As a child, I grew-up listening to stories that pieced together Milwaukee’s former glory. The historical bits my father and grandparents described over the years formed an image of a warmer, more down-to-earth Milwaukee. When I explored the city as a child in the 1990’s, I found Milwaukee robbed of many buildings that once made it a gem. Since then, I have embarked on a search to learn more about the city’s past and connect with what was lost. My friend, Leonard Budney, owner of American Estates in Bay View, was contracted over the years to clear old buildings in Milwaukee of architectural features before demolition. Through this work, he obtained many artifacts, and fortunately for me, he held onto several of them until I came along to add them to my collection.
The first pieces I am sharing in the photos are my largest: two blocks of terracotta from Milwaukee’s first skyscraper, the Pabst Building. Designed by Solon S. Beman and constructed in 1891 at 108 East Wisconsin Avenue, it was the tallest building in the city until 1895 with the construction of city hall. In 1948, the building was badly abused in attempts to modernize it. The fine Flemish Renaissance tower was chopped off along with the roof line, and the structure in its entirety was painted drab gray. Eventually, the building was torn down by the Carley Capital Group in 1981 to build the “River Place Tower,” that never came to be. The site is now occupied by the Faison Building, showing some characteristics vaguely similar to its beautiful predecessor. The photo I have included of the Pabst Building was as it looked during the construction of Marine Plaza in 1961 (Period photo by Ray Szopieray).
The second piece in my collection is a terracotta block from the clock tower of the Chicago and Northwestern Depot. Designed by Charles Sumner Frost and built 1889, this beautiful railway depot once stood at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue on the lake front. When I asked my father if he was ever there, the first thing that came to his mind was the ‘400’ diesel locomotive sign. It was illuminated by neon and had the headlights of a diesel engine with one stationary and one would sway from side-to-side. The lakefront depot served Milwaukeeans and others for approximately 75 years when the city bought the property from C&NW, intent on demolishing it to build the freeway. Closed for two years and despite valiant efforts to save it, the station was demolished in 1968. Today, the site is home to O’Donnell Park. The photo I have included of the station still standing was as it appeared while still in service in the early 1960s. (Period photo by Ray Szopieray)
The third and final piece was once part of the Milwaukee Road depot, otherwise known as the Everett Street station or Milwaukee Union depot. Designed by Edward Townsend Mix and constructed in 1886, the depot was built in the beautiful Germanic Gothic Revival style, gracing the Milwaukee skyline in this original appearance for over 60 years. In the 1950s, someone had the bright idea to remove nearly the entire tower, which could be considered the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within a decade, the depot was out of service, having been replaced by the hideous new Milwaukee Union Station (AMTRAK depot) in 1965. A year later, the Milwaukee Road depot was demolished. This block of terracotta was found when construction crews were preparing the site for the WE Energies building some 20 years later. The photo I have included of the depot was as it looked in the early 1950s, before they removed the tower. (Period photo by Ray Szopieray)
These bits and pieces of our city preserve the memory of our ancestors who once walked the street and experienced them in their glory. The Pabst Building, Chicago and Northwestern Depot, and Milwaukee Road Depot, are rich in their history. Their pieces that remain provide only a glimpse of their former glory, but through their conservation in my collection, I hope to preserve them for generations to come.