Building History Database

For those of you that know only the blog section of the website you may want to explore a little further. There is a steadily growing and updated database of downtown Milwaukee buildings. This database lists brief histories of existing and old buildings, some of which are long gone.

You can use the “Downtown Building Database Search” many different ways by searching by architect, building name or just by looking to see what is newly added to the list. I have been taking pictures of existing buildings to add to the database, finding older building images to scan, and doing extra research to find more information. This resource will continue to expand so check back often!


Hidden History of Milwaukee

Join’s Bobby Tanzilo for a behind-the-scenes tour of Milwaukee’s past. Sail out to the Breakwater Lighthouse, scramble up the wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum and dig up the city’s roots on the corner of Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Seize the chance to do a little urban spelunking and explore basilicas, burial grounds and breweries. Ring the bell in the city hall tower, and take a turn around the secret indoor track at a Montessori school. No space is off limits in these untold stories of the Cream City’s most familiar places and celebrated landmarks.

This is Bobby Tanzilo’s latest book about Milwaukee’s history and it pulls together many of the stories he has told in his On Milwaukee columns. He will be on hand to talk about the book and answer questions.

Here is a recent interview from On Milwaukee.

Boswell Books
2559 N. Downer Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53211
Wednesday May 21, at 7:00 pm

About the Author: Bobby Tanzilo is managing editor at Born and raised in Brooklyn, he moved to Milwaukee when he was 17 and has lived in nearly every neighborhood in the city. He earned a BA-Mass Communication at UW-Milwaukee and is author of The Milwaukee Police Station Bomb of 1917, as well as three other nonfiction books. He lives in Milwaukee with his family, where he serves on the school governance council at his children’s Milwaukee Public School, and is creator of the website,


2014 ‘MONDO MILWAUKEE’ Boat Tours


The Milwaukee Boat Line will offer a second season of the popular Mondo Milwaukee Boat Tour detailing the city’s scandalous and hidden past via the rivers and lake. This year’s first Mondo tour will be held Thursday, May 29th from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., departing from 101 W. Michigan Street. Additional Mondo tours will be held on the last Thursday of each month: June 26, July 31, and August 28, also 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Hosted by local author and historian Matthew J. Prigge, the tour includes all-true stories about such off-beat topics as the old downtown vice and brothel districts, the deadliest disasters of the lake and rivers, the years when the Milwaukee mafia ruled the Third Ward, and long-forgotten mass graves on the city’s waterfront.

“Mondo Milwaukee gives a history of the city that is rarely told. It’s a great mix of bawdy tales, forgotten disasters, and wild stories that all helped to shape our city,” said Prigge. “It’s the only after-hours tour we’ve got in Milwaukee. Last year’s response to the tour was overwhelmingly positive. This year is going to be even more fun.”

Prigge is a PhD student in the history program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and has spent the last three summers leading tours of the city for the Milwaukee Boat Line. His articles on Milwaukee’s history have been featured in several publications and have won awards from local and national organizations. He has written a book detailing some of the strangest and most savage forgotten events of Milwaukee’s past that will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2015.

A full bar and snacks will be available throughout the tour. Tickets cost $17.99 each. They can be purchased online at or dockside the night of the tour. Visit for updates.

For more information, contact Matthew J. Prigge at 920-901-4866 or at


South KK Row-houses

I love old photos and the Library of Congress has a great collection of online images that can be searched. There is a series of Milwaukee pictures by veteran Life magazine photographer Carl Mydans taken in April 1936. I have looked at these photos many, many times and most of them show areas of town that have been struck by “urban renewal”. As a result, you have to take for granted that these older areas of the city are forever gone.

Several of the photos have labels and descriptions that I know are not right and don’t make sense from what I know. The following picture is one of those that have bugged me and it has a description of “View from living quarters at 730 West Winnebago Street”. That area of Winnebago Street across from the old Pabst Brewery is long demolished after the Park East Freeway was built in the late 1960s. I have the large size of the picture as my PC desktop background so I see it all of the time and it was a surprise when I was driving back from Bay View on KK a few weeks back that I glanced over and saw houses that looked like those in the photo. It was an “aha” moment and when I got home, I looked at Google Maps and sure enough, these were the houses I was looking for and they, for the most part, still exist but in the wrong location.

Mislabeled historic photos can be found in many places. There is another one on the Library of Congress website that was identified wrong here and is actually around 9th & Clybourn. Gary Rebholz of Milwaukee German Newspapers Index showed me a few pictures on the Milwaukee Public Library digital collection website that had erroneous descriptions. They have since been corrected.

So the moral of the story is don’t believe everything you read about where that old photo is from. Chances are that somebody screwed up. Keep your eyes open – history is all around you!


The row-houses as they look today with a few that have been torn down:

The Reed Street Depot

Many people have most likely heard of the seminal railroad station in Milwaukee called the Reed street Station. It can be hard to picture where it was located unless you have the right reference point. The top view looks south on South Second Street (Reed Street) and was taken for an article in the August 30, 1902 Milwaukee Journal. The second picture is from Google Maps showing roughly the same angle. The pink building is the same as shown in the older photo but where the station was is now a parking lot.

The article explains:

“How are the mighty fallen.” The fall of the mighty is rarely so well shown as in the present appearance of the old and famous Reed street depot, once the great railway center of Milwaukee. the old structure is shown as it stands today below the street grade, cut up into various divisions, plastered with signs and used for a dozen different purposes. This depot was the great union depot for Milwaukee after the roads about Milwaukee were formed into the big Milwaukee road of the seventies and the Chestnut street depot closed. It was there that all the road’s trains, as well as those of the Wisconsin Central and the Milwaukee and Northern centered, and it was there that the people of Milwaukee received President Hayes in 1879, and Gens Grant, Sherman and other noted soldiers at the time of the great reunion in 1880. For many years the diningroom managed by the late Col. W.S. Johnson was one of the famous railway eating houses of the country, and its excellence made it a strong competitor of dining cars and hotels.

Reed Street 1

Reed Street 2

Another picture of busy South Second Street looking north towards downtown, circa 1885, can be seen at the UWM Digital Collections website.

Bay View Tragedy

Another history event coming up is the annual Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy. This will mark the 128th Anniversary of the battle between workers protesting for an 8-hour day and state militia in 1886. Seven labor heroes died in Bay View on May 5th of that year but their effort led to changes that we now take for granted today.

This is a public event held at the Historical Marker Site at the corner of S. Superior St. and E. Russell Ave. It will include speeches, a re-enactment by the Milwaukee Public Theatre, and a wreath laying by Anita Zeidler. The event is sponsored by the Wisconsin Labor Historical Society.

Bay View Tragedy Commemoration

Sunday, May 4th, 3:00PM
Special Feature: “Solidarity Singers” from Madison will sing before the program at 2:50PM


Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet Program

The Milwaukee Public Library will present Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet w/Dan Chabot, its last editor, 20 years after it ended. A small display of Green Sheets, its features and a Peach Sheet can be viewed in the Central Library’s 1st floor hallway and the Periodicals Room on the 2nd floor through the end of May. A small sample of Remember When… and more Green Sheet features will go on display in the Frank Zeidler Humanities Room in early May.

You can register online or call Ready Reference at 286-3011.

Remember When…Everyone Read the Green Sheet
Dan Chabot, Green Sheet Editor (1981-1994)
2:00 p.m., Saturday, May 10th
Central Library Centennial Hall
733 N. 8th St.
Free street parking on Saturday, but time limits apply (most spots are 2 hrs.)


Penny Lunches and the Women’s Vote in 1909

Monday night I attended a great lecture at Turner Hall by historian Paul Buhle and his wife, Mari Jo Buhle of Madison. Both are well published, retired academics with books chronicling the American left, activist and protest movements. They gave separate talks about the German progressive legacy in local and state politics which developed from the wave of immigrants known as the 48’ers. Mari Jo Buhle talked about early German American feminist Mathilde Anneke who was a fervent abolitionist and worked with Susan B. Anthony for women’s rights in the mid 19th century. She also talked about Socialist leader Victor Berger’s wife, Meta, who was elected to the School Board of Milwaukee with the help of the women’s vote in 1909. This was the first time women had the right to vote in Milwaukee but was limited to voting for members of the School Board.

Milwaukee’s society women came out in force during the April 6, 1909 election. It was a badge of honor to exercise this new found right to vote even though the power was limited. But sometimes the first steps are the slowest. Estimates of the number of women that voted ranged from 2,000 to 5,700. But the results were that three women were elected to the School Board; Meta Berger, Mrs. Simon Kander, and Mrs. C.B. Whitnall, all of whom had a profound effect on the Milwaukee school system.



The big local progressive issue of the time was one pushed by Mrs. C.B. Whitnall and the Women’s School Alliance. It was something they had spearheaded several years prior – to provide school lunches to underprivileged children who might otherwise not get enough to eat. The program that was started was called the “Penny Lunch” because it provided a full lunch for the cost of a penny. It stemmed from the idea that children who were well fed will do better work than hungry children and will develop better. Dull children or unruly children became “docile and good students.” The low price gave the families the feeling that this was not complete charity and allowed them some feeling of self-respect. It was very successful since its start in 1902 and was funded by donations for many years to cover the $1,500 a year that it originally cost.

Initially the lunches were provided in the home of Mrs. Jennie Tietz near the Tenth District School and slowly expanded to other schools but by 1907 as the program grew, permission was granted to hold them in the schools. It took until September 1917 before the School Board took over the work and started serving the children lunches with a budget cost of $2,000/yr. Schools did not begin to have specially built cafeterias where children could eat en-masse until after World War I. By 1939, the system was serving hot lunches in all schools and had an annual budget of $23,254 of which only $1,600 was paid by taxpayers. The majority of lunches served in grade schools were fully paid by parents and the remaining lunches of poorer students were free.


Milwaukee Free Press, March 31, 1909 – Advantages of the Penny Lunch
Milwaukee Free Press, April 7, 1909 – Women Voters at Polling Places, Thoughtful Women Turn Out At Polls
Milwaukee Free Press, April 13, 1909 – Penny Lunches For the Children

1911 Butterfly Theater Opening

Butterfly Theater Opening – September 2, 1911
(Originally posted March 15, 2009)

The short lived Butterfly Theater was opened on Saturday, September 2, 1911 on 212 West Wisconsin Avenue. The theater was razed eighteen years later in January of 1930 to make way for a more modern theater called the Warner. Although it was large for the standards of the day, it was outdated by the time talkies were the standard. The brilliant exterior shone with hundreds of lights and a large lighted butterfly along with enough ornamentation for a dozen other buildings. The sketch below was made by the designer of the stained glass on the exterior and shows in detail the huge woman/butterfly that was mounted on the facade. the butterfly measured 27 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

The interior had seating for 1,500 in the best leather upholstered seating. The balcony had sixteen box seats which sat eight people each and there were twenty-five additional box-seating areas on the main floor. A huge, expensive pipe organ was installed as well as room for a ten-piece orchestra.

Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard article.




WPA Milwaukee Guide


(Originally posted March, 7, 2010)

Back in the early 1940s the WPA Writers’ Project worked on a guidebook to Milwaukee similar to others in many major cities across the land. It was an extensive project which was extremely well researched and was ready for publication in early 1941. Unfortunately due to political reasons, the guide was never published and remains hidden in archives in the Library of Congress and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Although there is a labor and union related slant to the writing of the article, this was the prevailing attitude of Milwaukee at the time.

A WPA Guide to Wisconsin was finished and published at the same time and was most recently reprinted in 2006. I am not sure if it had some of the same problems as the Milwaukee Guide.

The following is a portion of the research I have found relating to this project. The Wisconsin State Historical Society and also the Library of Congress both have manuscripts of the guide. Both libraries have slightly varied files relating to the project and both are worth viewing if you want to learn more.

This is a small excerpt from the guide:


North Section

From the downtown section of the city of Milwaukee northward, State 42 is a most interesting and scenic drive. The ever cool waters of Lake Michigan and the city’s finest homes in beautifully landscaped settings are the chief attractions. The present highway follows the general direction of an old Indian trail -which ran from Milwaukee to the Chippewa village at Saukville, thence to the south of the Sheboygan River and Manitowoc Rapids and from the latter, northwest to Green Bay.

This article included with the file in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives explains the history of the Guide. Susan Drew, mentioned in the article, is highlighted in this article from the Milwaukee Journal of August 2, 1942..

Note on the Milwaukee Guide.

Three copies of the Milwaukee Guide, prepared by the Milwaukee unit of the Federal Writers’ Project, are deposited here. This book was not published.

A committee appointed by the Milwaukee County Board, co-sponsor of the Guide, was incited by a member of that committee, Miss Susan Drew, to consider the book “too socialistic.” During several months in 1940 the committee met with the state and local supervisors of the project to read through the essays. (The appended clipping from the Milwaukee Journal will give some notion of the kind of thing discussed at the meetings.) At the final meeting, in the spring of 1941, the committee, with the exception of Miss Drew, considered the material satisfactory and empowered the state supervisor to negotiate with publishers for a contract that would allow the county board to publish the book with no expense to it. In January, 1942, a contract was received from Durrell and Smith, a New York publishing house, who wished to publish the book at what would have been very little cost to the co-sponsor. By that time the war was on, and before the committee could meet to consider the contract the project was suspended.

An excerpt from the Guide showing some of the socialistic slant in the writing is shown below. An understanding of Milwaukee during this time is important. This was a very industrial city comprised of many industrial workers who fought hard and somewhat violent struggles for rights we take for granted today. Milwaukee still takes pride in being a city of the working class and it seems right to write its history with that in mind. The economic problems that led to the WPA were fresh in the mind of these writers and they were addressed in these essays.

Milwaukee is not without its great fortunes and its great families who exert a certain degree of economic control over its citizens. But, although many of the city’s industrial establishments were founded only a generation or so ago by mechanics and laborers, Milwaukee has shared in the national swing away from local and individual to corporate and absentee ownership. Few factories are left wherein a shirt-sleeved owner-boss can call each employee by name and be addressed in turn as “Ed” or “Charley”. Some industrialists still insist that their sons should “start from the bottom up” to learn the family business, but this custom is coming to be regarded more and more as a gesture. Milwaukee society revolves on its own axis, spinning farther and farther away from the daily life lived by the majority of the citizens residents.

Milwaukee’s rich people make little ostentatious displays of wealth, perhaps because their tastes do not incline that way, perhaps because many of their fellow Milwaukeeans find such display irresistibly comic rather than impressive. The occasional hunt club “drags,” hunts after non-existent foxes, which are given serious attention by society editors, are often hailed with glee by Milwaukee newspaper columnists as an opportunity for humorous articles. The average Milwaukee resident heartily enjoys these, chuckling at a description of grown men and women dressing up in pink coats and caroling “Yoicks!” Recent publication of a local Social Register also was the subject for reportorial facetiousness. Tails and top-hats are not so common at the concert or the theater but that necks are craned at their appearance; there are few places here, with the exception of two or three exclusive clubs and some private homes, where evening dress does not render its wearer mildly conspicuous.

Here are a few news articles explaining the project and the issues that it had:

Milwaukee Journal, December 8, 1935

WPA Gives Us Big Write-up

2,500,000 Words About Milwaukee Is Goal; Jobs for Editors

In an obscure mezzanine floor room of the courthouse, which the visitor reaches only after getting elaborate directions, a score of men and women are agthering material on the flora and fauna, the topography and the archeology of Milwaukee.

This is the nucleus of the Milwaukee district of the federal writers’ project of the works project administration (WPA). The staff, under the direction of Victor S. Craun, who has distinguished himself by his explorations of the country’s caves, will soon be enlarged to 50. The Milwaukee district will have $56,000 to spend.

In six or eight months the Milwaukee “writers” will have turned out about 2,500,000 words about Milwaukee. They will explore every conceivable phase of the community’s history and physical make-up. Editors in the courthouse office will cut the number of words to 100,000 and ship them to the state headquarters at Madison, where more editors will trim Milwaukee’s contribution to about 20,000 words.

Data for a United States Guide

Editors in the national headquarters in Washington will use their blue pencils and there will be about 8,000 words left at $7 a word – not counting costs of editing in Madison and Washington. Then government printers will be ready to publish the American Guide, in five regional volumes and on a non-commercial basis. These volumes will be filed in libraries and educational institutions for reference. Material which does not find its way to the national headquarters will be saved by the state and local offices.

District offices are being set up in 10 Wisconsin cities and by the end of this week the state organization will be completed. The entire state project will employ 100 persons. Benjamin Saunders, Madison, state writers’ director, was in Milwaukee Saturday interviewing candidates for jobs as “editors.”

One of the applicants was a former Progressive candidate for the assembly. He asked the reporter not to mention the fact he was applying for a job.

“It seems that Progressives aren’t supposed to get any WPA jobs,” he lamented.

Jobs for Communists

Some of the Progressives, Democrats and Republicans who have made vain attempts to qualify as “writers” seems hurt because jobs have been given instead to communists. A total of 150 persons were interviewed for jobs. Particular resentment was expressed by members of “capitalistic” political parties over the appointment by WPA authorities of Farrell Schnering, communist leader, to a position as a writer at $100 a month. Schnering once ran for attorney general on the communist ticket and has been editor of the Voice of Labor, communist state paper, and Milwaukee correspondent for the Daily Worker, national communist daily.

Just now Schnering is working on a collection of Indian pipes at the museum. Saunders doesn’t believe that there is a possibility of getting any communistic propaganda into a treatise on Indian pipes.

“We’re not concerned with politics in this program,” said Saunders, who left the University of Wisconsin, where he taught English and economics, to take charge of the writers’ project. “To work on our project a person must be qualified. That is the only consideration.”

Radical Blocks Radical

Another communist on the local project is Robert Collentine, who was fined in the district court last month for his part in the anti-fascist demonstration outside the office of Angelo Cerminara, Italian consular agent. Collentine is an “enumerator” and gets 90 capitalistic dollars a month.

Two other active communists, Harold Hartley and Carroll Blair, sought writers’ jobs but failed to connect. Blair, the former Zona Gale scholar at the late experimental college of the University of Wisconsin, was considered qualified but he lost his chance at a $100 a month job when Schnering reported that Blair was a “trouble maker.” As a result Blair had to take a job at the common labor rate of $60 a month.

Craun told his communistic workers that he didn’t care what they did after working hours, but that he expected them to attend to WPA business while on the job. Since the writers’ hours are soon to be cut from 140 to 96 hours a month, with no change in pay, Schnering and Collentine will still have plenty of time for outside activity.

Called Research Project

Saunders, who is confident the writers’ project will be of social value, emphasized that it is essentially a “research” project. He said Charles D. Stewart, Hartford (Wis.) writer, failed to recognize this distinction in writing letter to Charles E. Brown a week ago stating his reasons for not serving as a consultant on the project.

“Mr. Stewart apparently wasn’t thinking of the many years he had to struggle to achieve success as a writer,” Saunders asserted.

“We don’t expect to train people to write but we will use their writing ability as much as possible. These young people need a chance. They must do something. We can’t line them up against a wall and shoot them just because they haven’t jobs.”

Persons in charge of the project believe it will develop into a permanent institution.

Milwaukee Journal, April 26, 1941

WPA Writers’ Project, Dying, Finds No Friend

The WPA writers’ project will be scuttled by the county board, it was strongly indicated at a meeting of the board’s WPA committee Saturday.

The project produced the unpublished Milwaukee Guide, which has been sharply criticized as containing “Socialist propaganda.”

The committee had before it a letter from Mrs. Sam Corr, a WPA inspector, asking that the board renew its sponsorship of the writers’ project. Mrs. Corr said that the project has funds to continue only 10 days. The county only provides space, heat and light for the project, but the county must sponsor the project before it is given federal Funds. Mrs. Corr said that a federal appropriation of $46,671 was needed to continue the project another year.

“Left a Bad Taste”

Supervisor Eugene Warnimont started the debate on Mrs. Corr’s request by saying: “I don’t know whether we ought to sponsor the project any longer. This Milwaukee Guide left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Other committeemen nodded their heads, apparently in agreement, and no one arose to defend the project.

The committee decided to defer action on the proposal until a report could be obtained from the special county board committee, created a year ago, to study the Milwaukee Guide. The WPA committee said that it would like to know what the special committee has found out, and what recommendation, if any, it has to make.

Publication Is Opposed

The Guide, it was learned, recently wax approved for publication by WPA authorities at Washington, D. C. However, the county board must appropriate $7,500 for the publication if the book is to be issued for public sale. Opposition to the book has arisen among the supervisors, and it is considered doubtful whether an appropriation will be voted.

The writers’ project was set up about five years ago. The project at present gives employment to 30 persons. The new setup, if approved, would give employment to 42 persons.