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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 17, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

This plaque, funded by Capt. Frederick Pabst in 1903, survives and tells the story of Water and Wisconsin up to that point.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The stunning neo-Gothic Pabst Building, with Flemish Renaissance touches, occupied the site from 1891 to 1981. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Ludington Block was there from 1851 until 1891. (Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)

Urban Spelunking: Digging down into Water & Wisconsin


Don't feel bad if you've never seen the plaque affixed to 100 East Wisconsin, explaining the historical relevance of the northwest corner of Water and Wisconsin. It's on the lower level of the building, facing the RiverWalk. I've passed it countless times and never noticed.

But one day it caught my eye. I took some photographs and spent some time digging to fill in a bit more of the story of this corner that is the birthplace of Milwaukee.

Our story begins with Antoine Francis Leclaire, who was born in 1768 in St Antoine De La Rivière du loupe, Louiseville, Quebec. By 1795, when his son Francois was born, Leclaire was in St. Joseph, Mich., across the lake from Chicago.

But by the time his third child – daughter Josette – arrived in December 1799, Leclaire was in Milwaukee. LeClaire's wife, Marie Savagesse, was a member of the Potawatomi tribe, which, presumably explains her unusual surname.

In 1800, Leclaire built a log cabin on the Milwaukee River, on the site of the current 100 E. Wisconsin office tower. Not only was that modest cabin the first house built on the east side of Milwaukee, it was, presumably, the first commercial building.

Though there were certainly indigenous people living in the area – including a Potawatomi settlement directly across the river, according to an April 1920 article by Publius V. Lawson published in The Wisconsin Archeologist – because Leclaire selected the site for his cabin, it seems unlikely any lived on the piece of land in question.

Some have claimed that Leclaire's son, Antoine (Jr.), followed in his father's footsteps, opening his own trading post to make deals with the local Native Americans, at the precocious age of 12.

Soon, the Leclaires had some company. Another Quebecois, Solomon Juneau, had arrived in Milwaukee in 1818 as a representative of the American Fur Co. Some accounts say that Juneau built a cabin next to Leclaire's at this time, though other versions are contradictory.

In 1820 Juneau married Josette Vieau, whose father Jacques built a cabin in 1795 on the bluff above the Menomonee Valley in what is now Mitchell Park, where the couple lived for a while. After a few years traveling between posts in Wisconsin, the Juneaus returned to Milwaukee.

In 1825 Juneau erected a cabin, stockade and store, just east of the Leclaire place, facing what in now Water Street. Ten years later, Juneau added a large warehouse.

It's unclear what became of Leclaire – though we do know that he married twice more, in 1819 (in Portage des Sioux, Mo.) and 1821, and that some of his children became well-known businessmen and philanthropists in the upper Midwest.

But Juneau stayed later and left a more indelible mark, establishing his Juneautown east of the Milwaukee River and merging it with Byron Kilbourn's Kilbourntown on the opposite shore and George Walker's Walker's Point in 1846.

Nine years earlier, Juneau had provided the cash for editor John O'Rourke to start a newspaper called the Milwaukee Sentinel.

In 1848, after serving a two-year term as mayor, Juneau decamped to the town of Theresa, which he had founded in Dodge County 15 years previous, and where you can still see the home he built there.

Future Gov. Harrison Ludington arrived in Milwaukee from Dutchess County, N.Y., in 1838 and became partners with his uncle Lewis Ludington in a general merchandise business that they ran out of Juneau's warehouse. In the late '30s, McDonald and Mallaby ran a corner store on the site, perhaps in one of the buildings Juneau built.

The Ludington company erected a new warehouse on the site in 1851. It was, according to James Smith Buck's "Pioneer History of Milwaukee," the second building in the city in which granite was used in construction.

The four-story building must have seemed like a skyscraper in Milwaukee in its day. In an 1870s photo in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Library, the building is adorned with a cornice. On the ground floor the Bank of Commerce and a cigar shop are visible. Along the roof is a sign advertising "Daily News Steam Printing."

The building was a fixture Downtown for 40 years, when it came down to make room for the modern era.

That's when Chicago architect Solon Spencer Beman's 235-foot, 14 story behemoth, with its imposing neo-gothic features and an entry arch that appears to presage City Hall's, went up on the site.

From its completion in 1891 until the topping off of City Hall in 1895, the Pabst Building was the tallest in the state. It remained second tallest until the Schroeder Hotel (now the Hilton City Center) was erected in 1927.

The steel frame building, heated by steam pumped from the Pabst Brewery, would remain an architectural touchstone in the city, influencing buildings constructed nearly a century later, notably its own replacement.

Alas, the year The Pabst Building turned 90, it fell to the wrecking ball and the site remained dormant for years. A proposed development called River Place never got off the ground and at least the plot was filled in and covered with grass and public art – including a wall-mounted mural that showed a different scene depending on the angle from which it was viewed – during the moribund years.

In 1989, Clark, Tribble, Harris & Li's 100 East Wisconsin was built to drawings that recalled the neo-Gothic roofline of the The Pabst Building, albeit in a smoother-edged, less exciting way. The street-level arches echo the Flemish Renaissance features at the base of The Pabst.

At 549 feet tall, the 100 East is more than twice as tall as The Pabst Building. If we estimate that Leclaire's cabin peaked at about 18 feet, the current building on the site is more than 30 times the size of the first to stand on the corner of Water and Wisconsin.

Capt. Frederick Pabst understood the importance of the site where he built the tower that bore his name. He's the one that in 1903 paid for the plaque that survives today, long after his skyscraper became little more than a memory.

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