Sunday, August 17, 2008


August 2, 2007

MILWAUKEE - Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s Main Street, is anchored by two radically different structures, the Pabst Mansion on the west and the Milwaukee Art Museum complex on the east. They’re tales of two cities.

A family wedding brought me back here after years away. The Milwaukee I remember from long-ago visits probably remains the rest of the country’s stereotypical image, the town that beer made famous. Miller, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst all had their major operations right downtown, and the first thing you did as a tourist was take a brewery tour or two, or three. You’d creep along the catwalk, peering at the enormous steel holding tanks, taking in the sweet smell of fermenting grains and watching the clattering march of bottles, cans, and kegs being filled and capped. Then you’d hit the tasting room and leave with a souvenir mug or coaster set.

You can still take a tour at Miller’s, as well as at a couple upstart micro-breweries, but the rest of the Big Guys are all gone. The last vestige of the old Pabst Brewery, its skyscraping brick chimney, is now half-dismantled; the huge vertical lettering on its side has been shaved down to "BST."

To fully appreciate the Era of Beer, visitors should make a point of touring the residence of Frederick Pabst, the mastermind of macro-brewing and macro-marketing in the nineteenth century.

What Rockefeller was to oil, Pabst was to beer. A German immigrant, he worked steamers on Lake Michigan until he married into the family of Phillip Best, who owned a small brewery in Milwaukee. In 1864, at age 28, Pabst bought a half interest in the Best Brewing Company and embarked on an ingenious expansion plan that included not only beer but all the German Gemütlichkeit that surrounds beer. By 1889, when he bought the rest of the company and changed its name to his own, Pabst had built a nationwide distribution system, a vast chain of taverns, several restaurants and resorts, and prestigious hotels from New York to San Francisco.

In 1892 he moved his family from their modest dwelling on the brewery grounds into an opulent new home on what was then aptly called Grand Avenue, Milwaukee’s Mansion Row. He also moved the Pabst Pavilion - an ornate, glass-domed basilica to beer that had showcased Pabst products at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago - next to his house, to be used as the family sun room.

Frederick Pabst died in 1904, his wife two years later. In 1908, the family sold the property to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the residence of its own potentate, the archbishop. Ironically, the pavilion, lavishly adorned with terra-cotta hop vines, beer steins, and statues of the mythical gods of brew-making, was converted into a chapel.

Over the years, the neighborhood disintegrated. Most of the elegant mansions were razed and replaced with offices, stores and low-income housing. Fortunately, by the time the archdiocese decided to vacate, the preservationist movement had taken hold, and in 1975 the property was transferred to a non-profit organization which has been restoring the mansion to its original condition and furnishings.

That’s one Milwaukee, and other than the Mansion there isn’t much left of it, except for what is called Old World Third Street toward the city center. There you still find Usinger’s sausage store and Mader’s German restaurant with its oaken interior, its waiters in liederhosen, and its dense menu of pork, dumplings, and red cabbage.

At the opposite end of Wisconsin Avenue, on the shore of Lake Michigan, is the symbol of the new Milwaukee, the Museum complex. Pabst built more than his share of civic structures in his time - the Pabst Building and the Pabst Theater are still downtown landmarks - but this cluster of buildings is something he could scarcely have imagined.

The edifices he commissioned were of his day - weighty, dark, ornate, symbols of power and amassed wealth. The museum buildings defy gravity and capture light and air. The War Memorial Center, designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and opened in 1957, is a stark rectangle of concrete, floating on cantilevered stilts. Adjoining it is the building that put Milwaukee on the international architectural map, the Quadracci Pavilion. This masterpiece by Santiago Calatrava of Spain is a cavern of concrete and glass 90 feet high, shaded by its signature "wings" that open and close like an umbrella. Photos of the place cannot do it justice; it is a dynamic of light and movement that must be experienced, and it’s reason enough to visit Milwaukee.

Between the mansion and the museum is a revitalizing center city, with apartments, shops, and restaurants replacing the breweries and grimy factories that for so long lined the Milwaukee River that the town was built around. Except for Frederick Pabst and his crowd, the Good Old Days weren’t as good as this.

To me, one sign of a healthy community is bookstores, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the encroachment of the national chains, the locals are holding their own. Besides the five-store chain of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, there are several used-book specialists downtown, including the cluttered Renaissance on Plankington Avenue and the scrupulously ordered Downtown Books on Wisconsin, to which I immediately became addicted.
Summer outdoor entertainment is extraordinary. The weekends are filled with festivals reflecting the city’s ethnic diversity: German, of course, but also French, Italian, Mexican, American Indian, African, Polish, Arab. Something for everybody.

Two Milwaukees - one to imagine nostalgically, and one to get to know.

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