Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit remains a Brew City favorite
As much as Brew City strives to look forward, there's always one thoroughfare leading back in time that Milwaukeeans love to travel. It's that curvy road at the Milwaukee Public Museum called "The Streets of Old Milwaukee."
"It's a cultural treasure," said the museum's history collections manager Al Muchka and he should know. Not only does his job description require him to turn a watchful eye to the cobblestone street depicting Milwaukee as it was from about 1880 to about 1917, he's also a Milwaukee boy.
"I was born here in Milwaukee," he said. "It would kill me to take them out. They were here before me, and they'll still be here after me."
That's comforting news to anyone who loves to stroll the dark, L-shaped thoroughfare that leads through old Brew City straight back to the city's old world roots ... the adjacent "European Village."
"European Village" and "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" capture the history of the European people that settled and populated Milwaukee in its early days.
The Streets have got a Watts Tea Shop and a Laabs Drug Store. There's a tavern serving Schlitz, a candy store and a movie house. There's a private home – with a lady in a rocking chair that continues to creep out generation after generation – and much more.
All are outfitted with authentic period furnishings, decoration and objects. And all are arranged on a recreated urban street with sidewalks, trees, cobblestones, fireplugs and streetlights.
The Streets of Old Milwaukee and the European Village remain one of the museum's most popular attractions and has already outlived expectations. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Milwaukeean that doesn't agree.
"Museum exhibits have a life span from 20 to 30 years for permanent exhibits," said Muchka. "Thirty-four community groups helped create the 'European Village,' it's a part of life in Milwaukee."
A concern for Muchka is how to keep the exhibit changing while maintaining its integrity.
"We want to change them and update them sometimes, but community pressure appears. You reassure them that this is something that is going to improve (it). Milwaukeeans especially, when they latch on to a cultural icon they're like bulldogs. People are so invested in it."
"The Streets of Old Milwaukee" was an idea first hatched in the 1950s and by the time it was researched and constructed, the Beatles had landed in America (and Milwaukee).
"It's a nostalgic look of the city during the time of the parents of the people who built it," said Muchka. "There's a definite tribute aspect to it. But it was also a way to show a lot of collections and a lot of different ideas, especially a lot of esoteric things like objects from pharmacies and Usinger's, for example."
Many of the items used to build the streets – from doors and windows to hardware and architectural details – were salvaged by museum employees from Milwaukee buildings doomed by urban renewal in the 1960s.
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Nice article. Streets of Old Milwaukee has always been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I hope they keep that exhibit in place forever. Have to go check out some of the updates, been awhile since I've been to see it.
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