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Milwaukee's Historic Buildings on Display

Doors Open offers free tours of city's architectural treasures

Sep. 14, 2011
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One of Downtown Milwaukee's great charms is its dense stock of historic buildings, many of them more than 100 years old and beautifully preserved with their unique architectural details intact. For the most part, though, these buildings are admired from the outside. You may pass by dozens of these buildings on your daily commute, but unless you work or do business in them, their interiors are probably a mystery.

If you've ever wondered what lies beyond the facades of these buildings, you'll get a chance to satisfy your curiosity Sept. 24-25, when nearly 100 of them roll out their welcome mats for a large-scale, free event sponsored by Historic Milwaukee Inc. called Doors Open Milwaukee.

The event was created by George Wagner, a Historic Milwaukee volunteer and retired librarian for the Milwaukee Public Library who had been introduced to the idea in Toronto, which has held its own annual Doors Open event for more than a decade. After attending Denver's Doors Open event in 2008, he became convinced that the concept could flourish in Milwaukee.

"I flew out to Denver specifically for the event and really enjoyed it, but I came back thinking, 'We have a better stock of old buildings than Denver does,'" Wagner said. "I had been volunteering with Historic Milwaukee for some time and asked if they would be interested in organizing an event patterned after Denver's, and they suggested I take the lead."

The inaugural Doors Open Milwaukee event looks to be an even bigger production than Wagner had originally imagined. Several hundred volunteers will assist in guiding sightseers or giving building tours. Some of these tours may be modest—a quick look at a lobby and some rooms of interest—but many buildings will be offering substantial tours of between 40 minutes and an hour, including City Hall, the Jones Island water treatment center, the Pabst Theater, the Milwaukee County Transit System maintenance garage and the Milwaukee Public Library, which will take visitors to its historic archives and the interior of its dome.

The U.S. Bank Building's storied 41st-floor observation deck, renowned as the best view in the city, has long been closed to the general public, but it will be open throughout the weekend. Sports enthusiasts, meanwhile, will enjoy full tours of the Bradley Center, including peeks at the athletes' locker rooms, and those intrigued by the Masons may learn more about the group as they walk through the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center, one of the odder buildings on display, with its era-crossing mishmash of English Gothic and Art Deco architecture.

Other Doors Open attractions include a detailed tour of the Northwestern Mutual building, which hosts some of the grandest classical Greek architecture in the city, and a from-the-inside peek at the Tiffany stained-glass windows at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, one of many churches participating in Doors Open Milwaukee. State history buffs will want to be sure to take a tour of the Mitchell Building, the dazzlingly ornate structure on the corner of Michigan and Water streets built by railroad magnate, banker and politician Alexander Mitchell, a Scottish immigrant (and proud curling enthusiast) who was once Wisconsin's richest man.

In addition to building tours, there will be more than two dozen discussions and walking tours, including guided walks through the Bronzeville neighborhood and the Marquette campus, and talks about the city's English, Irish and Latino populations. The walking tours are free but must be signed up for in advance on the day of each event at City Hall, which will serve as a headquarters for the Doors Open event. For more details on the event, including participating buildings, visit doorsopenmilwaukee.org, or look for an event guide in next week's issue of the Shepherd Express.

Milwaukee's Lost Buildings

Sadly, not all of Milwaukee's historic architecture has survived the years. From the late '60s to the early '80s, in particular, many beautiful buildings were demolished to clear space for new developments. Milwaukee author Yance Marti pays homage to some of these fallen buildings in his book Missing Milwaukee: The Lost Buildings of Milwaukee, which features photos of old landmarks like the Belmont Hotel, Chapman's Department Store, the Elks Club and the Norman Apartments from photographers Alan Magayne-Roshak and Gordy Simons. The book will be on sale at Doors Open Milwaukee's City Hall headquarters. Proceeds will benefit Historic Milwaukee Inc.


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