In small town America, the Main Street attorney’s office is a common sight, with the town’s local lawyer on view and accessible to passersby – just like a retailer – rather than tucked away in an office on an upper floor.
Milwaukee attorney Jay Urban has such an office in his hometown of Tomah. Now, he also has one right in the heart of the Third Ward, at 147 N. Broadway, facing directly onto Catalano Square.
“My front door is on the park,” says Urban, who lives a block away from the office, and whose previous office was up on Port Washington Road near Hampton Avenue.
“I was looking for something like I have up there in Tomah, that was close to a park where there's a music festival, because I sponsor that music festival, and I intend to sponsor this one. I'm sponsoring the Christmas festival here.”
The new office is an outgrowth of the COVID pandemic, when Urban found himself – like the rest of us – trying to distance and ended up working at home.
“My daughter was going to school and my wife also works,” he says. “I have an open concept at home, so, what I needed to have was a workspace that was close to home that was comfortable.”
After having worked for a period at the Iron Horse Hotel, he found this space in a former nail salon that occupied the street-level space in a four-story industrial building that’s been a Third Ward fixture since 1911.
Designed by architect Carl Ringer – who served as city building inspector the year the place was built – the structure was a project of developer Clemens H. Kalvelage, who had built the Jennaro Brothers building a few blocks north on Commission Row a couple years earlier.
Ringer's own office was a few blocks north on Broadway.
As I’ve written before, Ringer, born in Germany, got his start working for pioneer Milwaukee architect George Mygatt, where Henry C. Koch also started out.
Ringer also apprenticed with Edward Townsend Mix and worked as a construction foreman for James Douglas.
In 1881, Ringer started his own business and one of his first major commissions was the lovely Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church/Bethel Baptist Church, 2030 W. North Ave.
Interestingly, Ringer's sister Bertha, married Carl Benz and was instrumental in the first Mercedes-Benz cars.
According to Wikipedia, "On 5 August 1888, she was the first person to drive an internal-combustion-engined automobile over a long distance, field testing the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, inventing brake lining and solving several practical issues during the journey of 65 miles. In doing so, she brought the Patent-Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales."
In 1911, Mayor Emil Seidel appointed Ringer building inspector, a post he only held briefly, until a new mayor, Gerhard Bading, was elected the following year. Ringer returned to his practice, which by then had become C.F. Ringer & Son, because his son, Carl Jr., had come on board in 1904.
Among Ringer’s many other Milwaukee buildings are the 1891 Meinecke Toy Company, across from the Milwaukee Rep, at 110 E. Wells St.; the crockery wholesaler Edward Wild's house at 2932 W. McKinley Blvd.; and the cool 1927 Frei Gemeinde Society Clubhouse on Fond du Lac Avenue near 26th Street.
He also designed the Jennaro Brothers building for Kalvelage.
The building at 147 N. Broadway opened in 1912, offering “bookkeeping flats,” offices that included steam heat and bathrooms.
Over the years, it was home to numerous businesses, quite often printing companies.
In its earliest days it housed Magnesia Products, a poultry supplies company and by the 1920s, Forester Label Works, one of those printing companies that also provided bookbinding and other services.
By the ‘40s Printers Rule printing company was housed there and in the ‘50s Pipehagen Co. and Broadway Offset Plate Co. ... again, all printers.
Also in the ‘50s, the storefront served for a time as a tavern, though it was replaced by a furniture manufacturer and then a warehouse for H.F. Auler, a crafts and hobbies wholesaler.
Interestingly, though he was involved in many businesses – Belt Line Realty, National Blower Works and the Cream City Land Company – none of Kalvelage’s own businesses appear to have had offices there.
By the 1980s, there was a card and gift store and then an audio and video production rentals company. By the early ‘90s the upper floors had been converted to lofts and soon the retail space housed a series of salons.
(Yes, Urban has heard the jokes about “Better Call Saul” – in which an attorney has his office in a nail salon utility room.)
Urban had the interior stripped to the studs and hired top area craftsmen – like the Carin' Carpenters Jeff Bray and David Wake – to build and install bespoke pieces.
He had the interior brick cleaned, added hanging lights with Edison bulbs and had the original floor refinished.
There’s a lounge area, a pool table, a wide flatscreen television, a small Fender amp with a bass patched into it. In addition to certificates and diplomas, Urban has framed art and music memorabilia.
The open plan space, with a kitchenette at the back, feels as much party room as it does law office.
“I wanted it to be an entertaining space for marketing purposes and that kind of thing, open houses,” he says. “I do political fundraisers, so I think we'd do some of that here. But I plan on doing my depositions here, and if there's a Zoom component, I have a screen that comes down and we can do all that kind of stuff.
“But the other thing for my type of work, is there's still exhibits and paper and all that kind of stuff, so you really need to spread out. For example, if I would try a case in another town, I'd have to rent a hotel room or a suite or something like that, where you can lay out. For cases that I try in Milwaukee, this will be a much better space for that because then you can still use our main office for everybody else's work.”
While he loves the location – close to home, highly visible, in the happening Third Ward, right on the park – the building itself was also a draw, says Urban.
“The condo that I have now is the second condo that I have had in the Third Ward,” Urban says. “That one was a blank space and that was much more like this. This is much more faithful to what that was.
“I like restoring old, repurposing old places.”
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.