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. 24-25, and includes more than 100 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 the 2020 event shifted entirely online and today, as last year, 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.
While you're at the website, check out the ticketed events, too. Ticketed tour sales begine for members on Sept. 7 at 10 a.m. and for the general public on Sept. 14 at 10 a.m.
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.
David Barnett Gallery / Henry H. Button House
It's difficult to imagine how Prospect Avenue on the lower East Side once looked, lined on both sides with stately 19th century mansions. But, thankfully, at least a few examples survive to give us an idea. One of the loveliest is 1875 Italianate home, at 1024 E. State St., that has been home to the David Barnett Gallery for nearly 35 years.
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.
Survive Alive House
In the late 1980s, house fires were exacting a brutal toll on Milwaukee children. In response, Mayor Henry Maier created a Fire Prevention Task Force and one of the suggestions to emerge was the idea of creating a fire education center for Milwaukee children. Thus was the Survive Alive House, 2059 S. 20th St., born. The house – designed by Kubala Washatko Architects, who previously designed a Survive Alive house in Cedarburg – was built at 2059 S. 20th St. and opened to students on March 2, 1992. It welcomed 3,000 kids in roughly the first month. Soon more than 25,000 kids were visiting annually.
Frank Lloyd Wright's System-Built houses
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.
20 Ton Studios in a former TMER&L electrical substation
Dotted across the Milwaukee landscape are a series of red brick buildings that are instantly recognizable to many as former substations built by the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co. in the early years of the 20th century. The one at 2000 W. North Ave. is now home to a group of artists and it offers a rare look inside one of these interesting buildings.
Arts @ Large
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.
National Block / The George
The National Block on 5th and National in Walker's Point has been standing since 1882 but for decades, it's either been empty or had turned its back to the street. Then, the current owners saw it. They completely renovated and restored the entire (mostly) three-story structure, with apartments on the upper floors, The George event space on the main floor and Madcap Lounge on the lower level.
Old North Milwaukee village hall & firehouse
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. Currently home to Arthaus.
Model Railroad Club / Allis Station
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.
Story Hill Firehouse
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!
Wisconsin Black Historical Society
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.
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.