyone agreed on Wisconsin Avenue and the Pfister has it’s current home at 424. Voila!

My favorite lady lives on the 2nd floor

Georges Jules Victor Clairin's "The Dancer" gracing the 2nd floor mezzanine of the Pfister Hotel. Yep she's my favorite. Le sigh...

My mother has always had portraits of women around the house. Her taste for paintings and sculpture spans the 1870’s up to early art deco. Overall she’d probably list Monet as her favorite painter. I grew up with these ladies hanging around so they’ve probably influenced which variety of painted ladies I find attractive and prefer to have in my walled company. I’m sure Freud would have plenty to say…

The art collection encompassed in the Pfister is the world’s largest hotel art collection on permanent display. Given that the hotel was initially completed in 1893 most of the hotel’s artistic style dates from near this time period.

I asked the Pfister’s Chef Concierge Peter Mortensen if he could fill me in on a little about Georges Jules Victor Clairin’s “The Dancer,” and he had plenty to whet my curiosity. But first I was lambasted for not knowing much about Sarah Bernhardt. Allow me to explain…

Clairin was a French painter who began exhibiting at the Salon in 1866. For folks like myself who haven’t yet visited Parisian museums or galleries, The Salon was an annual showcase of France’s premier academic artists. From what I can conclude the Salon shows fell in prominence around the rise of Impressionism. Impressionist art of the time was not generally accepted into the Salon shows and may account for it’s gradual skid in importance. Impressionists such as Cezanne, Monet, Degas, and Renoir are household names but I had to look up the Salon. I guess history shows who won that debate.

Georges’ specialty in painting became the female form. He loved to paint lavishly costumed women. Dancers and costumed actresses became models, muses, and lovers.

Clairin's rendering of Sarah Bernhardt as Ophelia. To be clear this piece is not possessed by or displayed at the Pfister Hotel and is merely shown for purposes of comparison.

Sarah Bernhardt was an actress. Well, more correctly she was the actress. From her very start Sarah Bernhardt is a story not easily discerned. Sarah is believed to have been born in 1844 as Rosine Bernhardt to a mother named Julie and an unknown father. She began acting in the mid-1860’s but her birth papers were lost in a fire. She became Sarah by creating falsified birth documents. By the 1870’s her star grew to the point that she was known simply as “The Divine Sarah.” Bernhardt was the most sought-after actress of the time and traveled to the United States and Cuba to perform and teach aspiring lady actresses. Along the way she got married, had children, was known to sleep in a coffin (method acting preparation), got divorced, lost a leg to gangrene, had affairs, (in no specific, often overlapping, order) and performed exhaustively until her death in 1923.

Clairin ended up painting Ms. Bernhardt’s likeness several times. He often rendered her while costumed. Our concierge Peter explained that at one point Mr. Clairin and Ms. Bernhardt shared a house in the south of France. Although Georges Clairin is probably best known for painting Sarah Bernhardt, she is far from being the only woman to see the end of his paintbrush. Walk up to our second floor mezzanine to see the beauty my photograph of “The Dancer” cannot replicate.

As for Ms. Bernhardt, I’ll give you one guess where she stayed in Milwaukee.

Resident Pfister artist Shelby Keefe gives walking art tours Fridays and Saturdays at 4pm (Or by prior appointment, stop by her studio on the first floor to schedule directly with her). Tours are free and open to the public.

 

The Good Life in Blu (is a cocktail too)

Patrons enjoy Afternoon Tea on a Friday near dusk. Your table waits in the foreground...

Last night I was able to listen to a concert with pianist Dr. Jeffrey Hollander. The good doctor plays every first Thursday of the month on the 23rd floor at Blu, the cocktail lounge which looks east over Lake Michigan. Patrons sat at tables which radiated from the piano. Couples sat close to one another in a piano-dangled warm quiet until the last few songs, at which point I began looking for a singer who appeared to my ears from of the middle of nowhere. I looked around the room to find someone now accompanying the piano. I then realized there wasn’t a singer who was sharing the floor with Jeffrey. The entire room had joined in song for the last few numbers in a way that happens often in black and white movies but rarely in color ones.

While listening to the concert I ended up speaking with a gentleman named Bill. Evidenced, I suppose, by his being seated next to me, Bill remarked that he preferred to enjoy a *ding-time* 6pm workday whistle cocktail in Blu. I asked where he was in town from and he chuckled that he worked a few blocks away and this was his nightly cool-down. No traveler was Bill at the moment, this was his customary place to relax once the office turned dim before heading home.

Prior to this position I’d never considered spending time in a hotel in my city (or any other city for that matter). I traveled for business when I was younger and that traveling amounted to seeing an airport, freeway, hotel, and identically designed retail location. Wash, rinse, repeat the process for 55-70 hours per week for a few years. The corporation who employed me had a very cost-conscious mindset so many of the hotels (er…often motels) I slept at were not the type of place one felt incredibly welcomed. After the first few trips I didn’t bother to pack a swimsuit and brought a book to read instead of assuming there might be cable television. The definition I’d learned a hotel to be was a bed and shower acting as the peanut butter and jelly sandwiched between 13 hour workdays.

Mary Keppeler's harp accompanies Friday Afternoon Tea

I thought about the hotels I’d stayed at for business and they were never like this. Sitting in one’s room with a book felt like being sequestered in a hospital room. I’d walk downstairs to the lobby and they might have a couch but not the type of couch you’d ever sit on because you wanted to. The type of a couch you’d only sit on only if you were stuck waiting. I’d walk across the street, or a few blocks away, or to the other end of the strip mall where there was a chain restaurant and the meal tasted boringly identical to the meal they’d serve in Birmingham, or Seattle, or Hoboken. I’d try to strike up a conversation with the staff or neighboring patron but all of the 14 sports games on 72 televisions commanded the room’s entire attention. The staff seemed confused as to why you would want to engage them in conversation. They had no idea I’d come from Milwaukee to Brick Town, NJ, for four days and wanted to ask about their town. Aside from that, I’m a human and we’re social animals.

There are many reasons to like this bar: calming ambience, incredible view, the free concerts. But all that aside Bill said it was the people who attracted him to Blu. Both the clientele and the staff. The bartenders are social and their conversation stretches far beyond the weather. If there’s a game you’d like to watch they’ll turn on the TV but it’s not the mouth-gape focus of all the room’s energy. Neighboring patrons don’t find it strange when you ask how their day went, or if there’s a museum in walking distance, or what book you’re reading at the moment.

The Good Life at Blu is all a-glitter once the sun goes down.

The funny thing is I started this blog post to write about the cocktail I had in Blu. The drink is called The Good Life. It’s an exquisitely simple combination of fresh lime, cucumber, mint, raw suger, and Veev Acai Berry Liquor. The sipper tastes every flavor all at once in an even, balanced manner. None of the flavors shout for your attention in a way that would seem obnoxious or out of place. Jason, the vested and Windsor knot necktied bartender, suggested I try this as my invitation to the drink menu. Then I had another one, which I suppose that’s the ultimate endorsement. But that cocktail is just one detail, seemingly unimportant by comparison, to the candlelight speckled chandelier city glow surrounding the miles around me.

This really is a preferable way to travel- even if you’re just a tourist in your own town. Bill is right. The drinks are well-poured, yes, the food is as advertised and requested, he says this and shrugs. Those are all great but it’s the people and the experience which resonate in one’s memory. It’s Milwaukee, you can have a drink nearly anywhere. Where else can one relax while the golden coast touching Lake Michigan gradually turns to a shimmering tapestry and the bartender asks if you’d like your usual? It’s that intangible combination of service, location, and amenities which combines to create this brilliant ambience.

I was about to click the Publish button on this blog entry but then there was a sudden bit of “ooohs” and “aaahhhhs” and brief applause which distracted me from the current task. I asked the bartender what had happened. Jason leaned in and explained that a man three tables over asked the woman sitting to his right if she’d marry him. I look over and the woman’s head is on the man’s shoulder. Her fingers take turns tracing the lashes underneath her eyes. She’s giggling and sniffling all at once. How can I write about just a cocktail?

Your City Through Visiting Eyes- “Absolutely Gobsmacked!”

 

The other night I was sitting in the lobby lounge editing photographs on my computer. Something a bar patron said caught my ear and made me laugh. I don’t remember what exactly he said, but the gentleman’s tone and volume invited anybody within earshot to join. Hearing my chuckle he turned around, delighted that another was entertained by his observation. As he approached my table with a glass of beer in hand I closed the screen on my laptop and returned the machine to it’s case.

See that white whale tail in the distance? It's a piece of artwork masquerading as a museum.

Wayne was this fellow’s name and he was in Milwaukee for a very brief stay. Wayne is the director of a company called SMAC Technologies and they’re located just outside of Adelaide, South Australia. SMAC is an acronym for Shaw Method of Air Conditioning. Wayne’s company recently won the Australian Clean Technologies Ideas Competition and he was in the U.S. to spread word of his company’s innovative take on the cooling process. As you might guess air conditioning in Australia isn’t a mere creature comfort; when living there it’s something closer to necessity. Imagine grandparents retiring to Florida without air conditioning. Not likely.

Straightaway Wayne told me he was “absolutely gobsmacked” with Milwaukee. Throughout our conversation it amazed me the sort of reverence Wayne had for the opportunity to visit our part of the world. He remarked, “With Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, Honeywell in Minneapolis, Carrier a bit farther in Syracuse, it’s very exciting for me to visit what can be considered the birthplace of my field of study.” I’d never quite thought about our region that way, that far back. I suppose the Midwest was a vital epicenter of the industrial revolution. One’s definition of hometown is specific to their experience. Milwaukee’s always been where I’m from and to hear someone so impressed made me think more critically about the prominence of this city.

My new acquaintance told me that he’d walked five blocks east on Wisconsin Avenue to see the moving sculpture we call an art museum. Strolled his feet in the sand on the public shores of Lake Michigan, the 5th largest body of fresh water in the world. Came back and sat at a bar sampling beer that was brewed within walking distance. He then traveled in an elevator and slept in history’s first building to feature individualized temperature controls in each room. Ensconced in indigenous Cream City Brick. Absolutely gobsmacked indeed.

I suppose living in the same place for a long time can be like marriage. You wake up in the morning and consider your sleeping wife’s adorable curl above her right temple. You go about the morning routine and while in the shower think of how the relationship has evolved but you still love those dimples on the small of her back and admire her stubbornness (most of the time). After toweling off you walk down the hallway to mention her haircut, but her words arrive first. She asks how one of the kids is getting home from soccer practice. In your mind you envision the soccer schedule and forget about her hair, her dimples, her cleft chin. Her calf muscles’ perfect taper toward the ankle. You imagine sitting in the car while driving to soccer practice. That car should have the transmission fluid changed. Before winter. Better buy a snow shovel by December, the old favorite’s blade is too curled to be of use any longer (but shall remain lovingly displayed in corner of the garage). Do the gutters need to be cleaned of autumn leaves before snow and ice? We have to remember to go ice skating at Brown Deer Park this winter… “Oh, yes, sure I can pick them up from soccer.”

I was born in Milwaukee, my parents too. My dad graduated from Granville High School, my mom Brown Deer. Same school, but the town’s name had been changed from Granville to Brown Deer. Brown Deer Park is one of 9 public golf courses in Milwaukee. At nearly 750 square feet per person our city ranks 8th for park acreage in the United States. Lake Michigan is free, public, and welcoming your presence. Olympians train at the Pettit. We host the world’s largest music festival. We offered electric temperature control to the world.  We invented the typewriter and consequently the QWERTY keyboard. From a list of 30, Milwaukee claims 3 of the country’s top restaurants. Wayne is right, there are no shortage of reasons to be absolutely gobsmacked with Milwaukee, regardless if you call it home.

I suggest spending some time at the lakefront- because you can, because it’s yours. It’s even more lovely in winter. Or visit a new park you’ve yet to see. There are 136 in Milwaukee.  And go tell your spouse something. The something only you know.

Holiday Season Begins

Last year I took a seasonal job selling Christmas trees in Florida. Why Christmas trees? Why Florida? Because it’s seasonal and the job is over soon. It’s nice to spend a month in the warmth. They paid for my travel, a house we shared on the beach, and all my meals while in the FLA. There exist customers who are glad to pay healthy prices to take their time selecting a special tree. They also enjoy that healthy Wisconsin farm boys, for a fee, deliver their chosen tree to their house and set it up. (Wherever, however, turn left, keep going, keep going, YES! No, back a little. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. What do you think honey, is it crooked now? Maybe a little farther…)

My employer in the Christmas tree trade was a gentleman I met briefly before he excused himself to answer a telephone call. I went back to my eggs and speaking with the person seated on my other side. We were all grabbing breakfast at a restaurant with a counter, “counter culture” as my poet friend Louisa Loveridge Gallas likes to say. The guy walked back in from his phone call to announce one of the most preposterous things I’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth, “Well, one of our guys hurt his back and can’t come sell Christmas trees in Florida this year.” He started querying healthy young men in earshot. “Frank; Ed- any of you guys want to, um, come sell Christmas trees in Clearwater?” It sounded too strange to be fictional, so of course I jumped at the chance. Working as a poet/bartender/artist it’s nice to do some real physical work every now and then. We opened up our enormous tent on Thanksgiving and it was the first time in my life someone said to me, “Happy Thanksgiving!” on a 70+ degree day. I’d probably be in Florida right now if I hadn’t landed this fantastical job titled Narrator.

Accompany of Kids serenades our guests from stairs leading to the second floor.

I wonder what my dad would say if he could hear me tell him about the duties of the Narrator. My tool and tie maker father was the king of 60 hour work weeks before retiring earlier than he would have liked. “Let me get this straight…your job is to hang out and talk to people and write about it? Where’s the work in that?” Don’t worry dad, I’m still working a couple other jobs, it’s not all hanging out and glasses of water, room for cream in my coffee, shooting the breeze…

Yesterday was the Black Friday dreaded by folks in retail. Personally, I didn’t step foot in a store. We joined all the families who came to the hotel to participate in celebrating the tree lighting ceremony. To quote an Australian gentleman I met here last week the event had me, “Absolutely Gobsmacked!” Milwaukee area families and visiting guests enjoyed complimentary champagne, egg nog, build your own cookies and cupcakes for the kids (ok– adults too, I confess). Accompany of Kids was on-hand to serenade all with holiday songs. To top it all off the Milwaukee Fire Department safely escorted Santa and Ms. Claus for a meet and greet with small a city of excited children.

Grrr, baby. Very grrrrrrr. Even our cats dress up in their seasonal best.

As I look at this lovely holiday display in the lobby, which I did not deliver or set up, there are Milwaukee area families dressed in their best to come downtown and share laughs and pictures with people they may not have seen since a tree stood this time last year. It’s Saturday now and it’s no longer a chorus, rather, Lou Cucunato is playing piano next to the marble sculpture of Guido Pfister. Last year this time I had work selling and delivering Fraser, Douglas, and Noble fir trees after meeting a guy at the local breakfast counter. This winter my “work” is lounging with a tree in my periphery while speaking with guests enjoying a cocktail or a meal at the counter. The piano player just got done with Sway by Dean Martin. People often say the holidays are stressful. I suppose. But why focus on that? Now Louie’s piano is on to My Way by Sinatra. Good. I’ll keep in line with the man. To quote a letter from Frank, “Loosen up. Swing, man. Dust off those gossamer wings and fly yourself to the moon of your choice…”

Generations of Serendipity Swirl Through the Pfister

It’s not every day a person informs you the place you work probably had a hand in their family escaping the Holocaust.

This past weekend the Pfister was blessed to host the wedding of Mr. Wiley Norden and Ms. Marissa Mullen. Marissa recently followed her career to Chicago but left her heart in Milwaukee. With the man willing she decided not only to marry in Milwaukee but wanted their big day to contain components specific to the city. Area beer, wines, and cheeses were par for their course and Marissa wanted them to be encompassed within a prominent Milwaukee landmark. When looking at potential locations the Pfister surfaced as a viable option and once dates were nailed down schedules meshed. But Marissa had yet to discover the deep connection her family had with the Pfister Hotel.

The postcard Marissa's great-grandfather sent home in 1938. The Mason Street tower behind the 1893 structure wasn't added until the 1960's.

In the interim Marissa’s mother, Sharon, inherited a treasure trove of family letters and correspondence, some of which were sent to and from the “Old Country.” In their case Sharon’s family were German speakers native to Czechoslovakia. Sharon has yet to learn German so the text itself didn’t tell much of a story. Except, however, one postcard contained an old photograph of the Pfister Hotel, dated 1938. This immediately piqued Sharon’s curiosity, given that her daughter had decided to hold her wedding at the Pfister.

Sharon’s grandfather, Ernest Prager, (therefore the bride’s great-grandfather) owned a wool coat and glove lining company in Czechoslovakia and in the 1930’s began branching the family business beyond Europe. No one is certain why he was in Milwaukee but at the time Milwaukee created more leather garments than anywhere else in the world. It’s likely Mr. Prager was meeting with the Pfister and Vogel Tanning Company to discuss business and stayed in Charles Pfister’s flagship hotel.

As history has revealed the 1930’s in Europe was shaping up to be a bad time and place for those of Jewish heritage to continue to safely raise their families. Mr. Prager could foresee the political winds and started looking for a place to relocate his family. Ernest came to the United States to establish business contacts and begin the process of gradually moving his family to the States. They ended up moving to Gloversville in Upstate New York, and, yes, the town’s name is quite literal. The Prager family moved to where there was an ample supply of gloves requiring imported leather, which became Ernest’s new line of business.

Charles Prager, son of Ernest and Valerie, met his wife Harriet in Gloversville. After marrying in 1947 the couple moved to Milwaukee where they gave birth to three lovely daughters; Sharon (Marissa’s mother), Renee, and Diane. No one quite knows whether Charles realized his father had spent time in our city.

The Pfister of 2011, complete with the rear tower and parking structure installed in the 1960's. The Milwaukee Club sits across Jefferson and behind the photographer is the Federal Building.

So…fast forward to 2011. Ernest Prager’s great-grand daughter Marissa meets Wiley. Wiley is an absolutely suitable suitor and the two decide to marry. Wiley and Marissa choose the Pfister Hotel for the place to invite their families to join together. But they make the decision without being aware that her great-grandfather stayed here decades previous to moving to the U.S. while beginning the process toward citizenship.

Before I get too mired in kismet let me say Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

L’Chaim!

Thanks to Wiley Norden and Marissa Mullen for allowing us to share in their special day and to Sharon Mullen for telling us her family’s connection with the Grand Dame of the West. Please give a listen on the player below to hear Sharon Mullen tell her family’s story.

 

Serendipity swirls around the Pfister by Ed Makowski

The Unexpectedness of Travel


We're all a-blur of inertia coming from and going...

One can plan all the details of a trip but one can never plan the end result. I spoke with this fella in the Pfister’s Lobby Lounge. His name is Joon and he’s a Chicago native who moonlighted in Milwaukee before moving back home to th’Windy.

This past summer Joon was able to travel all over Europe including a stop in Denmark. Once  in Copenhagen with a friend they roamed around the city, finding the Copenhagen they’d always heard about. But they also stumbled into the Copenhagen where drug dealers protect their turf regardless of how many cuddly green bicycles are parked nearby. Joon lived, without bodily harm, to tell the tale and even kept his beloved camera safe. But why hear me re-tell the story? Click the player below to hear for yourself!

 

 

 

 

Joon Kim at the Lunch Counter by Ed Makowski