By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 29, 2024 at 9:01 AM

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For six years, the small corner tap on Erie and Water in the Third Ward has been home to the aptly named Tied House, 124 N. Water St., an intimate, cocktail-focused bar.

For 12 years before that, the space housed a popular destination called The Irish Pub. Still, for many folks, the place will always be remembered as The M&M Club, the pioneering gay bar and restaurant that occupied the building for 30 years before closing in 2006.

Across the decades, this seemingly diminutive brick saloon – still bearing the Pabst logo installed by its builder – has had an outsize place in Milwaukee bar history, and the site has had interesting stories to share even before the current structure went up in 1904.

"We certainly don’t take (that history) lightly and anyone who knows us can attest to that," says Melissa Weber, who owns Tied House with her husband Adam. "We are meticulous with the upkeep that a 120-year-old building requires. Adam and I are onsite 24/7 maintaining the building or tending to the million plants that we keep accumulating.

"But we also recognize the impact and importance that the space has served for many guests in its different iterations over the years. We were fortunate to recently host an M&M Club reunion with our dear friends to honor the tremendous importance that it held for the community. It was such an amazing experience to be able to see and share in the connection that a space can give. This building is so layered in stories and memory."

Because it’s Bar Month at OnMilwaukee in March, now seemed like as good a time as any to tell some of those stories ...

There seems to have been a structure on the site – which sits on land claimed by Solomon Juneau when he settled permanently a few blocks north in 1818 – at least as far back as the 1860s when in 1865 John Rice was selling patent medicines there. Later in the decade, John O’Reilly had a newsstand at the northeast corner of Erie and East Water (a name that distinguished the street from West Water, now called Plankinton).

By 1871, Reilly was operating what was described as a “variety store,” but the following year, John Campbell had a saloon in the building.

The 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows a frame building with brick veneer on the corner, with roughly the same footprint as the current brick building, albeit with the three-story Merchants Hotel attached to the back, facing Erie Street, but always, apparently, using the East Water Street address, suggesting – along with the physical connection of the two structures – that the hotel and saloon were one property.

There had been a Merchants’ Hotel around the corner on Chicago Street as early as the mid-1850s and by the time we find the one on Erie Street, that one was no longer on its original site, suggesting that either it moved or it had closed and someone else decided to use the name.

The Merchants Hotel had been constructed on Erie at least by 1890, when a reference to it being at that location appeared in the Journal. It is also on the 1888 Sanborn Map, however that map was updated as late as 1909, and the site appears to have been part of the update.

The 1883 city directory listed a John Hagerty Jr. as running a saloon and boarding house at the address, so maybe the building was there even earlier.

Hagerty was still there seven years later, but by 1891, the hotel and corner saloon were operated by James Keyes, who was an interesting character.

1894 map
The site on the 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Born in Pennsylvania in June 1, 1865 to Irish immigrant parents, Keyes was, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel, “one of Milwaukee’s first professional baseball players.

"Jimmy, as he is known at his East Water Street bridge saloon, was a catcher 36 years ago on the Milwaukee team of the Northwestern League, managed by Ted Sullivan, famous baseball scout. The league comprised Milwaukee, Janesville, Oshkosh, Green Bay, Portage, Decatur, Ill., Denver and Omaha.

“Ball games were not so complicated in those days ... Curves were just coming in vogue when Jimmy was quitting the game.”

After their marriage around 1893, Keyes and his wife Mary (nee Collins) likely split the duties of running the saloon and the hotel – classified ads seeking women to work as cooks in the “large boarding house” asked candidates to apply to Mrs. James Keyes at the hotel – until late in the 1890s.

By 1900, the Keyes were operating a tavern on Broadway and two years later had moved into what sounds like a rickety old saloon building right on the edge of the Milwaukee River at the foot of East Water Street.

In fact, in 1909, work to fix the bridge after it had been hit by a streetcar undermined Keyes’ tavern. That led the city to build him a new one nearby.

“The city has erected a temporary saloon building for James Keyes and has provided him a site at East Water and Erie Streets,” reported the Journal that February. “Mr. Keyes’  saloon at 184 East Water Street is in danger of tumbling into the river. It was undermined by work on the new bridge. The board of public works thought this reparation in order.”

A few years later, the Sentinel recalled the incident, noting that, “Jimmy was an eyewitness of the Third Ward and Newhall fires. He has the distinction of being Milwaukee’s first municipal saloon keeper.

“When the old East Water Street swing bridge became too decrepit for use and it was dismantled after being straddled and partly opened by a streetcar, it became necessary for the city to oust Jimmy from his building adjoining the north approach of the bridge. However, before ordering him out to make room for the new bascule bridge, the city built a temporary structure at the intersection of Erie and East Water Street.

“The saloon that the city built for him attracted much attention and he became proud of it, although it was only a frame structure thrown together, with no pretension as to style. Now he is housed in a brick building.”

Anyway, back at our site, Keyes was still the tavernkeeper in December 1895, when – according to Milwaukee Brewery Historian Leonard P. Jurgensen – the Pabst Brewing Company board approved plans to buy the site from owner Henry Mann for $28,000.

“$28,000 in 1895 was a substantial price for that property and obviously this would indicate that a structure was then standing on it,” Jurgensen says. “Then again ‘location, location, location’ means everything and commands serious money.”

Early photo
An undated, but early photo showing the 1904 building at right and in the background, the roof of the Merchants' Hotel. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society)

Perhaps this transaction is what led the Keyes to move on. We don’t know.

By October 1904, Pabst pulled a permit to construct a new saloon – a $10,000 two-story brick building – on the site, to be designed by architect Charles F. Peters.

A string of saloonkeepers followed, including Charles Borchardt, who was behind the bar in 1907, and Frank Burtch in 1914, to name a couple. Steve Omlor and Fred Wilson sought a liquor license for the tavern in 1919, just before Prohibition arrived in January 1920.

That same year, Jacob “Jack” Mushea arrived on the scene and ran the saloon as a “soft drink parlor” and the hotel for nearly two decades ... not without some hiccups.

1910 map
The site on the 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

In 1926, Mushea was arrested for buying stolen goods. Two years later, feds were nosing around the Merchant’s Hotel Bar and one of them, sticking an ice pick into what looked like a tire valve, was squirted in the eye with moonshine supplied by a 5-gallon tank upstairs.

Maybe this is why in 1930, Jacob was working as a clerk and his wife Helen was running the joint.

The Musheas continued on at the Merchants Bar after the arrival of Repeal in 1933 and earned more income from renting parking spots on the lot to north of the bar.

But while they continued to operate a rooming house, it was on a much smaller scale. In October 1933, Pabst bought a permit to replace the saloon’s east wall with a 12” brick wall atop a 12” reinforced concrete footing, suggesting that this is when the hotel was demolished.

This is supported by the fact that a 1935 site plan seen among permits held by the City of Milwaukee show the hotel building was, by that time, gone.

By 1938, the Musheas left the business and were replaced by Slovakian immigrant Steve Chlebana, who appears to have remained there until he moved up to Highland Avenue, where he opened Steve’s Friendly Inn. (As an interesting side note, Chlebana’s initial application for a liquor license for the Highland Avenue place was denied because he sought it in partnership with Anna Slesarik. The Common Council had a policy, according to newspapers of the day, of not issuing joint tavern licenses to a man and woman who were not married. By 1950, Steve and Anna had wed.)

In 1942, Chelbana was replaced on Water Street by Pete Bogovich, who was running Pete’s Restaurant – three years later called Peter Bogovich Tavern – on the first floor. And it is during this era that Pabst’s connection to the building ends.

Pete's Tavern in 1948. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Public Library)

The brewing company sold the property to Bogovich and his parents Steve and Mary in December 1947.

The following August, 33-year-old Pete married 21-year-old Helen Vukadinovich and they lived above the saloon – apparently with the elder Bogovichs – where there was an apartment as well as rooms for rent.

Not long after Steve Bogovich died in 1949 at the age of 63, Pete and his mother sold the tavern to Mike and Tina Crnojevich. But they didn’t stay around long.

Between September 1951 and March 1952, multiple ads offering the business for sale appeared in the newspaper, including one that read, “Tavern/restaurant, one of the most valuable downtown corners, large tavern and rest. Fully equipped on first floor, four rooms and bath for owner on second floor, also six sleeping rooms, excellent income from sleeping rooms and large parking lot, doing tremendous business.”

Taking up the offer was the recently widowed Evelyn Hren in June 1953.

Hren (nee Miller) had been living with her husband Joe and his family across the river where they operated the Pittsburgh Tavern at 200 E. Pittsburgh Ave. But, at just 37 years old, Joe died at Johnson Emergency Hospital in 1951 shortly after suffering a gastric hemorrhage at home, and Evelyn moved the Pittsburgh north to the Third Ward.

In 1955, Hren married Sebastian Restivo and although they began looking for potential buyers as early as 1961 – with real estate ads appearing at least into June 1963 (the earliest ones noting that they were “selling due to illness” – the Restivos stayed on, running The Pittsburgh Tavern, restaurant and rooming house – and living in the saloonkeepers apartment upstairs – until the end of 1965.

April 1966
An April 1966 exterior photo. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society)

At that point, the parking lot had spaces for 25 cars, and a real estate report in the collection of the Milwaukee County Historical Society offers detailed information on the building.

“Two-story, all brick structure with flat roof,” the report noted. “Entire first floor is devoted to tavern purposes, and the front portion of the tavern exterior has been treated with cement type plaster for decorative purposes. The interior of the tavern has plaster and paint in good condition, wood flooring with asphalt tile covering.

“Second floor has 10 sleeping rooms and two bathrooms. The plaster and paint in each of the sleeping rooms is in average to good condition for age. The bathrooms each have one toilet and wash bowl. One tub is built-in, the other tub is on legs.

July 1966
A July 1966 exterior. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society)

“Tavern with kitchen and dining room on first floor. Second floor with living room, dining room, kitchen without sink and four bedrooms and bath front. Four rooms and bath rear. Tenant lives in front apartment. Two rooms rented in rear. Tenant pays $410 per month rent on two year lease. Gets $10 per month parking fee for cars.”

The building was sold for $38,000 to Harri Hoffmann, who had been operating his  Hoffco Shoe Polish business in a five-story building directly across Water Street for the previous two-and-a-half-years.

“A spokesman said the volume of the business this year was the greatest in the company’s history and that more room was needed,” the Journal wrote. “The newly acquired building, which contains the Pittsburgh Tavern and and second story apartment rooms, will be either extensively remodeled or razed and replaced, the spokesman said.”

Interestingly, neither appears to have happened. Instead, classified ads seeking waitstaff continued and even in February 1966 the place was still called The Pittsburgh Tavern, though a year later it had been renamed Down the Street, which appears to have been run by a J. Fink.

Down the Street adX

Later in ‘67, John Loose and Jane Steer began operating the Capitol Table, a rooming house, tavern and restaurant. That named morphed into The Captain’s Table by the time Ralph Von de Grave arrived on scene in 1968 from his previous gig managing the Park Hotel and Tavern on 4th Street.

There’s not much out there on Von de Grave, but, fortunately, there was this bit of humorous ink in a 1972 “All Things Considered” column by Doyle K. Getter of the Journal Staff.

“Deciding to wash the wallpaper himself in the Captain’s Table Restaurant on North Water Street, the operator, Ralph J. Von De Grave, got out a pail and sponge but had to call home to find out where the cleaning powder was kept. ‘In a red can in the pantry,’ he was told.  The powder didn’t seem to dissolve as it should have. The mixture was rather lumpy, but Von De Grave eventually finished the walls and went home.

“Next morning when he walked into the kitchen, he saw the cook preparing instant mashed potatoes, and he saw the red cn she was using and looked up and another red can on a higher shelf. He knew then why his cleaning powder hadn’t dissolved and the cook learned why half of her can of instant mashed potatoes had disappeared overnight. Surprisingly, the walls looked quite clean.”

Maybe that explains why within a year, Brian Galligan had sold his Galligan’s Standard gas station on Bay Street in Bay View and his beloved Q class sloop “Hope” to buy The Captain’s Table.

But the champion sailor couldn’t resist the lure of the waves for long and by 1975 he’d bought another sloop – this one called “Big Red” – and was managing Harbor Marine.

Bob Schmidt
Bob Schmidt behind the bar. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Michail Takach)

After a brief run under the eye of a Jose Acevedo, Hoffmann sold the bulding on land contract to Robert Schmidt, Leo Peters and Jim Moses, who opened a place together, despite having no bar or restaurant experience at all between them.

“The old Third Ward was still an industrial area, and there wasn't anybody living down there,” Schmidt recalls. “One of my former partners was in the real estate business, and we were looking for a place Downtown.

“(Hoffmann’s) tenant there ... tried to sublease it, and Harry was afraid he was gonna run into all kinds of legal repercussions if he wasn't careful how he handled it. So instead of trying to kick the new tenants out, he decided to put it on the market for sale. So that's when we came in and bought it.”

Despite their combined lack of experience running a bar or restaurant, their new place – which was called M&M’s+ – would endure for decades and be one of the longest-running gay bars in town when it finally did close.

“No experience whatsoever,” Schmidt says. “Both my partners at that time were making a whole lot more money than I was, so we decided that I'd quit my job and run the place.

“One of them was gone most of the time. So, we bought him out after the first year, year and a half, and I think it was after two to three years, I bought (the other partner) out, too.”

For years, the windows at M&M Club were boarded up. (PHOTO: Courtesy of LGBTQ History Project)
Later, it became the second gay bar to unboard the windows, a few months after La Cage. (PHOTO: Courtesy of LGBTQ History Project)

The name, Schmidt says, derives from a kind of code that developed among the gay community out of necessity.

“When we'd call each other on the phone, if you were in the office of around other workers and stuff like that, you had to be careful what you said,” he says. “You couldn't talk as openly as we can today. So we'd have some codes, which we'd know, and letters that would stand for things.

From InStep Magazine. (PHOTO: Courtesy of LGBTQ History Project)

“M&M literally stood for medium meat (which was code for a man of better than average qualities, hence the “+”).”

The name, however, was never meant to last, Schmidt adds,

“I was totally opposed to it, truthfully. I said, ‘nobody else is gonna know what that stands for.’ But we temporarily put it on the application and it kind of stuck, and once it's gone through, with insurance policies and licenses and all that, it was just too much of a hassle to change it, so we said, ‘oh, the hell with it, we'll just leave it.

Glass Menagerie ad
(PHOTO: Courtesy of LGBTQ History Project)

“And we had fun for the first few years, as people were trying to guess what it meant. So we played on that and kind of kept it as like a corporate secret.”

Over time, Schmidt built out a patio with the help of artist Robert Uyvari and a few years after that he added The Glass Menagerie solarium, and the M&M Club became one of the best spots in the city for weekend brunch or after-work drinks on the patio.

Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie. (PHOTOS: LGBTQ History Project)
Glass MenagerieX

It also was an oasis for Milwaukee’s gay community. (Hundreds of photos from three decades of the M&M Club from longtime bartender Ron “Rona” Thate (1953-2023) were donated to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project and can be seen here.)

"This place has a 'Cheers-like' quality about it," long-time bar manager Jeff Whitt told OnMilwaukee in 2018. "It's clean, comfortable and the food's good. And it's the only gay club where people felt comfortable taking their parents and (straight) friends."

Customer Mike Frey added,  "I came out late (in life) and it was a place I felt comfortable right away."

It’s no surprise that nearly 20 years after it closed, the M&M Club is still the subject of an active Facebook group, where former employees and customers reminisce about a place that felt like a second home, especially at a time when gay bars still had to fly somewhat under the radar.

“I hired some of the right people,” Schmidt says, when I asked about the secret to the bar's longevity. “I had some key employees that were long-term, and that really helped me. Back then it was almost a stigma to work in a gay bar. I couldn't have done it without some key people there. They were godsends.”

But in the end, after 30 years, the M&M Club had run its course. By then, Schmidt had retired, left town and left the bar in the hands of Bob Kaufman.

“I was burned out, tired of it,” Schmidt says. “Things had changed. I wanted (a former employee) to take it and buy it, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I basically gave it to Bobby. I leased the building to him and he bought the inventory and all that.

“He was a great bartender. Everybody loved him behind the bar, but he didn’t want to pay attention the back of house stuff so he went belly up.”

Irish Pub
The Irish Pub era. (PHOTO: City of Milwaukee)
The Irish Pub patio. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder)

John Duggan, Tom Coffey and Ed Stritch bought the building from Schmidt and transformed the place into The Irish Pub, whose theme you can surely guess.

"It’s very much a ‘local bar’ in a Downtown environment that caters to all of the demographics," Duggan – who was born in England to Irish parents, and moved to Chicago to play rugby – told Molly Snyder in 2016.

The Irish Pub
The Irish Pub. (PHOTOS Molly Snyder)
Irish PubX

"You’ll see 20-somethings mixing with people in their 60s or 70s. I’m very proud of our staff and their ability to create such an inclusive environment."

But despite being what seemed like a popular spot, with live Irish music, sporting events on TV, sports sponsorships and more, for a decade, The Irish Pub was soon sold to the Webers.

Tied House
The Webers. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder)

"We were presented the opportunity through mutual friends and when we visited the location, it quickly became a full circle moment when we realized it used to be M’s," Melissa Weber recalls. "I grew up going to M’s with my mom. We immediately felt a deep connection, like it was meant to be."

In January 2018, the Webers closed the pub for remodeling and when it reopened a few months later, it had a new name – Tied House – that celebrates the building’s initial iteration.

"We never truly had a plan of what Tied House was going to be, it sort of evolved organically," Weber says. "Initially, the only thing we knew was that we wanted to respect the integrity of the building and to pay tribute to its history, so we took our time getting to know it better. 

Tied House
Tied House outdoor spaces. (PHOTOS: Courtesy of Melissa Weber)
Tied HouseX

"To us, the fact that it was tied or connected to a larger purpose  – in the old days, a brewery – seemed fitting because we always wanted to be more than just a bar. We wanted to be an experience that was connected to something more, something bigger. So here we are back to the beginning, a tied house again, but rather, 'tied' to the tenets of hospitality, and the love of our families, guests and team as opposed to a brewery as in the earlier days."

The Webers freshened up the interior and outdoor spaces, and created a cocktail vibe and boosted the greenery by going all-in on plants, which give the space a vibrancy and life.

"We pride ourselves not only on our innovative cocktail program, but in the dedication of our phenomenal team and the ever-changing magic of our seasonal themes," Weber says of Tied House, which does not serve food.

"We evolve twice a year – winter and summer – into a new seasonal theme, primarily in the patio space."

Tied House bar
Tied House bar. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Melissa Weber)

This idea began with the pandemic, when Weber says she and her husband realized that pivoting to a focus on their outdoor space could mean survival during a rough era for bars and restaurants. And it has stuck.

"We work to incorporate a new cocktail menu each time, as well, so we basically are in development all year round," she says. "The vibe is vacation, whether it’s in the alpine or arctic or to a tropical oasis. The decor matches whichever theme, but the common denominator is plants – all the plants."

In summer, the plants adorn the patio, but in winter, they are moved into the "greenhouse" seating area that had been the Glass Menagerie in the M&M Club days.

"So, there are three different vibes to be seated: our current winter patio which for this season is called 'Aurora Borealis,' the indoor 'Greenhouse' or the bar area which also has plants. Again, all the plants."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.