The Norman fire burns in the memories of former residents
It has been 23 years since fire destroyed The Norman apartment building, 634 W. Wisconsin Ave. Many of the former residents are still impacted by the tragic event today, mostly because lives were lost, but also because the massive blaze incinerated a structure that housed a community steeped in personal and artistic freedom.
"The Norman was full of drag queens and drug dealers and artists and musicians and dancers. It was a hotbed of alternative lifestyles. It was amazing," says Norman tenant Ricky Becker.
The possibility of a fire at The Norman was predicted – even joked about – for years. It was called a fire trap, a tinder box, and the fact the fire department was located across the street from the once opulent, five-story building became both a source of comfort and irony for residents.
"We knew when we lived there that the place could easily burn down someday," says Keith Brammer, who lived in the mixed-use building "around 1981" with his bandmates from Die Kreuzen.
When The Norman actually did catch fire on Jan. 15, 1991 at approximately 9:30 a.m., neither the predictions of the residents nor the proximity of the fire station could stop the blaze from consuming the building along with the lives of four people and about a dozen pets.
Phyllis Chobot, Margaret Joyner and Joyner's two children, Fredrico and Nicolas Joyner, were unable to make it out of the building in time and died in the fire.
The fire also destroyed first-floor businesses Alan Preuss Florists, You Light Up My Life (a T-shirt shop), Denmark adult book store and a submarine sandwich shop.
The decrepit building was constructed primarily of wood and featured a massive wooden staircase that stretched up the center of the structure. This was one of the main reasons for the building's swift flammability.
Warren "Ski" Skonieczny, a now-retired deputy chief of the Milwaukee Fire Department, was among those who fought the five-alarm fire.
"There was an atrium in the center of The Norman from the first floor to the roof – the center was like Lambeau Field and the apartments were like the seats – so when the fire started on the second floor, it created a cyclone up the middle. It created its own storm," says Skonieczny.
Plus, because of the transient nature of the tenants, many of the apartments and hallways were overstuffed with abandoned belongings so there was plenty of fuel to keep the flames blazing.
"It was always my joke that The Norman spontaneously combusted because of all the bad art. There was a lot of it. And some of it was mine," says Norman tenant Stanley Ryan Jones.
The force of the "cyclone" of flames and the gusting winter winds blew pieces of the Norman roof as far away as Bay View. However, the fact it was winter most likely saved other buildings and lives.
"The buildings were close together and the snow on the roofs probably stopped the fire from spreading," says Skonieczny. "But it took six hours to gain control of that fire. We couldn't do anything until the fire decided it had enough and burned itself out. It did what it wanted to do."
The Norman was built in 1888 as the lavishly appointed Norman Flats. It had five floors featuring 28 units, all of which were constructed with brass fixtures, intricate moldings and fireplaces in each unit – which were later blocked off.
At one point, Miller Brewing Company owned the building and The Norman was a prized property because of its proximity to the celebrated Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue) theaters, clubs and restaurants.
By the 1970s, however, the west end of Downtown became less reputable with strip clubs, boarded buildings, the adult bookstore, a gay bath house and a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts – referred to as "Drunkin' Donuts" by Norman residents.
"The Norman was run down, but it was old and interesting and beautiful," says Brammer.
Despite the wear and tear of time and Downtown's struggle to remain vibrant, The Norman remained an eclectic building. It was home to successful and starving artists, families, musicians, prostitutes, junkies and the elderly, mostly because of the low rent (about $225-$350 a month) and large apartments.
The Norman represented counterculture at both its worst and its best.
There was a woman who wore a snake around her neck named Fluffy, an impressive collection of hookers' spent condoms in the rear stairwell and so many cockroaches they became the subjects of art projects.
"It was very communal. People moved in, people moved on," says Mike Podolak, who lived in The Norman for roughly four years in the early '80s. "We were all fledgling punk rockers and alcoholics. It was a weird scene. You never knew what you were going to find when you came back home. I'm almost sure my closet was the portal to Hell."
Jones, an artist and photographer, lived in The Norman from 1987 until the fire.
"The Norman had a faded elegance, a Chelsea hotel movie set feel to it," he says.
Jones moved into The Norman after he was injured as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter / smoke jumper in the western states.
The irony of the fact he was on disability from a firefighting incident at the time of The Norman fire is not lost on Jones. In fact, it almost worked against him. Because of his fire fighting background, Jones says he was briefly a suspect.
"The investigators were keen on me because firefighters sometimes start fires. They may or may not be pyromaniacs – they might just want the extra work – but eventually they realized I wasn't their guy," says Jones.
On the morning of the fire, Jones was at the apartment of his girlfriend, who lived next door in the building. Suddenly, Jones heard someone yell, "fire!"
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Molly, Well done! Your piece is a terrific read with good reporting, insight and research.
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