By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 28, 2021 at 9:06 AM

With its boxy shape and little central peak on the parapet, the Boomtown-style wood frame building at 1241 N. Water St. looks straight out of the Old West, hence the “Boomtown” description.

But its pedigree is more Old Milwaukee.

Long the home of A. Werner, Silversmith, the building is now for sale, with an asking price of $990,000, which probably reflects the site more than the compact, two-story structure.

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The building has 3,520 square feet and a large adjacent surface parking lot. You can see the listing here.

“Location is everything with this listing,” says Nick Zurich of the Barry Company, which is representing the sellers.

“It’s right in the middle of the entertainment district and a block away from the Fiserv Forum. Businesses on this block see a lot of activity.”

Werner is pretty much the last remnant of “old Water Street,” since Milwaukee Moulding and Frame, 1215 N. Water, St. closed after 100 years, at the end of 2018.

The silversmithing business is shutting down and its owners – brothers Mike and Dennis Wied – are moving on.

“Milwaukee has changed a lot,” says Mike Wied. “This area used to be nothing but highway overpass. We just stayed here and watched Water Street grow around us.

“The market has been steadily slowing down. It takes a long time to train someone to take over a practice like silver work, so we decided it was time to sell.”

As poignant as it is to see the business vacate its longstanding home, it’s even more notable that the silver plating business started in the 1880s by recent Austrian immigrant Adolph Werner will cease to exist.

A little history

Adolph Werner was born Jan. 6, 1866 in Vienna, and, the story goes, his father Isidor sought to solidify Adolph’s future by giving him a trade.

To that end, the boy was apprenticed to a silversmith at the age of 13. But things did not go well.

According to his obituary 67 years later, “he was beaten, often because the master had too much fine Viennese wine under his belt.” Adolph ran away three times but was captured and returned on each occasion.

Somehow, in this toxic situation, the boy learned silversmithing and, in time, his master told him he was “good enough” to move on. Apparently, he could barely wait, because by 1885 (some sources say 1883, others 1888) he was on a boat to Milwaukee, where his family had friends.

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An 1899 ad for Adolph Werner's shop.
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Later in life, Werner would tell his son about that journey.

On the trip over, in steerage, Adolph befriended a woman who had brought along a four-foot loaf of bread and a bag of onions, which she split evenly with him. Twenty years later, a clergyman in South Dakota, who knew of Werner by reputation, sought the silversmith’s assistance in getting the man’s housekeeper into Milwaukee’s Sacred Heart Sanitarium.

Arriving in Milwaukee, the woman spent several days at the Werner home on Jackson Street, just north of Pleasant, where, while talking, they realized she was the woman on the ship all those years ago.

Once settled in Milwaukee, Werner opened a small shop on upper Third Street, where there was a bustling German-speaking community. Business was so good that his tiny space quickly became inadequate and he moved to the west side of Water Street, along the river, between Wisconsin and Mason.

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Werner's first Water Street location, seen from the river side. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library)
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He remained there for 22 years, doing all sorts of plating and repair work, but with a heavy load in religious objects, like chalices, ciboriums, pyxes and other sacred vessels.

In 1890, Werner married fellow Austrian immigrant Sophie Kohn, who had been born in Prague in 1864 and arrived in 1888.

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Adolph and Sophia Werner in a 1920 passport photo. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Jewish Museum of Milwaukee)
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Over the years, Werner would have a nice pot of stories to share with his kids. Like this colorful one from an 1898 Milwaukee Journal:

“A joke was perpetrated on the police and the public last night and this morning. Adolph Werner, silversmith of East Water Street, this morning found a lady’s hat and cloak on the dock above Grand Avenue bridge and back of the Pabst Building. With this was a note signed ‘B.A.,’ the writer evidently a woman who said life was not worth living and asking that the coroner bury her body without investigation.

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“The case was reported to the police and the life-saving crew was called to grapple for the body and succeeded in hooking a dummy of a woman on which was an advertisement for a theater. The chief of police gave the management of the theater 15 minutes to remove the dummy and the clothing, which was done. No legal action has been taken, the blame for the rough piece of horseplay being put on an advance agent who has left town.”

By the mid-1910s, Werner had moved to an even bigger space, further north on Water Street, to a place he sometimes called the Werner Building, next door to the building that is currently for sale.

It’s not exactly clear when the current went up. While the Wisconsin Historical Sociey dates it to 1895, it also notes that the original building permit is missing.

Others date it to 1888, which may be true, though that attribution might also derive from conflation with the date Werner opened his shop on Third Street.

It clearly was not 1895, since the structure appears on the 1894 Sanborn map, marked “saloon,” and we know that in 1891, Friedolin Weidma ran a tavern there.

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It is perhaps at this location that Werner’s son Leo, born in 1896, came into the business, learning the skills from his father.

A 1910 classified ad shows that Werner had sought to continue the apprenticeship system that earned him his skills, hopefully without the beatings this time around. Turns out, he had an apprentice right there in his own home.

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A 1909 advertisement.
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A 1916 ad.
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And one from 1929.
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The two worked side by side until 1938, when Adolph retired and set about seeing the world.

Leo took over the business and, in turn, kept it going – and thriving.

Just before Christmas 1950 – four years after Adolph’s death and nine after Sophie’s – a fire ravaged Edward Townsend Mix’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Marshall and Knapp Streets and many of the fine metal objects were feared destroyed.

By early January, however, the Journal could report, “Some of the pieces, at first glance hopelessly blackened by the flames, are back in use at services this Sunday.

“George Bersch, layman assistant to St. Paul’s pastor, the Rev. Stoddard Patterson, brought the sterling silver and the brass pieces to Leo Werner,” testing the silversmith’s skills.

“‘I don’t know,’ said Leo dubiously as he surveyed the damaged and sooty pieces, ‘but I’ll see what I can do. ... ‘This is a big job for me. I’ve been at it for 40 years and it is one of the few times I was uncertain of the outcome myself.’”

More recently, A. Werner did work on some objects at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran just before its 2018 fire. After the blaze, the objects came back to be cleaned and restored anew.

In addition to his obviously enviable silversmithing skills – and his involvement in Milwaukee Jewish groups – Leo was also a violinist, who performed with the Professional Men’s Orchestra.

In 1954, Leo died of a heart ailment at just 58 years old.

Fortunately, he’d taken on Douglas Wied, who was about 20, a year and a half earlier.

Wied would step into the void and run the place for about a half-century, before leaving it in the capable hands of his sons, Dennis and Mike, who joined him in the shop in 1973 and 1981, respectively.

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Mike Wied in the A. Werner, Silversmith shop.
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“He came home from Korea and his brother worked at Blatz over here and got him a job. They were from originally from up in Waupaca area,” says Mike Wied.

“He got a job there cleaning storage tanks for the beer. Third shift, cold, miserable. He went for a walk one day and there was a help wanted sign in the window and so he started working for the (Werner).

“He didn't know a lot. We have what we call these plater bibles, books on plating, and he basically just read up. And there were a lot of different platers around, and you get ideas from other guys.”

The learning curve was steep, so Wied spent a lot of time at the shop.

“He was here seven days a week, 12-, 14-hour days,” says Mike. “He couldn't afford help so he just did it."

Douglas Wied retired in the early ‘90s, but, says, his son, “he consulted with us for a few years. He didn't want to leave it completely. He'd come down and he did a lot of repairing and stuff for us and it was just something for him to do.”

It was the elder Wied that moved the shop into the current spot, which had previously been home to a diner, in 1956.

The place was a restaurant during Prohibition but returned to use as a tavern after Repeal in 1933, when it was operated by Cesare Cortese.

In the 1940s, George and Elizabeth Hug ran Hug's Grill there, before Alfred Rivas stepped in to operate the place.

“That was way before my time, but part of the reason why they moved in here was the city didn't like the building and they said it should go,” says Mike Wied.

“I was told and I'm not sure if this is right, but it had something to do with that building all had DC power in it. And they were trying to eliminate that and all of our machines were set up for DC. So then when they moved in here they had to be converted over.”

(The current building's service was converted from DC to AC in 1948.)

While the shop itself is quite small, with a couple glass cases containing silver pieces for sale, that’s because most of the first floor space is given over to the behind the scenes workshop.

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Inside the shop, above and below.
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Upstairs, a former apartment has long since been converted to storage.

In the public-facing area, there’s a vintage safe and a couple built-ins. Off to the left is where Mike Wied says his father told him the diner’s counter was located. The kitchen was in the back.

He says he’s never noticed anything that looks like a remnant of the old saloon days.

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Beadboard ceiling.
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There’s what appears to be original beadboard ceilings and just above the door you can see the trim outlining what was likely the original entrance footprint.

There’s later flooring and paneling, so it’s hard to know what survives underneath those.

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What’s next?

Wied says he and his brother contacted Barry Company about selling the building in 2017, but the pandemic moved that discussion to the back burner.

Then, Milwaukee Moulding and Frame closed and its building was sold. This past June, Dennis retired, leaving Mike to run the shop alone, which he says he will continue to do until the building is sold.

“My dad ran it for a lot of years by himself, but he was a lot younger,” Mike says. “I'm closing in on 60. Not that my wife is madly in love with me, but I think if I'm here all the time, it's not going to make things happy.”

Still happiness has been part of why the business has endured so long.

“I'm going to miss some of it,” says Mike. “I'm going to miss the customers and making people happy, but it's also a lot of stuff you're dealing with now as it's getting that much older and it's just more beat up. So it takes more and the cost of everything is going up for our supplies and you can't get everything you used to be able to get.

“I've been doing it for a long time. My son threw that at me. He goes, ‘Well, you did it longer than the Werners did, between grandpa and you.’ And I'm like, ‘I guess you're right.’"

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 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.