A center of social life in South Milwaukee is about to swing its doors back open.
The Bucyrus Club, 1919 12th Ave,. occupies the first factory built erected in the city, in 1892, for the Schultz Brothers Furniture Company.
With the help of a $1.5 million contribution from the Bucyrus Foundation, the building will get new life after sitting vacant for a number of years after the closing of the pizzeria that last occupied it.
Skyline Catering and Bucyrus Club Event Center will occupy the first floor of the building, with a bar, restaurant, deli and two banquet halls, and the nonprofit South Milwaukee Industrial Museum, which operates the Bucyrus Museum, will have display areas on the second floor.
The building is called the Bucyrus Club in honor of its longest usage: as an employee center for the Bucyrus (later Bucyrus-Erie), which bought the structure in 1909 from the Racine Fire Engine and Motor Company, which built fire trucks there for seven years.
Initially used as a manufacturing facility, many of the steamshovels made there were sent to Panama to build the canal. In 1920, it was converted to a cafeteria and club for workers.
You can read a deeper dive in to the history – with vintage photos – here.
As I wrote in December, “You’d be hard pressed to find a South Milwaukee family that didn’t celebrate a wedding or a birthday, or attend a high school reunion or an awards ceremony, or even just eat a fish fry and play pinochle there. ‘The Club’ was a major focus of South Milwaukee social life for decades.”
Bucyrus-Erie sold the building in 1994.
“The company helped create South Milwaukee,” said Bob Jelinek director of the South Milwaukee Industrial Museum.
After years of planning, fundraising and construction, the project is nearly complete and contractor CG Schmidt plans to hand the building over to the City of South Milwaukee, which owns it and will lease it to Skyline and the museum, on June 18.
When I last visited, in December, the club was mostly a shell and not even all the interior demolition work was complete yet. On a return last week, it was a different story.
“Quite a bit of progress has been made,” said Mayor Erik Brooks, “and we are looking to ‘get the keys’ by mid-June, with a more formal opening of the various spaces in mid-July.”
Ernie Wunsch, who owns Skylight – which installed a large, state-of-the-art kitchen (pictured above) to service the restaurant/deli and the catering operations, as well as its off-site Downtown office catering work – echoed that timeline.
“We'll take about three weeks to move in and our Skyline deli will open on July 12 with carryout, indoor and outdoor seating and delivery. Our first banquet event is actually on June 18 and we have roughly 50 others booked as we speak.”
Wunsch plans to open an upscale restaurant, called the Founders' Room, in early October.
One of the first-floor event spaces is in the back where there were 10 bowling lanes, which survive under the floor for future generations to rediscover.
Upstairs, the museum will occupy a large, open space that served many functions over the decades, from a gym to a hall for movie screenings to stage performances, racquetball and more.
“The Bucyrus Museum will honor Bucyrus’ contributions to some of the greatest machines to contribute to world progress ever built,” said Jelinek, who added that the first floor Skyline-operated spaces will also have eight built-in display cases.
“Those will showcase many other engineering innovations developed in South Milwaukee. Companies like Lawson Aircraft, Continental Tile, Midwest Pottery, Line Material, Appleton Electric and Badger Malleable called South Milwaukee home.
“Inventions like Line Material’s automatic re-closer that and quickly restore power after lightning strikes and Orbit’s first mulching lawn mower came out of South Milwaukee. We also were once home to a riding tack manufacturer, a basket factory, cutlery maker, and a world class iron foundry that shipped their famous hay trolley systems, barn door hardware, and register vents worldwide at the turn of the century.”
The displays will change a few times a year to keep them fresh.
The museum expects to be open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., once it opens this summer. It, too, will be available for private events.
What was a shell of a building, with some of its concrete floors torn up, when I last visited, now looks almost like a newly constructed building, with all new HVAC, electrical, plumbing, A/V equipment and that big kitchen.
But fortunately, many elements that conjure the early uses of the building were left exposed for guests to be reminded of South Milwaukee’s industrial past.
There are sections of exposed cream city brick and ironwork throughout, and the original fireplace was left in situ and restored, with gas added.
In the hall where the bowling alleys once ran, a stunning wood beam ceiling that suggests a cathedral was restored and is one of the loveliest features of the building.
Upstairs, some vintage windows were saved and repurposed and the spiral staircase remains in place. In some areas up here wood flooring from the old stage/racquetball courts was installed.
Some floorboards rescued from the old South Milwaukee High School (later the junior high) by an alderman were donated for this project and installed upstairs, too.
That same community spirit – a testament to how much "The Club" means to South Milwaukeeans – led 87-year-old retired electrician Matt Glaske (pictured below) to volunteer his time to help out during the demolition phase.
An outdoor seating area has been added on the south end of the building, adjacent to a large parking lot.
“This building has played a major role in our community’s growth over the years, and this project has great significance to me, as well,” said David Kieck, who came out of retirement to work as the city’s project manager on the renovation, and whose father worked at Bucyrus for 42 years.
“As former mayor of South Milwaukee I am excited to see this project move forward and the positive impact it will have on our community.”
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.