Let’s be honest, Von Trier, 2235 N. Farwell Ave., feels like it’s been on the corner of Farwell and North for absolutely ever, right?
Forty-five years of holiday parties for the likes of Beans & Barley and Milwaukee Art Museum. Forty-five years as a place for college students and neighborhood residents alike to enjoy a good German beer (and popcorn) in an evocative space, and perhaps the city’s first modern beer garden. Many years of beloved annual Christmas decorations.
That’s pretty amazing. But it’ll take nearly a decade for the over-the-top-German-themed tavern and restaurant to match the tenure of its predecessor, Rieder’s, which occupied the building (and an earlier one on the same site) for a whopping 54 years!
This, then, is not only a story about the iconic, long-lived Von Trier, but also of Rieder’s, whose history begins on that corner in 1924.
And, unsurprisingly, the built history of that site goes back even further, but a lot of that story is cloudy, in part due to a written record with the city that only dates back to 1911 for that site, but that also includes a few earlier documents (dated 1902 and 1910) that appear to be for a different property a little further south on the block.
That’s likely because, as was the case for some streets in Milwaukee that were still adding properties in the early 20th century, house numbers changed even before the city-wide house numbering reset in 1931 changed them all again.
So, while the address of the building was 437 Farwell at the time the current numbering system was launched, in 1910 and before, 437 Farwell was located just one lot north of Kenilworth (where now you can enjoy froyo).
Anyway, with that disclaimer in place, I vow to do my best here, but if you’ve got more solid info amid this numeric rebus, I’m all ears.
We have no date for when the original corner building was constructed, though we can see it on the 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, where it’s listed as a 48-foot long two-story store building with a corner entrance where Von Trier’s entrance is today.
Just to the south on the map is a two-story frame dwelling, which is likely the house whose first floor is now Von Trier’s back room.
On the 1910 map, both buildings can still be seen but now there’s a small single-story triangular store building attached to the corner store.
Interestingly, that 1911 permit I mentioned was a building permit for that small shop, which suggests the online 1910 Sanborn is actually an updated version, at least that section of it.
The building at the time was owned by a John J. Morkin.
On these maps, the corner building is 453 Farwell and the home is 449. The small added building in 451. But, as I said, 453 would later be changed to 437.
The house actually was a home for many years and the upper floor appears to have remained an apartment until 1981 when the staircase up to it was closed off during the conversion of the first floor into Von Trier’s back room.
As early as 1898 it was home to a Dr. W.T. Nichols and his family and in 1916 another doctor, W.P. Barrett – a Marquette alum and Wisconsin College of Physicians and Surgeons grad – lived there. Later, a small White Tower restaurant building popped up just in front.
As for the corner building, the earliest reference I could find was in 1886 when it was used as a polling place on election day.
Morkin arrived sometime in 1908-09, after having run taverns on Milwaukee Street in the Third Ward and then over on Oakland Avenue.
Born to Irish parents in London, Canada, in 1859, Morkin arrived in the U.S. 20 years later. In 1900 he married Chicago-born Alice Coughlin, who was 20 years his junior.
While living above the Farwell Avenue saloon, the Morkins had two young sons and Alice’s mother was also living with them, which might have been a little weird considering Morkin and his mother-in-law were basically the same age.
After Morkin’s death in 1913, Michael Lyons arrived from just up the street, where he ran the tavern that later would become the long-time home of Vitucci’s, from 1908 until 1913, while living upstairs.
Lyons – who had worked a number of years as a horseshoer before getting into the tavern business – was still on Farwell when Prohibition arrived, living above the saloon with his wife Elizabeth (nee Burke).
Before long, however, one of Lyons’ former neighbors appeared on the scene.
Next door to Lyons’ previous tavern (the one that was later Vitucci’s), the Rieder family had operated a bakery and confectionary since 1912.
Frank X. Rieder, who opened the shop, had traveled an interesting path to Farwell Avenue.
Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1887, Rieder learned candy-making and baking in his native country, but soon found himself plying his trade in hotels in Rome and Naples, on the French Riviera and even in Alexandria, Egypt. Later, Rieder came to America and landed a gig at New York’s prestigious Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Heading west, he stopped in Chicago before arriving in Milwaukee in 1912 and apparently immediately opened his own place on the East Side, where he joined the East Side Businessmen’s Association.
In 1924 – eight years after he married Austrian-born Mary Pernusch – Rieder retired from the confections game. Two years earlier, Mary had started her own business making meat and vegetable pies out of the North Avenue bakery.
But by “retired,” Rieder obviously didn’t mean he’d quit working. Instead, he took over the tavern (I mean, “soft drink parlor”) above which he lived with his family, which now included 7-year-old Frank Jr., 2-year-old daughter Mary Jane and infant son Robert.
Rieder didn’t waste any time putting his own stamp on the place, either. In 1924, he changed the storefront of the one-story retail building – which over time would house a variety of businesses, including an electrical shop and Mrs. Rose M. Wiener’s cosmetics store – and two years later, altering the storefront of the saloon, too.
For part of the Prohibition era, Rieder got out of the tavern game, and in the late 1920s and as late as 1933 – the year Repeal arrived – the saloon space on the corner was occupied by Bissell’s Waffle Shop.
In 1930, Rieder built a second-story "porch" addition to the small retail building, but with walls, windows and a roof and voila, the upstairs apartment was expanded.
At the same time he was renting the former cosmetics shop to John Lass for use as a tavern, though that doesn’t appear to have lasted long, as soon enough, in 1937, Rieder himself was back in the business and would remain so until his death in 1946.
In the meantime, in 1935 Frank Jr. had graduated from Riverside High School and soon found himself behind the bar at the family saloon.
During World War II – most of which time Frank Jr. was in the army – Rieder’s was, according to a history on the Von Trier website, “one of several ‘Super Bars’ that served factory workers around the clock.”
Six months after Mary passed away after an extremely brief illness, Frank Sr. died at the age of 58, the day after arriving at his summer home in Elkhart Lake for a vacation.
Frank Jr. and his little brother Bob were now the owners of an East Side saloon.
And like father, like sons. The boys didn’t wait long to hatch and carry out some new plans.
By late September 1949, Stein Wrecking & Trucking had been hired to tear down the corner building and its little addition. By mid-October, the structure was gone and three weeks later the foundation was history, too.
In its place was to be a new building, designed by architect Walter G. Memmler, most of whose Milwaukee-area work is residential. Interestingly, the modernist Memmler also designed a log home on Lake Michigan north of Oostburg.
Memmler served on the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals and Fire and Police Commission, and was an officer in the Wisconsin chapter of the AIA and the Wisconsin Building Congress.
What he designed is more or less what you see today, at least on the exterior, though the Germanic mural and other similar adornments came much later.
Inside, the place was an ultra-modern cocktail lounge, presided over by the ever-formal Frank Rieder Jr.
According to the Von Trier history, “the bar was ... an upscale cocktail lounge that served imported beers and specialty cocktails in a friendly atmosphere with a juke box playing entirely classical and European music. For nearly 30 years, Frank Rieder ran the bar with aplomb.”
He also ran it in a bow-tie, short jacket and cummerbund.
In 1958, Rieder added a modernist abstract mural above the bar that was painted by Layton School of Art history teacher Bill Lachowicz.
A 1972 article noted, not entirely accurately, “His bar features imported beer and ale and stained glass windows by Erhard Stoettner, T.C. Esser’s peerless glass maker. Rieder’s family has had a tavern on that corner since the year before Prohibition – the Oriental Theater site then was occupied by streetcar barns – 20 years before many of the patrons of Hooligan’s were born.”
Two years later, another scribe wrote more prosaicly:
“There comes a time when you and yours just want to sit and sip. And this we do at Rieder’s, the best alternate bar I know of, totally lacking in what Joe Boyd used to call ‘tour bus people.' The ambience is that of a classy hotel men’s bar, with a mellow glittering of mirrors, polished wood and big stained glass windows that once provided a veritable cathedral glow for your sunset martini.
“Frank Rieder, the proprietor, is straight off a Cunard liner in his starched white bar jacket and black bow tie. The jukebox is packed with such golden oldies as Carmen Dragon’s 'Las Chiapanecas' and Fritz Kreisler playing 'Andante Cantabile.' Milwaukee Symphony musicians like to meet here after a concert, still in white tie and tails, to drink Student Prince steins of Pschorr Brau and Bass Ale.
“Unfortunately the place is now open evenings only, Thursday through Sunday. Look to see if the sign is lit.”
Part of the reason for those abbreviated hours, according to Frank Jr., were the disturbances a few years earlier in the city and later at nearby Water Tower Park that spilled over onto Farwell and North.
“The action of 1967 and 1970 cut his business so drastically that he now runs the bar alone,” the Journal reported in 1972. “‘I’m open five nights a week. We never really recovered but we get along’,” Rieder told the paper.
Perhaps it was no surprise that by 1978, after 54 years, the Rieder’s era came to a close on the liveliest intersection on the East Side.
That June, Rieder sold the property to Karl Lotharius, owner of Oliver’s Cabaret at 782 N. Milwaukee St.
Lotharius – who had been born in Trier, Germany in 1934 and arrived in Milwaukee 23 years later – told the newspapers that he planned to reopen by July 1 and that he expected to run the place, “in the tradition of Mr. Rieder,” featuring imported beers and keeping the “low-key atmosphere.”
He did, however, plan to add more lighting and expand the hours.
But by the following April, Lotharius was advertising the newly renamed Von Trier as a “German lounge,” and in 1981 he pulled permits to remodel the first floor and to expand into the house next door by creating a connection on the east end of the bar.
That work was completed in 1981 and with the addition of the monumental old Gaggia espresso machine from Frenchy’s; the covering of the modernist mural with a German landscape painting; the adorrnment of darn near every surface with some Teutonic-themed painting or knick-knack; mounted antlers and wrought-iron doors, the transformation was complete.
The new murals were painted by UWM student Mike March, who, fortunately, just covered over Lachowicz’s work rather than destroying it. In 2017, the old mural was uncovered and remained on display for a brief time before being moved to storage, where it currently remains.
“Undoubtedly the most famous piece of décor at Von Trier is the wrought-iron chandelier crafted by Austrian immigrant and Milwaukeean Cyril Colnik,” notes the website history. “Originally of The Pabst Mansion and constructed in the 1890s, the chandelier was purchased in late 1970s from a local antique dealer.
“The chandelier had been removed from The Pabst Mansion after it was decided to demolish the building; the sell-off of the pieces of art and antiques from The Pabst Mansion may have been a bit premature as the decision to raze the building was reversed shortly thereafter. The Pabst Mansion made several attempts to purchase the Colnik chandelier; unfortunately with the estate in probate following Karl Lotharius’ death, it not possible for the chandelier to be sold at the time.”
A replica of the original – which still hangs in Von Trier – was commissioned for The Pabst Mansion.
The month after the transformation was complete, Von Trier lost its owner in a brutal murder just up the street, as Lotharius was shot with a crossbow outside his home on Murray Avenue. The sensational case was never solved.
This article, which called Lotharius “a large man with a mean streak,” discusses the case in-depth, so I won’t go into the gory details here.
After the murder, according to the article linked above, Von Trier was left to employee Ronald “Zebbie” Zbleski – who was also Lotharius’ best friend – as well as Zbleski’s aunt Dorothy Thompson and his sister Inga.
But the place was run by longtime employee Mark Eckert, who bought the others out over time, and ran the bar for a couple decades, becoming the face of Von Trier.
In 2009, Eckert retired and sold the bar to John and Cindy Sidoff, who owned Hooligan’s.
Other than relocating bathrooms in order to expand the tiny kitchen to be able to properly serve food, Zierath says he and Eft have no intention of changing much of anything in Von Trier.
(He would, however, love to find a way to make the three-bedroom apartment upstairs rentable again and to create a patio on the roof of the 1949 building. Those would be pretty great, neither is likely to happen anytime soon due to some big, albeit not insurmountable, roadblocks.)
They learned their lesson from the Sidoffs, who considered remodeling the place into a mid-century cocktail lounge in 2018.
“All those people came forward with a petition within a matter of like 48 hours,” says Zierath. “There's 5,000 signatures. And his thing was, ‘okay, well you 5,000 people, where are you? You don't want the place to change, but you're not coming in and drinking.’
“And I get that. But every single day I get people who say, ‘oh, I used to go there when I was in UWM, and you can't expect the people that hung out here 30 years ago to still be hanging out here today. That's just not realistic. So you have to find a new clientele, but that doesn't mean you have to change the motif.”
Zierath has been working to attract new folks and he’s hosted wedding parties and rehearsal dinners and more.
When I visited, Zierath gave me the full tour.
We went into the basement of the old house with its wood beams and stone foundation, as well as the 1949 basement with its high ceilings and steel construction.
We went up into the little office in the 1949 building that not only overlooks North Avenue from its big picture windows but also offers a view down into the interior of the bar via a small spy window.
Zierath showed me a little removable panel that reveals a small rectangular window that offers a view of the bartenders at work below.
“Lothrius put this in so he could keep an eye on what’s going on down there when he was up here in the office,” Zierath says.
Some of the most fun was seeing the apartment above the back room and the attic above that. From that third floor we could go out onto the roof of the 1949 building, which offers a panoramic view of the central intersection of the East Side.
From a window in the dining room of the second floor apartment we can look into what was the old walkway between the buildings, but which is now covered with a roof and is no longer visible from the exterior.
In this hidden space we can see the old siding and windows of the house. Even the old garden hose bibb is still in place.
Up in the old apartment, Zierath showed me the 1958 abstract mural stored up here and where the staircase into the apartment from Farwell Avenue still survives.
He also told me his dad was friends with Zbleski, and Zierath remembers seeing Von Trier for the first time as an 18-year-old.
“My dad grew up with him,” he says. “We came down here and I walked in and I instantly fell in love with the place. And I was think 18 years old.”
So, it must’ve been an amazing feeling to be able to finally buy it, right?
“John called me and he said, ‘look, I'm for real retiring this time. He knew my history in the business, and he said, ‘you're on a short list of people that I'll show it to. This is not just on the open market. I'm only going to show this to a handful of people. And that was on a Thursday.
“So I made an appointment with him for 9 o'clock that following Sunday, just three days later. And by 11 o'clock I walked out of here with a handshake deal with him, because I knew that if I walked away without a deal in place, the next person in would come and buy it.”
And so, now, all the German memorabilia – the steins, the antlers, the woodwork, the murals – and all the history of this place belongs to Zierath and Eft, and they take their stewardship role seriously.
“I'm into the history of the place,” Zierath says – and I know Eft is too, from my experience working with him on this article about O’Brien’s – “and it's just become such a staple of the East Side.
“Now it's to the point where I don't see why anyone want to change it.”
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.