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Almost like magic it appeared and then, voila!, gone again.
“It” is a 1940s two-tone pigmented structural glass facade on an 1890s building at 723 W. Mitchell St.
Added when Bilt-Rite Furniture opened a second location there in 1946, the stunning Art Moderne facade – made of a product called Vitrolite – was covered with drab steel panels 40 years later.
Back in March, after artist Shane McAdams, whose gallery Real Tinsel Gallery is nearby at 1013 W. Mitchell St., bought the building in 2019, the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission wondered aloud at a meeting whether or not the panels survived, though it sounded pessimistic about the possibility.
Instead, in mid-November, workers spent three days removing the steel to find that the George Zagel-designed facade had, in fact, survived in, if not all, then at least much of its glory.
The problem, however, is that many of the glass panels were broken.
“It has to come down,” McAdams told me on Friday, as a crew prepared to remove it. “It’s dangerous. But I’m going to recreate it as closely as possible.”
And, so, when I returned on Monday, the facade was completely gone, giving us a glimpse of how the building looked when it was built in 1890 (although not entirely, as the former window openings were blocked up and replacing with new fenestration).
The three-story building and its two-story neighbor – designed by architect Henry Lotter – at 725 have, it seems, always been owned in tandem, connected as they are by an internal staircase at the back.
While the taller structure has spent most of its life as a furniture store, it did have Amsterdam Tea, which also sold coffee and “holiday goods” as a tenant at the turn of the 20th century. The location was an outpost of a Downtown business that had two locations in the city center.
This arrangement was quite common for many years, when Mitchell Street was second only to Downtown when it came to retail corridors in Milwaukee.
In fact, when Amsterdam closed, the spot became a Mitchell Street branch store of the Milwaukee Green Stamp Trading Company, though by 1906 it was home to the Propkop & Szatkowski Furniture Company.
The following year, Julius Wasniewski, who had been selling furniture, stoves and crockery in the two-story building, converted it into a theater for live Vaudeville performances, calling it the Park.
But, the Wasniewski didn’t appear to stay long at the Park, perhaps because of the fire.
On Sept. 9, 1907, a three-alarm fire broke out in the rooms at the back of the building above the theater, which were occupied by vaudeville performers. There, a gasoline stove used for cooking was believed to have exploded, sending flames into the back staircase (pictured below) and into the second floor of the adjacent furniture store.
Once there, it destroyed everything on the second floor, and most everything on the floor below was ruined by water.
Wasniewski denied that the fire started inside the Park, but, reported the Journal, “It is said by neighbors living on the third floor of the adjoining building, however, that the rooms on the second floor to the rear of the theater (two photos below) are occupied by the show people and that they frequently use a gasoline stove there to prepare their meals.
“Mrs. Steven Mendowicz, who occupies the third floor rear of the furniture store was the first to discover the fire. She was in the kitchen with Mrs. Prokop, who lives in the front part. Shortly after the smoke was discovered the room was in flames and it was thought that the two women perished, but they got out safely.”
By January 1908, newspapers carried classified ads, offering for sale or lease, a 400-seat Vaudeville theater, and four months later, the Park Theater manager A. Bartell placed an ad seeking, “a good hustling partner,” claiming, “I have a chance to make some money.”
For a while, ambitious theater man Edward Wagner operated the Park Theater, perhaps after he left a smaller nearby theater in 1908.
With his wife Martha, Wagner had opened The Emporium, a nickel theater at 626 W. Mitchell St., in 1906. According to Larry Widen and Judi Anderson’s “Silver Screens,” the Wagners quickly renamed the 175-seat Emporium the Imperial 5¢ Theater to highlight its admission cost.
In addition to the Park, Wagner would go on to operate the Happy Hour at 1814 S. Muskego (1910-24, 590 seats) and the Wagner at 1636 W. Forest Home (1913-17, 371). By 1912, Wagner also had acquired theaters in Waukesha, Hartford and Racine.
He gave them all up by 1919 to run the Garden Theater on Milwaukee Avenue in South Milwaukee, which he did until his passing in 1930.
An early view of the Park, perhaps from a postcard (above, courtesy of Cinema Treasures), shows a flag-draped entrance with hoardings announcing performers and a man standing out front. Perhaps that was one of the barkers, the men who would coax patrons into the theater by touting its array of attractions.
Anton Tardick was a barker at the Park in 1909 and had the misfortune that February of being among four arrested at local theaters for breaking the city’s anti-noise ordinance, which hemmed in the barkers and could lead to fines as hefty as $25 or 30 days in jail.
But Tardick and the others argued that the ordinance was unreasonable and, therefore, illegal. When he was found guilty and fined $1 plus court costs, he appealed.
Whether or not Tardick returned is unclear, but the Park continued on and in March 1909 it advertised for a steady position for a singer. That November it sought an “illustrated song singer,” warning, “no boozer,” suggesting the folks tapped to sing along – often to piano accompaniment – to a series of projected slides that illustrated the lyrics could be less than upstanding.
The following March, the Park sought violinists.
Though already by 1909, the Park is referred to as a nickelodeon, suggesting it was already screening moving pictures, as Vaudeville faded, the theater, like most such venues, transitioned entirely to film.
A 1914 building permit shows the Park being run by Joseph J. Schwartz and described as a “picture theater.” Schwartz had been at the theater since at least 1911.
In 1916, it was running matinee films at 2 p.m. and advertised its content as “refined high class pictures.”
In 1930, the Park found itself embroiled in a dispute between rival projectionists unions that many believed had led to a series of bombings, more stinky than deadly nature, though one was more sinister.
In May of that year, while patrons watched the 1927 silent picture “The Rose of Kildare,” starring Helene Chadwick, Pat O'Malley and Henry B. Walthall, on a Wednesday night, they were forced out when a “tear gas bomb” went off in an auditorium air vent.
Theater manager Cyrus J. Roddy couldn’t explain what happened, but noted in a newspaper article that there had been “some difficulty with labor,” lately, adding that, “on two occasions the front of the place was smeared with paint.”
Detectives Leroy Gittens and Ralph Hostettler, according to a Milwaukee Sentinel report, “braved the heavy atmosphere to investigate. Some of the chemical was also found in a newspaper near the rear exit.”
Similar bombs were ignited in about 50 theaters over the course of the next two years, and in August 1932, it was discovered that at least some were made by a pair of teens who made the bombs using the chemistry skills they learned during their studies at Boys Tech High School.
The boys admitted to setting off the devices in the Avalon and the Mirth on Kinnickinnic Avenue, and the Granada on 11th and Mitchell. They said they also attempted one at the Park that didn’t explode.
It’s possible other bombs did figure into the union battle and the entire thing culminated in a dynamite bomb that exploded at the Parkway Theater on 35th and Lisbon, injuring six people, in October 1932.
by Larry Widen, Arcadia Publishing, 2010)
And in 1950, below. (PHOTO: Cinema Treasures)
The Park was the scene of yet another projectionists union spat in 1953 and that may well be what led to the demise of the theater.
That summer, William J. Schmitt took over the Park after it had closed in June and said he was running it, according to a Journal article at the time, “on a shoestring” and was “taking in very little money.” That’s why, he said, he refused to pay his projectionists, who went on strike, leading to a union picket line out front.
Schmitt said he couldn’t afford to pay union rates of $92.74 a week for 43.5 hours of work, plus $3.71 for the pension fund.
Before it closed the theater had been a member of the Allied Independent Theater Owners Association of Wisconsin and thus had a contract with the union. When Schmitt reopened it, the Park was entirely independent and had no contract with projectionists.
The action marked the first time in about 20 years that the union had picketed a theater, according to the article.
Ten days later, the Journal reported that Schmitt had closed the theater on Sept. 13, not, he claimed due to the union action, but rather due to “other adversities,” including his inability to pay the rent, the arrival of a film that was in poor condition and therefore presumably unplayable, plus a series of demands from the health department, including that he paint the auditorium as well as the lobby, “because of damage caused by high spirited children who threw ink on the lobby walls.”
And he still owed the projectionists their pay.
Schmitt said he planned to continue in the business, but not likely at the Park. He also claimed he’d run his own projector, bellowing that “the union won’t stop me,” though the union promised to picket any theater at which Schmitt worked as his own projectionist.
It was at this point that the theater appears to have been absorbed into the furniture business next door, where Prokop and Szatkowski had operated for 25 years, closing in 1931. (Notably, Prokop and Szatkowski listed the building for sale in 1923, but ultimately stayed on, although at that point it appears Propkop was on his own. The advertisement, below, offers a glimpse of the pre-vitrolite facade.)
While Mitchell’s Salon opened an outpost of its original Downtown location there for a time, the building appears to have continued its run as a furniture retailer and in 1946, Bilt-Rite Furniture became the latest business to add a Mitchell Street location.
An October 1946 ad boasted that Bilt-Rite was, “opening a beautiful new furniture store to serve you. The entire interior of our store has been brightened and newly decorated into a completely modern, colorful, brilliant shopping center designed to make your shopping enjoyable, convenient and efficient.”
Bilt-Rite had been founded on 3rd and Garfield by Irwin Kerns and his son-in-law Sol Forman. It’s now owned by the fourth generation of the same family.
At the time it opened the Mitchell Street location, Bilt-Rite tapped architect George Zagel to design the eye-catching pink and mint green vitrolite Art Moderne facade that covered nearly the entire front of the building. The old, more traditional fenestration was replaced with a pair of circular openings that flanked a two-story rectangle of glass block in the center of the wall.
Born in Milwaukee in 1893, Zagel had studied both engineering and architecture by the time he arrived in the practice of John W. Menge Jr. During World War I, Zagel served in the Army Corps of Engineers and then stayed on in Europe to study the architecture of France and Germany.
Returning to Milwaukee, he became one of the most in-demand architects in the city, designing more than 1,500 buildings over his long career.
Zagel’s facade endured for four decades before it was covered up with the steel panels, perhaps because some of the vitrolite was already failing.
In 2006, Bilt-Rite moved to a new, larger home – having long since closed its 3rd Street store – on 54th and Layton in Greenfield.
In 2010, the Robles Self-Service Center, the first social services office focused on assisting the South Side Latinx community, opened on the first floor, and has been there ever since.
Next door, in the vacant Park Theater space, McAdams – who bought the building in 2019 – plans to open a cafe and is considering naming it Bilt-Rite, if the furniture dynasty will allow it.
On the upper levels – where you can still see the old theater office in the front (pictured above) and the old performers quarters at the back – he’s working on plans for either artist studios, apartments or some combination of both.
At the back of the building at 723, on the top floor where there will be a large loft space for rent, he envisions a two-story apartment with access to the roof, where the views are quite spectacular.
Though there are very few traces left of the theater – a sloping space where the lobby was, for example – McAdams hopes he may find more when he begins work to remove a dropped ceiling and wall-covering panels in the former auditorium.
"I'd like to preserve anything I find," he says.
“I want Mitchell Street to thrive,” he says. “But also we want to be sensitive to maintaining its character.”
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.