Every year I like to share a few must-see sites during Historic Milwaukee’s annual Doors Open Milwaukee, which has quickly grown into one of the most fun and well-attended events in the city.
This year's event is slated for Sept. 26-Oct. 3, and includes more than 70 buildings, art galleries, gardens and other spaces, some of which aren't typically open to the public.
That's a much lower number than in most recent years, but considering last year's event shifted entirely online and we're still struggling with Covid and its variants, it seems like a pretty impressive achievement for organizers.
Plus, the virtual option will continue on this year via a series of virtual building content, including photos, videos and 360 virtual reality tours available on the website.
You can find a full list of buildings and details here at the Doors Open website, but in the meantime, here, once again, are my picks for some of the best sites to check out during this year’s event.
Click the bold name of each venue below to read more about it.
After years of anticipation, the renovation of the stunning 1931 Warner Theater – later The Grand – into the new home of the Milwaukee Symphony Center is complete, making this the highlight of the 2021 buildings list. No ticket is required to tour the theater for free on Sunday, Sept. 26.
“We are thrilled to finally be able to open our doors fully to the public for our Free Community Day of Music during Historic Milwaukee’s Doors Open event,” says MSO President and Executive Director Mark Niehaus. “Our vision has always been to be a home for music in Milwaukee, and we can’t wait to welcome everyone to our, and their, new home.”
Currently Best Place in The Brewery District on the site of the old (and the current) Pabst Brewery, this 1850s buildings is the oldest surviving public school building in Milwaukee. It was later sold to Pabst, which used it for offices and other purposes. It's a gem of a place and one that owner Jim Haertel is passionate about.
Frank Lloyd Wright, like many before and after him, had a vision for creating easy to build modest, affordable housing – called American System Built houses – and a stretch of them was built on Burnham Street just off Layton Boulevard. One has been fully restored and work continues on another.
After visiting the three-story then-future home of Arts @ Large in Walker’s Point four years ago, I wrote, "There are few things more satisfying to me than seeing a beautiful old – and vacant – building get an overhaul and a new life with a new owner. When that new owner is a Milwaukee nonprofit that works every day to improve the lives of MPS students? Double bonus." What an overhaul and new life the building at 1100 S. 5th St. – built as a retail and apartment building for meat magnate Patrick Cudahy in 1891 – has gotten.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get a peek inside the former North Milwaukee Fire Station & Town Hall and it's definitely worth a visit. The eye-catching two-story 1900 building began life as the firehouse for the town of North Milwaukee, which occupied the first floor, along with a jail. It was also used as a town hall for a time and included council chambers, committee rooms, a library and a janitor’s apartment.
This unusual building built into a train trestle in Walker's Point has long been home to a pioneering Milwaukee model railroading club but before that it was a train station heavily used by factory workers in the area. See what remains of the original station.
One of five bungalow-style firehouses designed by Charles Malig for Milwaukee – all of which survive, though only one remains a working firehouse – has been converted to a beautiful events venue on the West Side. Check it out!
The home to the La Lune Collection since 1986, owners Mario and Cathy Costantini love these buildings, which they restored and expanded, and they treat them with the kind of care that is surely appreciated by neighbors. But the reason that office is so nice is likely due in large part to the fact that the contractor that built it was also the owner. H. Schmitt & Son – builders of churches, homes and other structures in town – built 930 E. Burleigh St as its own headquarters.
Clayborn Benson's labor of love for decades, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society has information and eye-opening displays, archives and a giant events space in a complex that includes a former movie theater, neighborhood library and firehouse.
(UPDATE: GRAEF's office is no longer open in-person, but will remain part of Doors Open virtually.) The local consulting firm GRAEF has converted the old food court at The Grand Avenue mall into its new Downtown offices and now you can see that stunning transformation. Sorry, no bourbon chicken samples.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.