More than 60 years ago, a Milwaukee building owner hoped to get the city or county to buy her property. The new freeway built a few yards away, she argued, had isolated the bar from its neighborhood and its customers and diminished the business.
She was not wrong, but still, neither entity took the deal.
What’s more amazing?
More than a half-century later, business continues to boom at the bar and restaurant located in the beautiful 1889 turreted cream city brick building at 1900 W. St. Paul Ave. in the Menomonee Valley.
In fact, things have been so good that Sobelman’s is now the second-longest-tenured tavernkeeper in the building and likely to soon become the longest, set to surpass the Zaffiro family in about two years.
“They were here 25 years,” Dave Sobelman says of the Zaffiros. “We're on 24 years.”
And while Dave and Melanie Sobelman recently closed their two other Sobelman’s locations – for a couple reasons, neither of which was a lack of business – the original spot is still doing well, and now they’ve made a successful go of converting one of the upper floors into an Airbnb, too.
Isolated from its original neighborhood? Sure. Diminished? It sure doesn’t seem so.
The history of the place – located in the West St. Paul Avenue Industrial Historic District, added to the National Register in 2018 – is a long one, but an interesting one and I hope you’ll join me for the ride...
In June 1889, Schlitz Brewing – which built many tied houses (typically, saloons owned by breweries and leased to operators who sold that brewer’s beer exclusively) in Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond – filed a permit with the city to construct a three-story “store and dwelling” on the northwest corner of 19th and St. Paul.
It appears, however, that only the first two stories went up initially, at a cost of $5,000.
Constructed by builder John Stabelfeldt, the saloon – which had a tavernkeeper’s apartment on the second floor and rooms for rent on the third – was completed by early the following year. And it was a beautiful one. This was unsurprising as Schlitz often built elaborate tied houses.
Read more articles about Milwaukee tied houses here.
A second permit, in 1890, allowed for the addition by contractor William Kasten of the third floor – which housed rooms for rent – and a small one-story addition at the rear. The later addition of the top floor is perhaps why the turret stops at the second floor.
Designed by the brewery’s preferred Milwaukee architect Charles Kirchhoff, the three-story cream city brick and stone building, as described by the National Register nomination form for the district, “features two primary facades facing each street respectively with a canted corner entry. Brick pilasters and exterior walls continue on the second and third floors.
“A second-story corner turret features three, nine-over-one, double-hung sash windows (not original) and a denticulated cornice. The parapet is embellished with extended high pilasters and a gabled parapet at the corner with a large Schlitz globe trademark located prominently within the gable.”
The first tenant to operate the saloon was Frank Meixner, Jr., and at least four men rented rooms, including a cabinet maker and two molders, all of whom likely worked in the industrial Menomonee Valley area adjacent to the saloon.
The Illinois-born Meixner had come over from a saloon he was operating on McKinley Avenue and he seems like he was one saloonkeeper you wouldn’t want to mess with.
One of a number of news reports mentioning his puglistic exploits notes that he took part in a “go-as-you-please” bare-knuckle prize fight with no rounds called and no time-keeping in which, “At the end of 20 minutes Meixner gave (Tony) Klomann a powerful face blow knocking him down in a senseless condition. Klomann failed to come (to) and the match and money ($26 a side) were awarded to Meixner.”
Interestingly, while both the 1894 and 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps note that the building was called the Marine Hotel, I found no other such references to it in newspapers. There was, however, another Marine Hotel across town.
Anyway, by 1985, Mexiner, his wife Katie and their seven kids had moved on (to 27th and Vliet) and were replaced behind the plank by Augusta Meske, who had previously been running a tavern just a block east on the northwest corner of 18th and St. Paul.
Meske was born in Germany in 1841 and arrived in the U.S. in 1867. By the time she arrived at the Schlitz saloon, she was a widow whose saloonkeeper husband appears to have left home one Sunday morning and never returned. Later, he turned up dead in Kilbourn City (aka Wisconsin Dells) in 1891, leaving his widow only their wedding ring, leading her to contest his will.
Meske and her sons were no strangers to controversy and in 1892, while still at the other tavern, she and three of her sons and one of her daughters ended up in a melee at the bar in a battle over possession of a model ship.
When the police showed up, one of the Meske boys threatened police with a “baseball club,” another hoisted a rifle and after shots were fired – either by police or the man was unclear – the daughter grabbed the gun and said, ‘I’ll blow the brains out of any man that attempts to enter the door’.”
Most of them ended up hauled away to jail, though Joseph Meske also ended up with a bullet in his leg.
Meske ran the saloon and rooming house until roughly 1902-03, around the time Schlitz added a barn to the property, moving to a tavern just up the street at 19th and Clybourn.
This is appears to be when the Kunz family arrives on the scene and for reasons unknown it is upon the Kunz family that the registration form and previous articles have focused.
Interestingly, as was the case with the Meskes, it was a woman, Christina Kunz, who ran the show.
Born Christina Dettweiler, Kunz was the widow of tavern man John P. Kunz, who’d had a place on South 16th Street back in 1890. But since his passing, she’d been operating saloons herself, most recently at around 14th and Juneau.
“The Kunz family operated the tavern and served all three shifts of workers in the Menomonee River Valley,” notes the registration form.”
Kunz, 48, managed the saloon and 42-year-old Louis C. Ristow managed the hotel. But they were more than colleagues, it seems. In 1900, back on Juneau Avenue, Ristow – who had worked as a barber – was boarding with the Kunz family. In 1910, the two were married.
But, sadly, Ristow died died suddenly, dropping dead, presumably of a heart attack, at 3rd and Clybourn while exiting a streetcar.
Perhaps heartbroken, perhaps unable to run two businesses by herself, Kunz left.
In 1912, when a three-year feud culminated in the murder of 40-year-old Hungarian immigrant Stephen Daley right outside the saloon, a Steve Nyers was running the place and he was there at least a couple years.
By 1918 – the year that Christina Kunz died on the same date, July 30, as her husband had seven years earlier – Hungarian immigrant Joe Dunkowich (aka Dunkovich) was on site running the bar and the hotel.
The following year, Dunkowich reapplied for his saloon license, but for naught, as Prohibition arrived at the dawn of 1920, forcing him to pivot to selling soft drinks, which didn’t last too long.
Within a couple years, Michael Nikich was operating the business. (NOTE: While the registration form notes that Frank and Mary Patock were running the place around this time, no other evidence supports this and, in fact, another National Register report notes that at this time, the Patocks were saloonkeepers at a Schlitz tied house on 25th and Greenfield.)
After a brief appearance behind the bar of one Ignatz Lachenmayer in the mid-1920s, another Hungarian immigrant, John Szalai, moved in with his family and took over.
By 1930, Szalai and his wife Elizabeth, who lived in the saloonkeeper’s apartment upstairs, had nine kids, four of whom had been born in the old country.
After Szalai’s Place came Johan (John) and Mary Glazer in the early-mid-1930s, who got to celebrate Repeal in 1933. The Glazers' son, John Jr., also worked at the bar.
The elder Glazer was a Croatian immigrant, from the town of Antunovac, according to his great-grandson Curt Glazer.
Johan Glazer was born in 1887 and married Mary Herbert in 1912, just before departing for America with a brother and two brothers-in-law. After getting settled, the men sent for their wives that same year.
Before they operated the St. Paul Avenue tavern, the Glazers had a small corner store on 33rd and Clifton Avenue, a street that's now buried beneath I-94 and the westbound 35th Street off-ramp.
They were followed in the saloon by another Croatian immigrant Andrew Podrovic, who was killed in 1941 in a car crash near the county line on Bluemound Road. It's possible, Curt Glazer points out, that the Glazers knew Podrovic via their shared Croatian roots, but we don't know that for sure.
By 1943, John Schofer had opened the Gas House Tap in the saloon and thankfully, he believed in advertising as his newspaper ads offer some clues to what the venue was like.
Summer 1943 ads said, “Now open, Milwaukee’s newest, modern cocktail bar. Johnny Schofer, prop. It’s new! It’s different! Entertainment nitely.”
Schofer was well-acquainted with the hospitality business. His irish-born parents were tavernkeepers and Schofer also had experience as a hotel clerk in Waukesha.
By 1945, Nick Sorci had been hired as manager and Gas House Tap added food, including “Italian spaghetti,” sandwiches, southern fried chicken and steaks. Live music included organists and “rhythm pianist” Harriet Schofer with Al Coca, “romantic crooner.” I’d have especially loved to check out Bob Berg’s “atomic burst of radiating piano rhythms.”
At least one ad references a grand piano, though where they’d have shoe-horned that into the tiny tavern is a mystery.
Interestingly, Schofer appears to, at least for a time, have focused on the first floor, leaving the hotel floor vacant.
The following year, however, Schofer sold the Gas House Tap to Frank and Benedetto Ceraso and their sister Rose Bloom, who was married to fruit and veg “huckster” Peter Bloom. (Schofer, however, did not leave the saloon game. In 1949, he could be found pouring drinks at the Ball O’Fire at 11th and Clybourn.)
The Ceraso family seems to have kept things pretty similar, maintaining the name, the live music, the food. To the piano they added a “Solovox,” which was a keyboard attachment to create organ-like accompaniment.
But around the time that the divorced Rose married Herbert Koerner in 1951, the building – on the third floor of which the rooms had by then been converted to two larger apartments – was listed for sale.
It would seem that the Cerasos had already purchased the property from Schlitz, since the ad offered the business either as part of the deal or to be sold separately. Schlitz would’ve only been in a position to sell the building, had it still owned it.
However, it was not sold at this time and instead was re-branded in 1952 as the Ranch Bar, “newly redecorated, under the same management.”
The following year, Italian immigrant Joe Albanese and his wife Frances left their Palm Beach tavern on the northeast corner of Juneau and Water behind and leased the Ranch from Rose and her brothers.
Born in Bari, Albanese came to the U.S. in 1919. He and Frances, born here to Calabrian immigrants, opened the Palm Beach in 1942. They operated the newly renamed Ranch House until 1961, when they moved up to Riverwest and opened Albanese’s at 701 E. Keefe Ave. (That restaurant closed was sold in 2008 and closed in 2009, though the family operated other Albanese's locations in Mequon and Waukesha.)
In the meantime, Milwaukee had begun to build its freeway system and the main east-west highway out of Downtown not only cut through the Ranch House neighborhood, it ran two doors north. While for decades Clybourn Street was a 30-second walk up 19th Street, now to get to 19th and Clybourn from 19th and St. Paul, one had to go east to 13th Street or west to 25th Street to get to the other side of the freeway.
This led Rose to go first to the Land Commission and then to the Common Council’s Streets Committee to request that one or the other entity buy her property.
At the Land Commission, she argued, that her property was isolated and, “access has been diminished because of a segment of an expressway. Commissioners turned thumbs down on the request with the general opinion that it was a County Expressway Commission problem. The building, which has a restaurant and tavern on the first floor, flat on the second and apartments on the third, is owned by Mrs. Rose Koerner and her brothers Frank and Ben Ceraso.”
“Commissioners said they were in sympathy with the problem but contended it was not within their jurisdiction.”
Meanwhile, she told the Streets Committee, “that the expressway has ‘destroyed all access and value’ of her property and officially asked (it) to recommend the city purchase the land and buildings. The request of Mrs. Rose Koerner, owner of the property, was referred to the city attorney after aldermen agreed more information was needed.
“The City Plan Commission reported there was no public need for the property and recommended against city purchase. Elmer Krieger, representing the commission, said it was a policy matter and it would be up to the council to make an exception to existing policy.”
Thus, she listed it for sale for $16,900 and Sebastian Zaffiro, who had been managing his brother Bobby’s pizzeria on Farwell Avenue, bought it and continued to run it as the Ranch House with his wife Yvonne, remaining there a quarter-century.
Despite the disconnect created by the freeway, the Zaffiros made a good go of it in the valley, catering to the businesses in the area, many of which operated around the clock.
“Geuder, Paeschke & Frey had three shifts,” Dave Sobelman reminds. “He’d close at 2:30 (a.m.) and when they’d get off at 7 in the morning, they come here and start drinking. He used to cash (payroll) checks.”
“My parents started running it July 1961,” says their daughter Vicky Zaffiro-Feerick. “Mom was pregnant with me. They may have rented for a very short time before buying. As long as I remember they owned it.
By this era, the piano was gone, says adds, and there weren’t the kitchen facilities to bring over Uncle Bobby’s classic pizza.
“Just frozen pizza,” she recalls. “There was a grill with burgers, fries and other stuff like that during lunchtime for first and secondnd shift workers at the factories and the post office. Also, frozen sandwiches that were heated in a toaster oven any time.”
Unfortunately, the Zaffiros were frequently targets of thieves. Armed robbers stole money in 1967, in 1968 and in 1970, when a shootout between police and two thieves led to the death of 29-year-old patrolman George Fish.
That holdup, Zaffiro told the press, was the fourth since he’d taken over less than a decade earlier. In this one, Zaffiro was struck with the butt of a shotgun and hit over the head with a bottle.
“His insurance was canceled in July because of the risk and as such he didn’t keep large amounts of money at the tavern,” the Journal wrote.
"Mom and I were in the car when we heard on the radio, 'There was a robbery at The Ranch House Tavern. A police officer and possibly a bartender were shot.' I remember crying, thinking Dad may have been shot," Vicky Zaffiro-Feerick recalls.
"When we got home ... Mom and my brother Chick went to the hospital. John Frisch and Tom Barrett (Yes. That Tom Barrett) stayed with my brother Rick and I. When they got home Dad had the largest, darkest bruise on his back from being hit by with the butt of a gun. His hair was sticky from being hit over the head with a bottle of lime flavored vodka."
In 1977, Zaffiro was robbed again and, two years later, the 1970 tragedy was reignited when a fugitive in the case was captured in Iowa.
Almost immediately afterward, a man convicted in the robbery who had been paroled in 1976, was murdered at his home before his scheduled testimony against the captured fugitive, according to newspaper reports at the time. The suspected shooter was a man who was charged in an Iowa bankrobbery with the fugitive.
Then, on May 23, 1986, as Zaffiro returned to the bar from a nearby bank, where he’d withdrawn money to cash checks for customers, two men waited for him. Shooting him twice in the head, they took the money.
Zaffiro died of his wounds three days later and two men were arrested, charged and convicted.
But that was little consolation for the loss of a husband, a father, a friend.
“Sebby was married 35 years to Yvonne, a golf fanatic, a bowler, skier, softball player, a man who would rather eat spaghetti than steak, didn’t know how to change a light bulb but insisted he would build a doll house when his first grandchild was born,” wrote the Sentinel. “Two or three thousand attended his wake and funeral.
“Several customers armed themselves and went out searching for the shooters, which reportedly led them to surrender, they were afraid of being shot on the street.”
Zaffiro’s daughter Vicky recalls that at the time, her dad was planning a big celebration.
“He was planning a huge party for the bar’s 25 anniversary and his 55 birthday in July 1986,” she says. “He was going to have a pig roast and charge 1961 drink prices. I couldn’t believe he remembered them!”
Though the family attempted to keep the business going, as you can imagine, it was not easy. Just showing up every day had to be torturous.
“They leased it out to somebody for like nine months,” Sobelman recalls. “It didn't work out.”
After a deal fell through with another buyers, they sold on a land contract to Mike Christodoulakis, who owned Michael’s Family Restaurant nearby.
Christodoulakis named the place for his wife Marge and it was run by Marge’s son, Johnny, Sobelman says.
But when that didn’t work out, Johnny forfeited the liquor license and so Christodoulakis came up with an alternate plan.
He offered the building to his Michael’s employees Melanie and Dave Sobelman, who were considering it. (Interestingly, Melanie’s mother was a bartender at Marge’s.)
“Johnny had it for 11 years or so, and then they had a figh,” says Sobelmant. “One day, (my wife) Melanie is working (at Michael’s) and they take her Downtown and she became the agent for the liquor license. Before we even said yes.”
But, they did say yes and in 1999, Marge’s became Sobelman’s.
“I kind of thought if it didn't work out, I'll suffer through the five years – I had a five-year land contract, so it'll be paid for in five years – and so I'll just suffer through it and ultimately it work out,” Sobelman says.
Now, the Sobelmans have made a name for themselves via their beloved burgers, and for their stewardship of the building, their renovation of which won them a Mayor’s Design Award before the work was even completed.
Athough the upper floors had gone back to being rented as rooms, a fire in one of those rooms led to the conversion of the second floor into office and storage space for the business and, later, the build-out of an apartment to serve as a sort of lounge-y office that’s now rented via Airbnb on the third floor.
Sobelman’s has been featured on three Travel Channel shows, and stop in pretty much any time, any day and you’ll see that business is good.
Sobelman loves history and especially loves the history of his building and its street. Upstairs he’s got framed enlargements of historical photos of the tavern and nearby buildings, including Dirty Helen’s place, which was just across the street.
Though he’s happy and successful, Sobelman does think back to how the street used to be.
“On this north side of St. Paul,” he says, pointing out things in the enlargements, “to think that in these photos right over there are duplexes, houses right here, there's a house. I have a picture I have on 17th where the house is not on St. Paul, but it's kind of set back here. You'd have to go up some serious steps. ...
“There was a tavern to the west of here (owned by the Zeidler family), three taverns at 18th Street (including Dirty Helen’s and the one run by Augusta Meske). This photo is of (a bar) on 7th and St. Paul. Here’s one that’s where Third Space is now, on 15th. ... Taverns from here all the way down the avenue.
“Now, I’ve got the last one.”
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.