By Amy Grau Special to Published Jan 15, 2015 at 1:33 PM

As program manager of Doors Open Milwaukee – the area’s annual "biggest open house event" for the past four years, which brought over 25,000 people into the Milwaukee area on the third weekend in September 2014 to get a behind-the-scenes look at the city for free – I am often asked to explain the process of how the event is brought to fruition.

A lover of metaphors, I tend to compare the process of planning Doors Open Milwaukee to having a baby. The event takes nine months to organize and plan. There are three similar trimesters involved: first three months, big picture planning; middle three months, setting a solid base of main focus areas; and last three months, fine-tuning last-minute details before the arrival. It’s pretty much the perfect metaphor leading up to the birth of the event. There is even the joy and elation on the faces of those visiting during and after the "birth." Ok, I’ll stop now.

Each month leading up to Doors Open Milwaukee 2015, which will take place Sept. 19 and 20, I will share with you some of the highlights of the month: sites that will be taking part for the first time, returning sites with interesting new additions and a few of the highlighted exclusives visited by me within that month – a monthly sneak peek leading up to Doors Open Milwaukee 2015 exclusively for

Brief recap: Doors Open Milwaukee 2014

With information gathered from almost 1,000 survey responses out of a 25,000-plus event turnout, Doors Open Milwaukee 2014 brought in some fantastic results. There were 163 sites for the general public to visit and explore for free, with 42 of those sites being new in 2014. There were over 116,000 confirmed individual site visits during the event, as volunteers at each site with clicker in hand attempted to count everyone who entered the 163 locations during the event. Doors Open began in Milwaukee in 2011, and in its fourth event year in 2014, 36 percent of the people attending Doors Open Milwaukee 2014 were new attendees.

Top 20 sites with highest attendance at Doors Open Milwaukee 2014
(bolded sites were new to the event):

  • U.S. Bank Observation Deck: 8,002
  • Gas Light Building: 5,067
  • City Hall: approx. 5,000
  • Beulah Brinton: 3,224
  • Milwaukee Blacksmith: 3,215
  • Tripoli Shrine: 2,482
  • Federal Courthouse: 2,300
  • Calvary Chapel: 1,922
  • BMO Harris Bradley: 1,850
  • MPM Dome Theater: 1,837
  • Central Library: 1,733
  • Jones Island: 1,685
  • Modjeska Theater: 1,623
  • Frank Lloyd Wright homes: 1,574
  • Brewhouse Inn & Suites: 1,563
  • Basilica of St. Josaphat: 1,500+
  • Clock Shadow: 1,472
  • Firehouse #1: 1,433
  • Loyalty Building: 1,341
  • Chudnow Museum: 1,320

Through organizing the event, most people assume I have attended every site that has ever participated in Doors Open Milwaukee. I wish! I have not, nor will I probably ever be able to, which is why I am thankful to be able to live vicariously through attendees’ feedback.

As the top 20 sites list above reflects, five main site highlights to grab such attendance are:

  1. offering high places with a view
  2. being a brand new site to the event
  3. having limited or no access to the site other than during the event;
  4. getting behind-the-scenes access within the site
  5. offering special events, displays or tours at the site exclusively for the event.

I try to visit a few of the proposed new sites each year, as well as some of the high-attendance sites from the previous year. Here are a few places I’ve had the opportunity to explore, most for the first time, during the October-December 2014 break between event planning:

With Bobby Tanzilo (left) and Keith Stachowiak, architect at Uhlein Wilson, touring Calvary Cemetery Chapel.

With Bobby Tanzilo (left) and Keith Stachowiak, architect at Uihlein Wilson, touring Calvary Cemetery Chapel.

This will be the first tunnel to be part of Doors Open Milwaukee in 2015. Where is it? Stay tuned.

With Kent Knapp of Milwaukee Blacksmith. Milwaukee Blacksmith was a new site in 2014 and ranked No. 5 in attendance.

The Federal Courthouse, not usually open to the public, received 2,300 visitors in just one day during the event.

Doors Open Milwaukee 2015: January

Baby metaphor aside, January is the first month to begin planning the event. Too early, you think? Not when there is only one person in a part-time position assigned to the job, roughly 150-plus places to acquire with over 300 inquiries made to do so and over 30 in-depth tours to obtain for the event. As of Jan. 7, there are officially three sites signed up for the event. Although this seems somewhat humorous, considering I have not yet sent out any formal inquiries, this is pretty great. And two of the three are new sites to boot – never yet part of Doors Open Milwaukee.

Doors Open Milwaukee's first site participant of 2015: Salem Lutheran Landmark Church and Museum (photos courtesy of Dan Nommensen)

This site will be open during Doors Open Milwaukee from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day.

The birthplace of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Salem Lutheran congregation was established on Christmas Day in 1847 and was previously known as the German Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed Church of Granville Township.

The church building was constructed in 1863 and was used by Salem congregation until 1977 when they dedicated a much larger worship building on the same grounds. Today, the 1863 church is known as Salem Lutheran Landmark Church and Museum. Made of Milwaukee cream city brick and in Italianate-style architecture, it is one of the oldest church buildings in the city of Milwaukee.

The building was designated as a historic structure by the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission in 1992 and has been used as a museum for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod since 1982. Ongoing renovation and restoration efforts intend to bring the church building back to its original 1863 condition complete with a newly restored 1887 reed organ (harmonium).

The lower level of the building contains various displays, including an 1880s-era school classroom and more than 1,000 artifacts and pictures. The contents of the recently opened cornerstone will also be on display.


Always interested in finding out how new, unprompted site participants learn about Doors Open Milwaukee, I asked Dan Nommensen, vice president at Salem Lutheran Landmark Church and Museum, what inspired him to participate this year.

"I heard about Doors Open last year on the news," he said. "As soon as I did, I thought it was an absolutely awesome idea. What a great way to get inside some of Milwaukee’s most historic buildings and better appreciate our shared history. I knew the Salem Landmark Church and Museum building would fit right in. Sometimes it seems people are getting less interested in history and historic places, but to see 25,000 people come out in one weekend is truly inspiring."

I asked Dan about the church’s cornerstone opening in 2013. It contained a time capsule from 1863 (pictured above).

"It was one of the most amazing things I’ve been involved in," he said. "It was part of the sesquicentennial celebration. We had the First Brigade Band play, we dedicated a new State of Wisconsin Historical Marker (shown in front of the church in photos above), gave tours of the cemetery and church, there were speeches from dignitaries, worship service, meal, displays. It was a blast! But it was topped off by opening the cornerstone, of which the contents are in remarkably good condition. We’ll have the contents on display for Doors Open."

This first site to Doors Open Milwaukee 2015 is a perfect example of what I strive to give you during the event on a whole. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a place you probably never knew existed; a glimpse of an important piece of history that may have otherwise been overlooked in the big picture; a chance to explore a place you may never have entered without the prompt of this open house weekend; a staffed location excited to share their history, architecture, who they are and what they were; and offering you another piece of the puzzle that is Milwaukee. My baby and yours.

If you know of a specific place or neighborhood that would like to participate in the Doors Open Milwaukee, please feel free to contact me at Participating is free. Attending is free. Next month, I’ll give you a sneak peek of two Milwaukee neighborhoods that will be new to Doors Open Milwaukee this year, a glimpse of any new sites that come in over the next month, as well as some of the Doors Open Committee big-picture planning in process.

Amy Grau Special to
Amy Grau is the program manager for Historic Milwaukee Inc.'s annual Doors Open Milwaukee.