By Wyatt Massey, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service   Published Sep 15, 2015 at 3:16 PM

Members of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church know that the building’s stained glass can best be appreciated from the inside, as the sun pours through the windows. This experience will be open to the public Sept. 19 and 20 as part of Doors Open Milwaukee. The church is one of six central city locations featured this year.

The two-day citywide event lets people visit more than 150 local attractions, from churches to community centers, residences to breweries, free of charge.

Concordia Gardens, 220 E. Concordia Ave.

The 1.5-acre parcel nestled in Harambee is bursting with flowers, produce and promise. Concordia Gardens, created by Victory Garden Initiative, features raised garden beds for rent, along with an urban orchard, composting site and production farm, which grows produce for neighborhood residents.

Alex Hagler, garden coordinator, is one of many people who make the urban farming project possible.

"There’s no one farmer," Hagler said. "It really is a collective effort from a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life."

Beyond keeping the grounds clean and turning over compost, Hagler helps with the garden’s farm stand. Between five and 15 neighborhood kids come to harvest, prepare and sell the produce on Thursdays, Hagler said.

"All of the sales that we get, we actually give to the kids," he said. "It’s a cool employment opportunity for them to learn a little bit about employment skills," such as setting prices, managing cash and customer service.

The gardens also attract area residents who can rent one of the 35 raised beds for $10 a season. It is a hub for volunteers as well, with groups coming from neighboring high schools and colleges.

John Van Eerden, a first-time volunteer at the gardens, said that he was drawn to the organization’s mission of providing accessible, healthy and fresh food. However, he is most interested in another feature of the space: the solar panels and rainwater collection system.

"I was surprised how sustainable it is," he said.

Rainwater is collected and dispersed through an underground system. It feeds the nutrient-rich soil created from the compost bins, creating what Hagler called a "food oasis."

More than that, though, the gardens are bringing the neighborhood together through healthy and sustainable urban agriculture. "I think it’s going to be a catalyst for a lot of rehabilitation in the area," Hagler said.

Havenwoods Environmental Awareness Center, 6141 N. Hopkins St.

It’s easy for visitors to the 237-acre state forest to get caught up in the wonders of nature and miss the wealth of Milwaukee history at the site. The land around the Havenwoods Environmental Awareness Center has been transformed over 140 years from a family farm, to a corrections house, to a U.S. Army facility, to its current incarnation.

The Doors Open weekend is an opportunity for the urban forest to feature some of this little-known history, said Judy Klippel, superintendent of Havenwoods State Forest.

"There are only a few features on the land that are still there from the old days, but they will be marked for people to see," she said.

Visitors should look for the remnants of the Cold War-era missile base, which are now covered by a prairie. They will be able to see a series of old photographs and maps of the property. However, the center will focus on showcasing its hiking trails and environmental education programs.

"One of our jobs is to try and help people reconnect with nature," Klippel said.

Between May and October, school groups come to the space to learn about local animal and plant life, create nature-related crafts and learn about the importance of nature. Doors Open provides another opportunity for urban residents to connect with the outdoors, Klippel said.

"I would like to see more people use this place. This is a buffer from the city. It’s a place where people can find quiet in the middle of the city."

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 3022 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Behind the pews of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, the pipes that make up the church’s famous organ pump out hymns, filling the sanctuary and spilling out the open doors onto Wisconsin Avenue.

After the service, people gather for coffee, dessert and lemonade. The church has been open for more than 150 years; the congregation is a mix of new arrivals and longtime churchgoers.

Michael Sykes, one such newcomer, was encouraged to visit by the Rev. Dr. Patrick Keen. Sykes said the diverse congregation made him feel at home as soon as he walked in the door for the first time.

"These people don’t know who I am, but they were so welcoming," he said.

Sykes asked church members, including LaVonne Williams, about service opportunities. Williams, a member for more than 40 years, said the church’s involvement in the surrounding neighborhood is part of the reason she comes each week.

"I like what the church stands for," Williams said. "Our church is not just a building, but it’s a place to serve God and serve others."

The pastor, who arrived in Milwaukee from New Orleans in May, said the upcoming Doors Open event is a chance to engage community members, as well as show them the "breathtaking sight and sound" of the organ, which was installed in 1964.

"I pray that the contagious spirit (of service) affects everyone who walks through the door," Keen said.

Karen Nimz, a church member for 43 years, wants visitors to see the organ, too, as well as the stained glass windows and the church’s solar panels, which provide energy for heat in the winter.

Sherman Park Senior Living, 3245 N. 37th St.

When Sherman Park Senior Living opened the building to the public in the past two years for Doors Open Milwaukee, building manager Byron Thompson heard story after story from people who used to feel at home there. Not as tenants, but as students and teachers.

The senior living center is converted from the former Jackie Robinson Middle School. The Doors Open event is a chance for people to return to see the renovations.

"Over the last three years, I’ve meet so many people that have educated me," Thompson said. "They’re telling me the history of the school."

Some of that history is on display in the 68-unit complex. When the building was sold in 2010 from Milwaukee Public Schools to Gorman & Company, various school trophies and pieces of artwork were still inside. They remain there.

Weekend visitors will get a tour and be able to see the former lunchroom and gymnasium, which have been converted into fitness centers and meeting rooms. Each resident has a community garden plot near the building, as well.

"We look forward to showcasing what we’ve done and being something positive in our community," Thompson said. "I think the residents really take pride in having a senior building in the area."

Sherman Perk Coffee Shop, 4924 W. Roosevelt Dr.

One night there is bag toss. The next, a book club meeting, followed by live music the night after. That is business as usual for Sherman Perk Coffee Shop.

Bob Olin’s shop, which sells Colectivo Coffee and Rishi Tea, has been a mainstay in the neighborhood for 14 years. It started as a way to bring the community together and provide a central place to gather, Olin said.

"When our kids were growing up, they didn’t have a place like this to go to. They had to leave the neighborhood," he said. "So we’re real proud that the neighbors have embraced it and helped us be here this long."

Visitors can relax at the retro-style tables and chairs inside the converted filling station, built in 1939. Jeff Percival is a member of a group that meets for coffee and baked goods every Saturday.

"We would’ve never met each other if not for here," Percival said, referring to the group of 10 gathered around the outdoor picnic tables. Many members of the group live within several blocks of one another, but had not met before coming in for coffee.

Urban Ecology Center, Menomonee Valley, 3700 W. Pierce St.

The Doors Open event is a chance for people to see the Urban Ecology Center’s most recent branch, in Menomonee Valley, but staff members view it as an opportunity to get people involved with nature.

Glenna Holstein, branch manager, said visitors can take a self-guided tour of the building and participate in typical weekend programming. For instance, people can help pick up trash in the nearby park with the "Volunteer Park Rangers" initiative, and children can make a salad to feed a turtle as part of the animal feeding program.

"It’s a great opportunity for kids to get up close and personal with some of the critters in our area," Holstein said.

Visitors may begin indoors, looking at the building’s sustainable, solar-powered water system, but the Holstein does not want them to stay there. She wants to get people engaged with nature during the Doors Open weekend and beyond.

"Our goal is to get people out the back door, into the park," she said. "The real heart of our mission is to get people out into the parks that are right in their back yard."