By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 05, 2023 at 11:23 AM

The owners of a distinctive 1884 triangle saloon building in the Third Ward are seeking to demolish the structure. At its meeting on Monday, Sept. 11, the City of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission will take up the issue.

On the agenda for the meeting is a, “Resolution relating to a Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition of 266 E. Erie Street, the Miller Tavern / Catherine Foley Building, an individually designated historic site, for GenCap Triangle LLC.”

The tavern was built by Irish widow Catherine Foley in 1884, eight years before fire destroyed nearly 500 buildings in the Third Ward. Upon Foley’s death the following decade, Miller Brewing bought the property and in 1912 added on to the building.

Beginning in 1972 the Wreck Room, a prominent LGBT bar occupied the building. From 1996, MIAD used it as its student union until a 2013 fire. It sold the structure two years later.

According to a letter to the HPC from The Kubala Washatko Architects – who were hired by GenCap Triangle in 2017 to study potential renovation and then again later to design the new building – the owners want to build a new four-story office building on the site with a commercial space on the ground floor.

“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.”

However, according to a staff report prepared by Tim Askin for the commission, “This building is 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.

“Before the fire of 1892, the Third Ward had been a heavily Irish neighborhood. The Italian association with the Third Ward came only after the fire. The building is one of few survivors of the LGBTQ+ history of the Third Ward. Most of the LGBTQ+ sites were lost to the construction of Interstate 794.”

Askin’s report also notes that, “fines have been accruing since 2017 because of the state of neglect and disrepair. The current fine balance is $4,673.60.”

The building was designated as a historic property by the City of Milwaukee in 2014.

Askin’s recommendation is to deny the request for demolition of the property, opining that, “None of the criteria for demolition are met.”

Earlier this year, when the Third Ward's Architectural Review Board opted not to discuss the matter, the the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project issued statements in opposition to the demolition.

“The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project stands with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance in preserving our historical properties for future generations.

“The former Wreck Room Saloon (266 E. Erie St.,) one of the most unique and most storied properties in the Historic Third Ward, has quickly become one of Milwaukee's most endangered buildings – despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984 and being protected by local historic designation.”

The letter from the architects argues that the condition of the building means that, “Any attempt at reconstruction will result in a building that is a facsimile of the current building. The replication contradicts the integrity of historic preservation, instead creating a ‘Disney’ like imitation, rather than a legitimate historic ‘restoration’.

“Demolition of the existing building presents the opportunity to build a new structure that is sympathetic in scale, integrity, and longevity.”

The meeting will take place at City Hall at 3 p.m. in room 301-B.

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 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.