Urban spelunking: Milwaukee Theatre & Milwaukee Arena
In honor of the 65th anniversary of the grand opening of the Arena on April 9, 1950, we re-publish this post, which first appeared in June 2014.
The way we see the world is all a matter of perspective, of point of view. Take, for example, the Milwaukee Theatre. Whenever I go inside, I rue the loss of the Auditorium's arcaded interior.
On a recent tour of the both the Milwaukee Theatre and the adjacent Arena -- which I may always call the Auditorium and MECCA Arena (sorry, I can't stop myself, but I promise to try) -- I was surprised to see how much of the Auditorium remains in place.
Ground was broken on the Auditorium -- designed by Ferry & Clas -- on Sept. 11, 1907 on a site that had long held a similar function in Kilbourntown. The land was home to the West Side Market Hall from 1867 until 1881 when Edward Townsend Mix's glorious Victorian eclectic Industrial Exposition Building was erected.
A spectacular fire brought down the Exposition Building in 1905. Nearly 2,000 were in the building on June 4 for the Nord Amerikanisher Skat Congress and about 600 of them were in the building playing cards when the fire broke out and sent everyone in a confused dash for the exits.
According to a newspaper report the day after, "barely had the last person left the building when the huge dome, surmounting the building, crashed to the ground, the wooden supports having been eaten away by the flames.
"The heat from the gigantic mass of seasoned timbers was so great that the firemen were on several occasions temporarily compelled to abandon operations. ... Had the fire broken forth an hour previously, the morgue and the undertakers' rooms would now be filled with the charred remnants of bodies and desolation would have been brought into many homes."
Fortunately, that was not the case.
However, the charred remnants of Mix's fanciful building, with its huge dome, many towers and arched windows were carted away, making room for the 6,600,000-square foot brick building with its quartet of double Ionic columns marking the main entrance on North 5th Street.
Inside, the arcades can be seen, even in the huge lobby facing Kilbourn Avenue that was carved out of the bowl when the building was converted to the Milwaukee Theatre in 2003. The old wall sconces are still in place.
A glass paneled section of the ceiling resembling a skylight remains, too, though the panes are now opaque.
"They would put colored lights in there," says Robert Seefeld, who is director of building services for the Wisconsin Center District, of which the Milwaukee Theatre and U.S. Cellular Arena are part. "Huge colored lights. Blue or red for festive occasions."
You can't see the old main entrance anymore -- not since that section of 5th Street disappeared and the Arena was built in 1950. Now, the sole portal there is a passage between the Theatre and the Arena.
But, if you have the proper key, you can open a door that appears to be a closet and see that the northernmost pair of fluted Ionic columns survives, hidden away from public view. All four sets of pillars still stand, but the others are encapsulated in concrete, so you can't see them.
One thing that didn't survive, however, was the north end of the building, says Seefeld.
That's because the wooden pilings that support numerous Downtown buildings, especially west of the river on this former tamarack swamp, were tested and found to be in poor condition.
"It was interesting," says Seefeld, "I was in the basement and they cut open a hole in the concrete, they go down, and they test the pile. They could see the pile. And back the next day there's water in the hole. That's the water table."
The problem was the water table wasn't doing its job of protecting the pilings anymore and that part of the building had to come down.
"We were hoping that all of the piles that were inside would've survived but they're all wood piles so they didn't, especially at the north end," he says. "It just didn't hold up. We're going to reconstruct the top. We've got to have something solid below so that we tore that portion off like a piece of cake."
The remaining pilings continue to be monitored.
Up in the attic, there are reportedly four ghosts -- unnamed, though rumor has it two of them are the souls of people shot in a murder-suicide at a 1932 baby chick convention (no kidding) in the Auditorium -- though we didn't meet any of them when we walked through. In the basement, there are storage areas that go beneath the sidewalks -- you could almost call them tunnels. Almost. But not quite.
The most glorious spaces in the Auditorium and which survive in the Theatre, are on the main floor.
One is the former entry hall that faced 5th Street and its ornate decor pays tribute to city fathers Solomon Juneau and Byron Kilbourn. George Walker is relegated to another, adjacent room.
The series of murals on display on this floor, painted in the 1940s by Swedish-born artist Thorsten Lindberg. Some are painted on canvas and mounted, others are painted directly onto the walls.
In Kilbourn Hall, there are works depicting Walker, Kilbourn and Bay View founders Enoch Chase and E.S. Estes. Up a staircase is another of Juneau trading with Native Americans. Nearby, at the landing of another flight of stairs is a painting of Juneau wedding Josette Vieau.
Other murals show Wisconsin's industrial strength and typewriter inventor Christopher Latham Sholes, whose workshop was located across the street.
In a room just east of the current lobby, there are gorgeous green-motif arts and crafts leaded glass panels installed in the ceiling.
"When you start looking … there's a lot of culture, a lot of history in here," says Seefeld. "Basically (it's) the same (in these rooms). We did a little painting, a little relighting; the murals are the same. Our main theme was to try to hang on to whatever we could to keep the character of the building.
"There's a historical value to the structure itself and part of transforming the inside."
We walk through the basement passage that connects to the Arena and directly out onto the floor of the Arena. The Arena and the Auditorium, along with the then-new convention center to the south, were dubbed the Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center and Arena (MECCA) in 1974.
Though I've seen lots of stuff in here, my mind immediately goes to that September day in 1964 when the Beatles played this room. I wasn't born yet but I've seen enough footage of Beatlemania in America to be able to picture the sights, imagine the jet-engine roar of the teenage crowd.
When we see a backstage room that Trent Reznor reportedly trashed, I wonder if this was where John, Paul, George and/or Ringo might have passed some time before the gig.
The Arena is most definitely of its era. Every surface is smooth and utilitarian, but with an eye toward style. It's not the 1960s or '70s, when everything because utilitarian and not much else. With all the subway tile and terrazzo in here, you could hose down the whole place without causing much damage.
There aren't a lot of hidden spaces in here, though a trip up to the lighting booth, just below the roof, and with access to the catwalks that criss cross the length and breadth of the place, dozens of yards up, offers great -- if at times dizzying -- views.
Then Seefeld swings open a door and we're on the roof, alongside those iconic Milwaukee arches. When I posted an almost abstract, up-close view of these silver and green arches, folks recognized them right away.
With the promise of seeing stacks and stacks of huge scrapbooks that are literally stuffed with newspaper clippings, event programmes and other printed memorabilia that trace the history of the Auditorium and the Arena, Seefeld and my other tour guide, the Wisconsin Center's Chris Kroening, lure me across to the Wisconsin Center, where we take a ride up the polka escalator.
But we'll save that for a future visit behind the scenes at Milwaukee's convention center.
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