There are some restaurants in town with commanding views, but let’s be honest, not one of them has a panorama that can compete with Harbor House’s at 500 N. Harbor Dr.
One of the city’s top seafood restaurants, Harbor House is a little slice of New England on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Harbor House is one of just a few restaurants with coveted lakeshore locations, along with the Museum Cafe at Milwaukee Art Museum, Colectivo at the Lake, the McKinley Roundhouse, MooSa’s and Lake Park Bistro.
A few months ago, Bartolotta announced that it had bought out its partner – The Endeavors Group, which had been led by the late Michael Cudahy – and is now sole owner of Harbor House.
“We are forever grateful to Mike Cudahy for his unwavering partnership,” said The Bartolotta Restaurants Owner and Co-Founder, Paul Bartolotta. “Because of his belief in us, we had the opportunity to open Bacchus – A Bartolotta Restaurant; partner with Discovery World as its exclusive caterer; and develop, operate and partner at Harbor House.
“We carry the immense responsibility to build upon the legacy of these two Milwaukee giants, who made a lasting impact in the community by protecting, preserving, and enhancing the city’s most valuable asset – our beautiful Lakefront.”
Harbor House sits on the northeast corner of Pier Wisconsin, which occupies the site of Milwaukee’s first cargo pier, built at the foot of Huron (now Clybourn) Street by Horatio Stevens, Richard Owens, Amos Tufts and J.G. Kendall over the winter of 1842-3, which must’ve been tough going.
That pier was 1,200 feet long and 44 wide and there was a freight shed at the far edge and, at the entrance, a warehouse and a tollgate.
The aim of the pier was to solve the problem that the entrance to the harbor was at that time south of Jones Island, which meant it was a long way ‘round to get cargo and passengers to the heart of the city.
The pier was successful enough – the first vessel is hosted was the Capt. M. Hazard’s Cleveland, which docked on June 1, 1843 – that three more were added.
“With the opening of the piers, competition was keen and high rates were charged for dockage and storage,” wrote H.E. "Jamie" Jamison in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1963.
“Teamsters vied with one another to be the first on hand to offer transportation to immigrants seeking a home in the distant parts of the state. They charged $4 a day for a distance of 25 miles, and for 100 miles, $40 to $50, allowing for expense of the return trip.”
However, the first pier was ravaged by winter ice and winds in 1846 and appears not to have been replaced, and by 1857, the straight cut (between Jones Island and the Third Ward) was finished, providing much easier access to the rivers.
Later, the other piers were also destroyed by the elements, reinforcing the idea that the rivers and inner harbor offered safer haven for vessels.
By the 1940s, however, Milwaukee’s ferry business was booming and there was need for a new home for the Milwaukee Clipper and other passenger traffic. It’s a familiar story as the city is now planning to build a new pier to serve the ships that are visiting Milwaukee regularly during the cruise season.
The Clipper was launched on June 3, 1941 from the Wisconsin & Michigan Steamship Company dock at 601 E. Erie St.
In 1942, the company saw 78,170 passengers on its Milwaukee ferry service, but its business had leaped to 118,772 by 1949. Plus, in 1948, new Chesapeake and Ohio ferry service started and brought another 50,053.
“Paradoxically the automobile industry which was responsible for the decline of the passenger traffic on the lakes has now become one of the main supports for the Lake Michigan ferry operators,” wrote Edward Hamming in “The Port of Milwaukee,” in 1953.
“The automobile industry, for instance, contributes considerable tonnage to the car ferry traffic and forms the basis for the automobile ferry operations of the Wisconsin and Michigan Steamship Company.”
But even more so, the automobile industry gave families a new-found freedom to roam, Hamming wrote.
“It has induced more pleasure travel and, because the ferry routes lie in direct line of travel between many resort areas in Michigan and Wisconsin and such cities as Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, hundreds of vacationing motorists use the ferries in their itineraries,” he noted.
“The night service is especially attractive, for motorists can start their trip in the evening, sleep on board, and start out the next morning on the other side of the lake without loss of time and with a great deal of troublesome driving around the lake eliminated.
“Although the ferry services at Milwaukee extend only to two port on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, for many years the Wisconsin and Michigan Steamship Company operated a triangular service between Milwaukee, Muskegon, and Chicago.”
A solution for handling these passengers and their cars was needed and by 1955 plans were drawn for a new municipal passenger pier, and work began to build it in August of 1957.
By Dec. 1, the Journal could report that Milwaukee now had, “five brand new acres.”
“Within the 450 by 500 foot rectangle of sheet steel piling there remained Saturday only a pond the size of a city lot.,” the paper noted that day. “The rest of the area was a level plain of gravel and yellow sandy soil solid enough to support big six wheeled dump trucks and bulldozers.
“Alongside it to the south, a gaunt, barge mounted crane ceaseless tossed a great shark toothed bucket into the water and reeled in two-ton mouthfuls of greasy gray clay. Off shore, toward the breakwater gap, a similar machine chewed away with a clamshell scoop at the bottom some 16 feet below water surface.”
The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. had an $898,940 contract to do build the pier and dredge its approach channels had its trucks, bulldozers, dredges and workers firing on all cylinders 24 hours a day.
In order to create a 300-foot wide, 21-foot deep channel from the breakwater gap to the pier – as well as anchorage along the south and east ends of the pier – 215,000 cubic yards of mud had to be dredged from the lake bed.
There was talk of later dredged channels to 28 feet to meet the needs of ships passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway, due to open in 1959.
“Dredges are expensive to buy and expensive to move,” the Journal wrote. “To prove economical, they must work all the time. There is another reason for haste with the trucks, which haul 235 loads of fill daily from a pit near St. Francis in the south end of the county and from another near Hales Corners. The weight of the new land must squeeze out tons of lake water which used to occupy the site, and a hard freeze would interfere.”
Although the company would’ve been allowed by contract to use what it dredged for the channels to fill the pier bed, it was more cost effective to truck in fill, according to Port Director Harry C. Brockel. Instead, the lake bed mud was dumped into deeper waters.
Some of it, however, did prove useful in the pier construction.
“The sheet steel piling, unsupported, could not stand the battering of waves and the pressure of the land,” the Journal noted. “It is backed up by heavy wooden piling and timbers, now almost completely buried. Mud was packed around it in the early stage of the fill.”
That bathtub of steel was filled more 160,000 tons of gravel.
The pier was expected to be complete by 1959 and was to cost $1.3 million, including a $100,000 terminal building in the center on the south side of the pier.
As for revenues, The Wisconsin & Michigan Steamship Co. was to pay $22,500 in annual rent for two berths on the south side of the pier for the Milwauke Clipper and the Hwy 16, a converted LST used to ship new cars across the lake from Michigan.
Georgian Cruise Lines was also expected to use the pier and would pay for that service.
The opposite side of the pier was to have 20 slips for rent to pleasure boaters except when the space was needed for commercial shipping.
Funds would also come from metered onshore parking lots near the pier, and there was talk of building a “luxury restaurant” on the pier, too, which would generate further income.
Brockel told the Journal that he expected the pier to earn about $50,000 a year.
Although it was not yet completely ready, by July 1959 it was used by Navy and Marines vessels during Operation Inland Seas, which celebrated the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
(On a personal note, it’s possible my father was among the first to use the pier, when he was here as a Marine. It’s also then possible that I wouldn’t exist without the pier for it was during this visit that my parents met.)
That September, further dredging was required as lake levels had fallen since pier construction and dredging began two years earlier.
But still, the USS Worland was able to use the facility that month, as was Cargill’s Carmac yacht, which the company used both to entertain clients and inspect its many and far-flung facilities, as well as the Georgian Bay Cruise Line’s North American, which picked up a cargo of 350 Shriners and their families to transport to a convention in Detroit.
After some weather-related delays, the dredging was completed and the pier was fully opened in 1960 and it was used most notably by the Clipper until service ended in 1970.
A year earlier, in a fit of bad timing, that “luxury restaurant” finally opened in a low-slung modern building designed by Milwaukee architects Grellinger-Rose & Associates, which had also done familiar structures like the Milwaukee State Office Building and UWM’s Lapham Hall, among others.
“The lakefront restaurant, Pieces of Eight, north of and adjacent to the Milwaukee Clipper pier, is nearing completion,” wrote the Sentinel’s Jamison on Dec. 1, 1969.
“This rustic establishment overlooking Lake Michigan will be a welcome addition for all who enjoy the changing activities, drama and moods of the only Great Lake that is entirely within the United States.
“This new eating establishment will put Milwaukee in a class with Boston, San Francisco and other cities where one can watch living marine paintings while dining. Milwaukee’s lakefront restaurant will be flavored with history.”
On Dec. 11 a preview for “civic leaders and interested friends” was held by the Board of Harbor Commissioners at the restaurant, which was developed by the Specialty Restaurants chain, based in Long Beach, California. Two days later, Pieces of Eight opened to the public.
Just days before it opened, the Sentinel stopped in to check it out. Saying it, “will be the place to go to eat cioppino,” the paper noted that “this week the city’s newest restaurant is a clutter of furniture, artisans, craftsmen and debris. However, the Polynesian atmosphere was discernable. A bearded fellow in beachcomber shorts complained of the city’s radio diet of rock music while he put the finishing touches on an outrigger canoe that will be part of the inn’s decor.
“Portions of the two level serving area were screened by strings of colorful shells or by rope ladders and arrangements of sailing vessel tackle. Will be brightened by waitresses in minimuumuus.
“The $400,000 restaurant will have a dramatic view of the lake. From its bank of northerly windows can be seen the Memorial Center with the city’s skyline behind it. The seating of the 200 diners is arranged to take advantage of the view. The tables and a cozy row of nooks for seven couples are on three terraced levels. The cocktail lounge for 75-100 customers is focused on a bar back up against the window.
“The room will be permeated with heat from three huge, wood burning fireplaces. When winter loosens its grip, a miniature waterfall and lagoon will be formed at the inn’s entrance. Despite the island atmosphere, the inn will serve a complete menu including beef cuts and steaks. An exhibition kitchen will allow patrons to watch their meat broil. However, the speciality of the house will be cioppino, which Salling described as being, ‘a sort of Italian fish stew’.”
Pieces of Eight did become a destination restaurant in the city for its location and view. Over time, however, the allure of the shag carpet and fish tanks began to fade and in 2008, Specialty rebranded as Harbor 550, which didn’t help and the restaurant soon closed.
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy bought the lease and its improvements in 2009 and when a plan to donate it to UWM to house its School of Freshwater Sciences didn’t work out, he instead partnered with Bartolotta Restaurants and Harbor House opened there in 2010.
In the meantime, Discovery World’s stunning new home had opened just across the street in 2006 and a few dozen yards to the north, the Milwaukee Art Museum had added the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion in 2001 and the view was better than ever.
“When Mike approached us, he was our landlord at Bacchus,” Bartolotta recalls. ”Had it not been for Mike, we'd be a very different company today. Mike helped us, first giving us an opportunity at Bacchus.
“Then, building Discovery World, he said, ‘We need an ongoing income stream, and it's such a beautiful location. Let's do something to support the mission of the museum.’ Hence the catering was born as being an amenity to the museum. For us, it was a great opportunity to have a great catering venue.”
Bartolotta began serving food for weddings and other events in the Pilot House rotunda atop the museum.
“We realized that the Pilot House, while it was great, was round, it was small, and we were often doing tented weddings outside out,” says Bartolotta. “Then, one day, we're up on the balcony and Mike looks down at Pieces of Eight, and he said, ‘I need to do something.’
“Then he called us and said, ‘Hey, let's do a restaurant together.’ There was about a two-minute conversation on doing a fresh water restaurant. I told my brother, ‘No, we're going to do New England seafood.’
Bartolotta’s late brother, Joe, with whom he was a partner in the restaurants was unsure.
"Yeah, but we're on a lake," he told Paul, who envisioned a steakhouse vibe but focused on seafood: an oyster bar, lobster rolls, New England classics like clam chowder and lobster bisque.
Joe bought in and Cudahy said, “go do your thing,” according to Bartolotta, though he did have one request.
“One thing,” says Bartolotta. “He asked us to make Irish soda bread. We worked on the recipe a couple times, and then finally he came in, he goes, ‘I don't really like Irish soda bread that much anyway. Do you guys like it?’ We're like, ‘We thought it was an interesting idea.’ He goes, ‘You don't like it?’ I'm like, ‘Well, you know.’ (laughs).
“He goes, ‘Does anybody eat it?’ ‘No’ He's like, ‘Okay, stop making it, forget it. It's fine’."
And so, the Bartolotta brothers partnered with Cudahy on the restaurant, spending $3 million to renovate the building – opening up more windows and adding a public walkway and gorgeous patio, to make the most of that panorama.
“We took it down to the studs and had a floor plan that we couldn't adjust because of what was set up,” recalls Bartolotta. “But Mike put up the capital; we didn't have to raise the money. We brought in the know-how and became the partner. He thought it would be a great extension to our brand. He believed in our ability to deliver something for the City of Milwaukee.
“We understood the critical nature of staying involved and protecting our most valuable asset and building upon it, which is our lakefront, and making sure that there's continuous public access to it, to the patio, to Oak Leaf Trail, offering a couple of items that are more affordable. If people need the bathrooms, we open to the guest, if anybody wants to come in and use it. We understand the public ask is part of it.”
After Cudahy’s passing in March at the age of 97, talk of selling the estate’s interest in the restaurant surfaced, and Bartolotta stepped up and became full owners in June.
“It was a normal transition in his estate to clean some things up, so we had the opportunity to purchase the other half of the ownership,” says Bartolotta. “We were the most likely candidate, obviously, to buy the other half.
“We had always expressed that if ever there was an interest (in selling), we would want to buy it. Then it came our way.”
As Harbor House sails toward its 25th anniversary – in just a few years – it remains a jewel in the Bartolotta crown.
“It's become iconic,” says Bartolotta. “We had believed that there was singularly no better location in the City of Milwaukee (than Lake Park Bistro). If you turn around and look at the view of Lake Park, at the staircase, the lake ... breathtaking.
“But then there's Harbor House, where you get more of the lake, and then you get the Art Museum and the skyline. It's pretty spectacular.”
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.