Standing in the penthouse – the highest point you can access inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center – and gazing down about 13 stories through the metal grate beneath your feet, the view down to the Bucks playing floor is stunning.
For some it might be vertigo-inducing, but the view made me philosophical about Milwaukee’s pro sports arena. Opened in 1988, this place – built to arena design standards of 30 years ago and tailored to an NHL team that never arrived – is most likely doomed.
I was up there amid the roof structure with a team of folks from the BMOHBC on the day that Gov. Scott Walker signed into law the financing plan for a new Bucks arena to be built, most likely, next door.
Almost nobody expects the Bradley Center to stand long after the completion of that arena, which is likely to open by 2017.
So, it was a little surprising to see carpenters hard at work down below, working on an expansion of the Bucks floor (not the game surface, but adjacent portions to accommodate seating); a little unexpected to find work progressing on a revamp of the Courtside Club.
"Well, you figure we have at least two to three more years in here," says Paul Jansen, the BMOHBC VP of sales, marketing and business development, "that’s more than a million people and they expect an exciting experience and we want to give it to them."
Jansen led me on a tour of the arena – along with Greg Peterson, director of operations and project management, and marketing manager Kim Nguyen – that took in a host of typically unseen spaces. We saw the dressing rooms used a few nights earlier by rockers Motley Crüe and Alice Cooper and we saw the kitchen that mainly services the Courtside Club. We peeked into a sporadically employed ticket booth on the building's southwest corner.
We saw the chiller room where three gigantic units keep the 3 million pounds of spectators comfortable, and the electrical room down the hall where power enters the building and is transformed to a variety of voltages for a variety of uses.
We saw the Marquette basketball locker room – as nice as you’d expect, but smaller than I’d have guessed – and peered into the storage spaces that allow the crew here to store the Marquette floor when the Bucks are playing and vice versa. It’s also where they stash the carts packed full of chairs that go out onto the floor for concerts and other events.
Much of accoutrement for ice hockey are kept elsewhere. The ammonia system for keeping the ice chilled, for example, is out in what is called the north building, next to where a pair of Zamboni machines is parked.
Peterson tells me there is nothing below grade at the Bradley Center site. Thanks, most likely, to the swampy ground upon which it stands, the BC has no basement or sub-basement. To get underneath, you’ve got to jackhammer concrete.
There’s an old storage space – now a lounge for courtside ticket-holders – on the ground floor that’s about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide (pictured below). Underneath is a void about four feet deep (you can’t get to that either).
"This was the where Don Nelson’s racquetball court was going to go," says Peterson.
Yes, when the place was being built, then-Bucks coach Nelson asked for, and almost got, a racquetball court of his own, on prime BC real estate. But before it was completed, Nelson left to coach the Golden State Warriors and work halted on the court. The space is still below, apparently, and folks wonder if there’s anything in it.
"Nothing put there purposely ... like a time capsule," says Jansen – who like Peterson – has worked in the Bradley Center since before it was completed. "But maybe there’s something."
We head upstairs to check out the broadcast and video areas, dark rooms filled with glowing buttons and colorful little screens. From here we can peek into the luxury suites that line the 200 level, offering perhaps the best views in the place.
But the real fun is up above. We zig-zag our way up to the very last row of seats (talk about vertigo-inducing) and through a doorway. Up a few steps and we are on the catwalks.
Parents of small kids perhaps spend the most time gazing up at the network of suspended walkways, typically with metal grates for floors – though there is one main thoroughfare that is an I-beam in its side – watching workers attempt to rescue wayward Elmo balloons during the annual Sesame Street Live show each autumn.
When we get up there, we find a handful of them – deflated – including one posted by workers as a tribute.
The catwalks are dusted with confetti left over from the previous week’s Motley Crüe gig and, thankfully, they feel pretty safe. These days.
Peterson, though, has a story about the arena’s first days.
"These handrails were really wobbly," he says. "You’d grab them and they’d move."
And up another flight up, where you access the highest catwalks, leading to that penthouse, where you can stand next to the heavy cables that suspend the massive scoreboard beneath your feet, Peterson recalls that the staircase ended before it met the catwalk, leaving a roughly 3x3-foot gap (13 stories up!) that one had to step over. No, thanks.
Up here there are lights and speakers, along with their amplification equipment, but not much else. In fact, says Peterson, there are typically very few people up here during events. An exception is the spotlight crew at concerts.
But from up here we can go outside. From the penthouse – where roof beams are covered in dated signatures left by workers who built and maintained the arena over the years – you can access the sloping metal roof. When you step outside you hope you’re not wearing slippery shoes.
Over the edge, though, and below is a walkway that rings the entire building. Here there are big drains and a pair of hot water hoses used in winter to melt the snow that collects as it slides off the metal roof above, creating room for more snow to slide off. This helps ease the load on the roof.
Back outside, I snap some exterior photos and I ponder the building itself. While I’m not especially enamored of the look of the building and won’t miss it on the skyline – when (and if) it goes – I am sentimental about it.
With my future wife, I saw Bruce Springsteen here on election night 1992, when The Boss announced from the stage that Bill Clinton had been elected President. And I’ve seen my kids grow up here smiling and laughing at Elmo (one of them calls the building "The Elmo Show"), oohing and aahing at dancing horses, walking with dinosaurs, marveling at Cirque du Soleil.
I can already hear myself in the future telling them, with a hint of sadness, "yes, I remember those shows, too. The place we saw them is now long gone."
Who knows if it will be gone? It sure seems so, especially because there hasn’t been much talk of tearing down the UWM Panther Arena across the street and surely this town doesn’t need a trio of arenas lined up in a row.
But a lot can happen – and a lot can change – in a couple years, as a brief walk through the history of getting the BC built reminds us.
In March 1985 Lloyd and Jane Pettit, eager to lure an NHL team to Milwaukee, announced that they’d build a new arena and give it to Milwaukee as a gift. Initially estimated to run to about $40 million, then more than $50 million, it ended up costing closer to $100 million.
By August, news reports said the Pettits expected ground to broken on their new arena just east of County Stadium by October. That didn’t happen and by November, local media were naming at least 10 potential locations scattered all over the metropolitan area.
In addition to a quartet of Downtown sites – including Schlitz Park, the unbuilt freeway land on Ogden Avenue and the former coachyards behind the Italian Community Center – were a site on the State Fair grounds and a few sites in West Allis and West Milwaukee.
Waukesha was also eager to get in on the act, offering up part of a 1,000-acre site between Interstate 94, Moreland Road and Highways F and T, near the airport.
"The Waukesha Bucks sound pretty good to me," quipped Waukesha Mayor Paul J. Keenan.
But by this time, Downtown was the front-runner, leading West Allis Ald. Fred J. Cashmore to lament, "We could offer them the Taj Mahal and they would still build it Downtown. There is too much politics involved."
Meanwhile, popular opinion about the Pettits’ gift ran the gamut.
"Their offer is truly mind-boggling," wrote one Milwaukee reader in a letter to the Milwaukee Journal, "but apparently many Milwaukee minds are already too boggled most of the time to have the good sense and good grace to simply accept this fine gift without petty and ill-founded reservations."
A few months later, another citizen wrote to the paper, saying, "In response to the article stating that Milwaukee will now borrow an additional $5.5. million for the new sports center, bringing the total cost to Milwaukee to $9.9 million for the Pettits’ ‘gift’ of the Bradley Center, I say let’s get serious! Just how is Milwaukee planning to repay this loan? When do our taxes rise again for this?"
By the following summer, the State Street McDonald’s, Mint Bar, the Rescue Mission on 4th Street and a few other buildings were cleared and shovels were in the ground for the new arena, designed by Kansas City-based Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum.
By the time construction was complete in October 1988, 1,270 pilings had been driven into the former swamp that is the area around 4th and State. The pipes used for those pilings ran to 19.4 miles, or about the distance from the Bradley Center to the site favored by Waukesha nabobs.
In December 1986, concrete posts were rising atop the concrete caps laid above the pilings.
The new building boasted an eight-story roof atop a five-story arena constructed with 1,500 tons of steel. The 4th Street entrance was enclosed with 55,000 square feet of glass and the rest of the exterior was clad in 110,000 square feet of granite.
This new Bradley Center would use 21,000 cubic yards, enough to pave a sidewalk from the arena all the way to Fond du Lac. The whole kit and caboodle ran to 79,000 tons, about the same as an aircraft carrier.
A full Bradley Center, it was noted, would have access to 700 plumbing fixtures. Those folks would have a combined weight of 3 million pounds (presumably before they got to the concessions), about the same as 2,000 Holsteins, to put it in Wisconsin terms.
The new place was a boon to the Bucks, boasting 7,000 more seats than the team’s former home in the Arena across State Street.
"Welcome to the big time," wrote sports columnist Michael Bauman on the occasion of the Bucks’ first game in the BC. "The main thing is this: Milwaukee now has a big-league, first-class indoor sports arena that can help to assure the good fiscal health of its pro basketball franchise and can boost the drawing power of the rest of its sports occupants. We can count the house and count ourselves as being very, very fortunate."
Just a few weeks earlier, the editorial board of the Sentinel basked in the glow reflected off all that glass across 4th Street.
"Milwaukee crosses another threshold Saturday in its magnificent reconstruction of a Downtown that once hung on the edge of economic and social stagnation. The Bradley Center, the $53 million gift to the city from Jane and Lloyd Pettit, will open with an exhibition National Hockey League game.
"The facility is a new anchor for redevelopment of the area west of the Milwaukee River and north of Wisconsin Avenue. Not just a building for sport and entertainment, but a driving, irresistible force behind the Milwaukee miracle."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.