When driving through Milwaukee's Downtown at night, especially via the freeway, the most noticeable piece of architecture is the glass "flame" atop the Wisconsin Gas Light Building, 626 E. Wisconsin Ave.
According to Amy Schroeckenthaler, who serves as the vice president of the Paul Weise Real Estate Corp. and the property manager of the Wisconsin Gas Light Building, the current flame, which is made from glass, replaced a real gas flame.
"The Milwaukee Fire Department apparently 'doused' that idea. In 1956 they replaced it with the existing neon flame," says Schroeckenthaler.
The flame, shaped as a natural gas flame, is 21 feet tall, weighs four tons and serves as a weather beacon. It also works as a navigation point for Lake Michigan water vessels.
Every evening, between 5 and 7:30 p.m., depending on the season and how early it gets dark, a building engineer turns on the flame. But first, he checks the weather to determine what color the flame should be: red, blue, gold or flickering. The color indicates what the next day's weather will be like.
A couple of poems illuminate what each color means. Interestingly, the words vary based on who you ask and what you read, but the gist of it is the same. Here are three versions:
When the flame is red, it's warm weather ahead. When the flame is gold, watch out for cold. When the flame is blue, there's no change in view. When there's agitation, expect precipitation.
When the flame is red, it's warm weather ahead. When the flame is gold, watch out for cold. When the flame is blue, there's no change in view. When there's a flickering flame, expect snow or rain.
When the flame is red, warm weather ahead. When the flame is gold, watch out for cold. When the flame is blue, the weather will be true. When the flame is blinking there will be precipitation.
From 1973 to 1985 the flame was turned off due to the energy crisis. Recently, the Paul Weise Real Estate Corp. – who purchased the building in 2002 – turned off the flame for a month to assess the cost to illuminate it. Schroeckenthaler says during this time, she was flooded with calls and e-mails from Milwaukeeans ranging from angry to concerned by the flame's absence.
"It got to the point I didn't want to check my voicemail," says Schroeckenthaler. "Milwaukee loves that flame."
Although there are reports that is costs as much as $10,000 to keep aglow, Schroeckenthaler says it's closer to $3,000 a month.
The 20-floor Art Deco building was designed by architects Eschweiler & Eschweiler and the exterior graduates in color from dark to light. Aside from the flame, the building has many adornments, including solid brass panels on the facade that feature a sunburst. It is a unique design and the flame is the only one of its kind in the country.
"Although the Kansas City Power & Light Building has glass panels on the top of their building that flicker a reddish orange to mimic a flame, but I am not sure if it changes colors," says Schroeckenthaler.
Recently, Schroeckenthaler escorted us up an extra six flights of narrow steps and a ladder to reach the top of the Gas Light Building and to meet the flame up close. We visited twice, once during the day and once at night. During our day visit, we got to pick which color we wanted the flame to be since it wasn't already on (we chose blue) and when we came back a few nights later at 10 p.m., the flame was again blue. (Although it's the next day, and it's raining while I write this, so perhaps a flickering flame would have been more accurate?)
Once on the roof of the building, there are metal grated walkways that run around the base of the flame and lead to a very narrow 15-rung ladder which takes one to a platform that wraps around the massive Art Deco flame.
The view of the city is spectacular, both during the day and at night. Most noticeable were the lake, of course, and other building landmarks like the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, the Milwaukee Art Museum and, surprisingly, the brightly-colored Lincoln Center of the Arts building on Milwaukee's lower East Side.
The flame itself is bright, but not as blinding as one might think. It is, however, surprisingly massive and makes one feel rather tiny in comparison.
There was a slightly eerie element to the experience because, during both visits, it was windy and the air conditioner unit fans were so loud we couldn't communicate without shouting, so we didn't. Instead, we walked around and around the flame, taking pictures, smiling.
The best part of being so close to the flame is perspective. I think back on all of the times my eyes have searched for the flame when looking at the Milwaukee skyline from a distance – particularly after returning to the city from a vacation or while drinking cocktails at Blu on the top floor of the Pfister – the flame is always a welcomed sight.
I am a lifelong resident of Brew City – I have never lived anywhere else – and as the years pass, I fall more in love with this place and find more ways to rediscover and celebrate it. I have wanted to check out the flame up close since I was a kid. Standing with the flame was one of my favorite "Milwaukee moments" and I will never look at the flame from the ground again without remembering what it felt like to bathe in its blue neon glow on a warm summer night.
To me, The Wisconsin Gas Light Building flame is as much of a symbol of this city as the Hoan Bridge or the old ball-and-glove Brewers logo. There's something reliable and comforting about the flame. I can't imagine a Milwaukee without it. And while other aspects of Milwaukee culture are extinguished over time, the magnificent Art Deco flame atop the opulent Wisconsin Gas Building continues to rage.
"The flame is a part of Milwaukee's history, past and present. When you drive through downtown at night, you look for it. It's a great piece of Milwaukee to be a part of," says Schroeckenthaler.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.