Thanks to Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller, "The Devil in the White City," yet another generation is fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition. Despite its enduring – in itself somewhat surprising – popularity, little remains of this by all accounts stunning little temporary city.
One survivor is the fair’s Columbian Museum, which now houses Chicago’s Field Museum. Another is much closer to home and it serves as the entrance and gift shop to The Pabst Mansion, 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave.
"The Pavilion was conceived of the Pabst Trade Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Chicago, 1893, and Pabst and Schlitz were the two main Milwaukee brewers that participated in sending exhibits to the Cultural Building in Chicago," says The Pabst Mansion’s director of development and senior historian John Eastberg.
Unlike the mansion, which was constructed in 1892, to the specifications of Ferry & Clas, the pavilion was designed by Milwaukee architect Otto Strack, who served as Pabst Brewing Company’s architectural superintendent, according to Eastberg.
The buildings share architectural elements and matching terra cotta and Eastberg says that his research has shown that Capt. Frederick Pabst always intended to bring the pavilion back to Milwaukee. At the fair’s close, it was dismantled and shipped up, where it was erected first on the lawn.
""September is my 20th year here at the mansion, and I just figured this out last year," says Eastberg. "I found a very short article last year that stated in essence that the pavilion had been built as a stand-alone thing on the west lawn, and it turned out it was blocking the view from the windows, so they decided to take it down and move it to the east side of the mansion."
The sturdy construction appears to be proof of its intended permanence.
"They just would’ve made it out of plaster and glass just like everything at the World’s Fair," says Eastberg of Pabst’s desire to construct an enduring structure. "They wouldn’t have done terra cotta blocks and stained glass windows and all that. What I think is really funny is that the building was actually on the second floor of the agricultural building; so knowing the size of the pavilion and its weight, it kind of freaks me out."
But most were anything but freaked out about the pavilion, which was built to boast of Pabst’s wares – and the buildings in its Milwaukee brewery complex – to the more than 27 million people who visited the fair during its six-month run from May 1 through Oct. 30, 1893.
"The building was really remarkable. It got a lot of great press at the time, and after the World’s Fair was over, Pabst had eventually secured the gold medal for brewing, The one thing that I do have to laugh about is that Capt. Pabst did win the gold medal for brewing, but
there was never a blue ribbon."
The square pavilion is heavily decorated with figures and ornament and capped with a now-oxidized green copper dome. It was joined to the mansion’s east elevation via a barrel vaulted passage, topped with clear glass, flooding the pavilion with light.
After Pabst’s death, the mansion was sold to the Milwaukee Archdiocese and the pavilion, which the family had used as a conservatory, was transformed into a chapel. A cross was added, the clear barrel vault was covered, windows were replaced with stained glass and the decorative interior of the dome, which was wrapped with a frieze depicting the history of brewing and featured a stained glass window, was heavily altered.
As beautiful as the pavilion is, it’s faced a lot of struggles, including a deadly one against nature. Water has seeped in and compounded structural isses.
"There definitely is a disconnect between the rest of the mansion, which is in really fine condition, and the pavilion," says Eastberg.
"Basically the underlying problem is that there is a bad structural steel frame in it that’s corroding and pushing those blocks of terra cotta out and cracking them and letting the water in. It’s kind of moving, in essence. We’ve had structural engineers out and they’re like, no, it’s safe. There are basically two skins to this building. There’s the inner one that you see in the pavilion, the steel frame that’s supporting both the inner skin and the outer skin of the building, which is having more substantial issues. They’re moving basically independent of one another, so there’s more damage on the exterior than the interior."
The problems have been ongoing – Eastberg has seen photos dating to 1910 in which damage to the terra cotta can already be seen – and he says as they’ve gone unfixed, the cost to repair the pavilion has skyrocketed. Now fundraising has stepped up as The Pabst Mansion attempts to raise $5 million to restore and shore up the pavilion for future generations.
Two weeks ago, Eastberg led a bus junket to the Field Museum to see an exhibition on the world’s fair to help raise awareness of the condition of the pavilion.
"This has been an issue for a very long time," he says. "When I first started here in ’93, people thought for a couple hundred thousand dollars you could really get something fixed, but what’s going to have to happen now, is that the entire structure has to be completely dismantled, that steel frame has to be taken out, the stainless steel frame has to be made, and replacement terra cotta has to be made, and every block has to be assessed for its liability going forward.
"We’ve done our historic structures reports, so we know exactly what’s the matter with it, and how to go about that. We’ve created the scope, so we know what elements we would be putting back, and we are going to take it back to putting the stained glass dome back on. All the elements that were there will be back."
The promise of a restoration is exciting from historical, preservation and architectural standpoints, but the planned future use for the pavilion is exciting from a travel and tourism point of view, too.
"We are currently planning on turning it into the Pabst Palm Garden, which would be a mix of
the way the Pabsts used it here at the mansion, but also hinting at the way it was at the World’s Fair," says Eastberg. "It would be a sample/tasting space at the end of your tour where you could sample Pabst products."
That goal is part of a larger campaign to build a visitors center across Wisconsin Avenue on property already purchased by The Pabst Mansion. That ambitious, larger project – which would also house the gift shop and the mansion’s offices – carries a $10 million price tag.
A half-million-dollar gift from the Pabst family has kicked off fundraising for the pavilion and once the kitty has about $3 million, says Eastberg, the work can begin. In the meantime, he and his colleagues are making the rounds in Milwaukee and beyond to tell the story of the pavilion, which, he says, has a national hook.
"We really do feel that being one of less than 10 known remnants of the World’s Fair has historic significance. The mansion itself is on the National Register of Historic Places, but we really feel that with the narrative for the pavilion, it warrants national landmark status.
"The National Trust selected the pavilion 10 years ago as one of America’s endangered treasures. That was completely independent – they actually came to us. I feel that people both in Milwaukee and outside of Milwaukee actually get the importance of the pavilion."
Eastberg says he feels that after decades of delays, the time is right to really secure the future of what he calls one of the most significant historical pieces of architecture in Milwaukee.
"I’ve been studying up on this for 20 years. It’s funny, if you had told me 20 years ago that the pavilion would still be doing, that would’ve been a lot to deal with but I feel, finally, that we really understand the pavilion, its significance, where it needs to go – there have
been certain technological developments that have helped. It’s lasted over 120 years, which is pretty amazing. It’s funny, when I was doing some research with the Archdiocese, a number of years ago I found a letter in there from the ‘60s, saying that immediate attention needed to be placed on the pavilion, and if not it was going to be too far gone. That was 50 years ago."
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.