The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear: One Man’s Collection now Milwaukee’s to Behold

Nov. 29, 2016
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drugs
The front parlor Drug Store at the Chudnow.

Among Milwaukee collectors, Avrum Chudnow is a legend. While it is not uncommon for people to collects items of a certain theme – coins, stamps, baseball cards, etc. – Chudnow’s holdings knew no such bounds. The son of junk peddler, Chudnow inherited his father’s habit of saving things and, by an early age, had begun to collect “everything,” according to Joel Willems, who has been the shepherd of the collection since Chudnow’s passing in 2005. Items from the collection are on display at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear, which opened in 2012 and has become one of the gems of local history museums.

Political buttons and pins are among the many, many, many things Avrum Chudnow collected.

The museum is housed in an 1869 single-family home at 839 North 11th Street, one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. From its front porch, you can see down from the top of hill that once towered over the infant city of Milwaukee. The home is itself part of the Chudnow collection, acquired in 1980 to serve as the offices for his law practice and real estate firm. Chudnow began moving his collection into the home around that time, decorating each office in rotating themes. Willems came to work for Chudnow in 2000 and eventually took over the job of cataloguing the nearly 300,000 items in his holdings. When it was decided to display the items for the public, Willems spent two years converting the house into a small-scale Streets of Old Milwaukee devoted mainly to the 1920s and ’30s. Various rooms in the house depict a grocery store, a movie theater, a doctor’s office, a speakeasy, and more. Many of the rooms, which each feature hundreds of items from the collection, are based on actual stores and shops that once operated in Milwaukee. The H. Grafman Grocery Store, formerly at 603 West Vliet, a Saxe Brothers movie theater, and the old Union Train Depot are all partially recreated in the home.

The Grand Avenue Toy Store display, just feet from the in-house movie theater.

Even with the amply detailed displays, Willems says that only about five percent of the collection is actually on display. A new display on the “Golden Age of Audio,” for example, features a number of antique radios, phonographs and other related material, but only uses a handful of 400 (!!!) boxes of radio tubes in the Chudnow collection. Most of the collection has been in the home since the early 1980s. Willems estimates there are about 150,000 items in the closed-to-the-public third floor alone, with more still in the basement and at off-site storage. The prize items of the collection are all on display and the museum, and the new radio exhibit, is a great way to get a peek at a long-gone Milwaukee.

An Edison wax cylinder player, part of the new exhibit on audio devices of the 1920s and ’30s.

The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sundays noon-4 p.m. Admission is $5 and under. The “Golden Age of Audio” exhibit will run through the first half of 2017. For more information, visit www.chudnowmuseum.org

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