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There are plenty of good reasons to preserve the former saloon building at 266 E. Erie St. in the Third Ward, which Milwaukee Preservation Alliance announced last week was gifted to them by owners General Capital Group and Joseph Property Development.
Not least of those is that it is one of very few standing buildings to have survived the 1892 Third Ward Fire. Then there’s the fact that it was, for a time, a Miller Brewing tied house owned by the Milwaukee brewery, which despite its smaller size at the time, did everything it could to compete with the big boys – like Schlitz and Pabst – in the tied house game.
The distinctive building is also a remnant of the early Irish neighborhood that was dramatically altered by the fire, and is a rare example of a saloon constructed for a woman owner in the 1880s. It’s also tied to Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, a fixture in the Third Ward for 50 years, which used it as its student union.
Then, too, it was home to the Wreck Room, one of three important bars/clubs in the area – including The Factory and the M&M Club – for the LGBTQ+ community.
“This tavern has an incredibly rich 140-year history, and restoring it aligns directly with the core of MPA’s mission: protecting our city’s-built heritage,” says MPA’s Executive Director Emma Rudd.
“I cannot think of a more deserving project to take on.”
But, the building – which was locally designated as a landmark in 2014 – has been empty since a 2013 fire and the donors had sought to demolish and replace it, but were stymied in September by the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission.
At the time, HPC’s Tim Askin called the former saloon, “one of the most significant buildings in the Third Ward.
“The National Register listing declared it ‘pivotal.’ It is one of a handful of survivors of the 1892 fire and the only one representing the residential portion of the neighborhood. It is one of the only buildings directly associated with the Irish era of the Third Ward.”
There is a plan for the building’s future, but first let’s look at its history.
The site for the building was purchased from the estate of Irish Immigrant Thomas M. Knox, who had arrived in Milwaukee in 1846 after having studied in Paris and taking part in the 1830 French Revolution, according to the historic designation report prepared by the HPC in 2014, which provided some of the historical information here.
It is believed that Knox, a lawyer and notary, may have also served as a judge, before his death in 1876.
When she bought the point on land in 1884, Foley – born in 1842 as Catherine Magie – was a widow, having lost her husband Edward – a steamboat engineer – nine years earlier. Since then, she’d been earning a living for herself and her four children (one of whom died in 1877) running a saloon and keeping boarders at 112 Erie Street, where she was assisted by her brother John.
On March 19, 1884, Foley pulled a permit related to the construction of “a $3,000 brick house” on the triangle.
“This begs the question of how Catherine Foley was able to afford the construction of this building, given her widowed status,” noted the report. “At this time in this part of the Third Ward, masonry buildings were not that common and were expensive to build. Perhaps Catherine had
assistance from members of her husband’s family or her own family, the Magies. Perhaps she was able to leverage a mortgage on the property at 112 Erie Street or perhaps she sold that other property.
“A look at the fire insurance maps shows that Catherine’s building was the only masonry building used as a boarding house and saloon in the vicinity constructed at this time period. Catherine Foley chose her location well. The distinctive turret on her building and its rounded corner made for a building that was easily seen at the intersection of two streets and it was far more imposing than the frame structures around her.”
By 1885, the Foleys had moved into the new building, where she operated the saloon and rooming house. However, two years later, they appear to have moved on, while still holding on to the saloon property.
Foley had moved to Jackson Street (and later Van Buren) and the tavern was operated and inhabited by a succession of saloonkeepers including John Blum in 1888, Frank Belberick in 1889, William Murphy and then John Betz in 1891, and James McCarthy in 1891-93.
Of course, during the McCarthy years, the Third Ward Fire practically erased the entire neighborhood, destroying nearly 450 buildings, rendering 2,500 people homeless and killing five.
Although the saloon building survived, it stood amid a scene of terrible destruction and most of the neighborhood’s residents had been forced to move on, which could’ve surely compelled Foley to sell the building.
She did just that in 1894 to attorney (later a judge), philanthropist and real estate investor James Madison Pereles, whose father Nathan was the first Jewish lawyer in Milwaukee (and whose cousin was Lizzie Kander, author of “The Settlement Cook Book”).
But Pereles doesn’t remain in the story very long, selling the building to Miller Brewing just two years later.
Despite being the city’s fourth largest brewery, Miller was dedicated to keeping up with the big boys in the saloon business and it worked hard to build or acquire taverns as tied houses, which would sell Miller beer exclusively.
This strategy paid off when Prohibition arrived as the company’s real estate holdings helped Miller survive the dry years, as well as the Great Depression.
The fact that in 1898 Miller owned eight tied houses in the Third Ward alone offers some idea of the company’s focus on the saloon trade during that era. Around the dawn of the 20th century, Miller had more than 1,000 of taverns in 18 states. While mostly in the upper Midwest, there were Miller saloons in states as far away as Alabama and Montana.
During the Pereles era Cornelius Murphy operated the saloon and remained there until his death in 1906, at which time he was replaced by another string of keepers – such turnover was not uncommon – including Joseph Kernz (1907), Joseph Kermec (1908), Frank Franchich (1909-10), Mrs. May Holcomb (1911) and Mary O’Donnell (1912).
In 1912, Miller spent $4,000 on an addition to the rear of the building. The expansion was designed by Miller’s preferred architects, Wolff & Ewens (whose offices were located above a tied house they’d designed for the brewery), and built by contractor August Buchholz.
According to a 1917 tied houses spreadsheet in the Miller archives, at that time August Sell was operating the tavern, and he paid $1,331.53 that year in rent, which was 10 percent of the saloon's "book value." The tavern sold $432 in keg beer that year.
In 1919, Andrew Gussman applied for a tavern license there, but he didn't last long because soon after he bought and was operating another Miller tied house up on Cambridge and North Avenues.
Two years into Prohibition, Miller’s real estate arm, the Oriental Investment Co., sold the triangle saloon to John Mortle, who had already been operating the tavern for a couple years at that point.
Born in Saxony around 1888, Mortle arrived in the U.S. in 1904 and became a citizen six years later. By 1920, he was at the triangle tavern with his kids but no wife.
Mortle was divorced, but not for long.
In December 1921, he married German-born Anna Zangerl Halser. But that didn’t go too well.
By September 1924, Mortle sued her for divorce saying that, according to a newspaper report, “violence on the part of his wife was not only ruining his health but was ruining” their soft drink parlor business on Erie Street, which they owned jointly and was worth $28,000.
(“Soft drink parlor” was code during Prohibition for a saloon and this case was no different. Mortle, a former West Milwaukee law officer, was fined $200 in 1922 for violating Prohibition laws.)
“She chased him with a butcher knife and a hatchet, she threw cuspidors, glasses and other objects at him, and on one occasion shot at him with a .38 caliber revolver, he said. Unless she is restrained, he pleaded, she will drive his business away.”
In 1922, Halser’s 20-year-old son Charles had been arrested for beating Mortle in the tavern, knocking out six teeth. (Interestingly, a decade later, Charles was arrested again for breaking a window at the tavern after he was kicked out by his mother.)
Anna countered her husband’s accusations with a suit in March 1925, claiming that Mortle, “spent $900 in 10 days during one of his ‘sprees’.”
Whether it was his fault, her fault or something else entirely, Mortle was dead that summer.
The following year, Catherine Foley died at the age of 84 at her home on Frederick Street on the East Side.
After Mortle’s death, the tavern would remain in the family of his wife, Anna, who ran it with her new husband Joseph Walker – who changed the building’s exterior – from the late 1920s through the ‘30s and ‘40s, followed by Anna’s son John Halser, who continued running a boarding house there, too.
According to a 1953 permit, that side of the business had nine rooms with 13 residents.
The bar continued to be called Walker's Tavern even during Halser's era.
In 1972 – after a public auction was held to sell off everything from bar stools to a pool table to 10 beds, dressers and more, ending the long Mortl / Walker / Halser run – Wayne Bernhagen and Bill Kindt opened the Wreck Room, a leather bar.
“The Wreck Room was Milwaukee's first cowboy/ levi-leather bar,” according to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website. “The bar had a rustic but tasteful theme.
“By June of 1973, the Wreck Room became home to a newly formed club, Silver Star Motorcycle / Leather Club. Begun as a motorcycle club, it evolved into a combined motorcycle / leather social group, for which the Wreck Room was its sponsoring bar and hangout.
“In its heyday, the bar had three rooms plus a small outdoor patio. In addition to a large almost triangular shaped front room, there was a long and narrow back room with another bar, and a dark and narrow outside patio used more for sex than anything else. Although the front bar was reasonably respectable most of the time, the entire back section was renowned for availability of sex, with its dark atmosphere and crowded space on Friday and Saturday nights. There are also many rumors of after-hours sex parties on the pool table and in the basement.”
The bar also had a small leather shop called The Cell, the site notes, and Bernhagen sponsored many events including a softball tournament and a street festival.
“Unfortunately, the owner Wayne Bernhagen was an early victim of the AIDS epidemic, and died in 1987. (Bernhagen and Kindt had ended their relationship in 1980, and Bernhagen bought out Kindt's interest in the bar at that time. But when Bernhagen died, he left the bar to Bill Kindt, who held it until the end.)
“Although the bar carried on after Bernhagen's death, it began a gradual decline, partly as a result of his loss but also because the entire bar landscape was changing.”
The Wreck Room closed in 1996 and the building was sold to Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, which used it as a student union and coffee shop until a 2013 fire. It was sold and then locally landmarked the following year, which ultimately blocked the new owners from realizing plans to demolish the building and replace it with a new structure.
Catherine Foley’s old saloon has sat empty and decaying ever since.
That means that Milwaukee Preservation Alliance will have its work cut out for it in its attempt to rescue this threatened gem.
In fact, in a letter to the HPC, the developers’ architects The Kubala Washatko Architects – hired by GenCap Triangle in 2017 to study potential renovation and then again later to design the new building – suggested the building was not reasonably salvageable.
“Due to the condition of the structure resulting from the excessive foundation settlement and the (2013) fire, the only reasonable option is to raze the existing building and construct a new, volumetrically similar structure that is set upon a sound foundation that is architecturally appealing and will contribute to the Third Ward for future generations.”
It doesn’t take an expert to see the issues. From the sidewalk, passersby can see disintegrated masonry, bricks that have popped out, window sills propped up with 2x4s, holes in the roof, bowing walls and other woes.
“That's why the stabilization efforts are going to start immediately,” says MPA’s Rudd. "We've already contracted to get scaffolding put up on the (Menomonee) side to support that brick. We're going to get the roof tarped and covered just so it can survive the rest of winter, and then make sure that the foundation isn't disintegrating any further.”
Step inside and you can see fire damage, especially upstairs in the back, daylight entering where it shouldn’t, water damage and an interior that’s basically been ripped out (though there is some wainscoting in the saloon space that looks as if it might be original, or at least early).
So, what’s on tap for the future here?
“Our plan for the building,” Rudd explains, “is to move our office (here). The second floor would be MPA offices with a first floor reception and conference room in the addition. We’ll take the whole of the second floor, but we would probably lease some offices similar to what Arts@Large is doing (where MPA’s office is currently located).
“Eventually we’re hoping to hire more staff, but until that day comes kind of using it as a collaborative workspace. And then the first floor front portion would be leaseable space for all sorts of potential things. We want to do something that contributes (to the area); something that will hopefully re-activate the street.”
But first, MPA needs to raise about $3 million to fund the project, which it expects will take about eight months, with work hopefully getting under way by autumn.
Members of the MPA board are architects, engineers and contractors and have committed to work on the project, as have others.
“We've been really fortunate,” says Rudd. “A lot of people reached out. It was kind of a wonderful explosion of (offers of) help.”
MPA has some funding already, plus the promised in-kind assistance and also plans to begin a capital campaign, as well as seek historic tax credits.
“This has been just such a difficult thing for the last year or so,” says Matt Jarosz, who heads UWM School of Architecture and Urban Planning’s Historic Preservation Institute and is also on the Third Ward Architectural Review Board and the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission.
“It's been that way because (General Capital Group and Joseph Property Development) aren't an absentee developer just trying to make profit on a place. They're here, their offices are here, they do buildings here. They couldn't make it work. It is a tough one. It's going to be so expensive; it's never going to, like they say, pencil out.”
As a nonprofit, says Rudd, MPA isn’t in the same position as a private developer in terms of expectations for a project such as this one.
“We are taking this building on fully expecting that we will not make money off of this,” she adds. “And then as a nonprofit, we also qualify for grants that private developers may not necessarily qualify for.”
The work will be manifold, and, says Rudd, the building will basically be deconstructed and rebuilt to its original design with as much of the original material as possible.
“We've talked about potentially just trying to patch it, but the roof needs to be replaced, the foundation needs to be redone and resupported ... the other side's bulging out. So really it's kind of a build it from the ground up, but we're going to do everything we can to savage as much of it as possible to keep it historically correct.”
Such intensive work opens up a whole preservation philosophy discussion, says Jarosz.
“It is very, very challenging to restore it properly for many reasons,” he explains. “It's just gone neglected for so long. You have to reconstruct so much of it.
“Then it is not the building that was there that survived the fire,” Jarosz says. “(It’s) pushing the limits ... of authenticity. It's an intriguing preservation dilemma. But I'm happy to – and will – be working with MPA.”
Rudd says that the next step for MPA, in addition to stabilization and fundraising, is digging into the history of the building so that it can best determine how the structure originally looked and make a plan for restoring it to its state during its period of significance.
“We really want to dive into what did Catherine Foley's tavern look like? What did it look like when it was a student union and how far back can we get pictures? When did the addition come on? Different things like that.”
Rudd, who says she hopes the project can be completed by 2025, surely hadn’t expected to spend her 2024 working on something like this, right?
“Yeah,” she says, “we were very pleasantly surprised. That was not something that we were expecting. It's something that we certainly pursued after the fact, but it kind of happened organically.
"I want to say that we approached them and just said, ‘what are your plans? We know that you're not going to tear it down after HPC. Thank you for that.’
“At first we were interested in purchasing it, but then the more we talked to them realized that it would be kind of beneficial for both parties to do it as a donation. We could not be more thrilled with General Capital Group and Joseph Property Development’s willingness to work with us throughout the donation process, and their commitment to preservation and transparency.”
General Capital Group added this statement, "General Capital and Joseph Property Development have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the City of Milwaukee, and it became apparent that working collaboratively with MPA was the best path forward to meet the City’s desired objectives for the property given its historic nature."
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.