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Fenestration Nation
One Milwaukee love story opens a window into the city’s past.

Illustration by Jeff Szuc

Valentine’s Day. You and I differ about this, I know. You think of Valentine’s Day and think of hearts, of flowers, of chocolate, of dinners out and Cupid flying.

I think of windows. 

I think of love when I think of windows because of Shakespeare – But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun – and because of my wife, who prizes windows above all else when house shopping, to the point that we once bought a home with windows for walls – and because of Milwaukee. 

Because Milwaukee is home to one of the prior century’s great love stories, and that story begins at a window, or just outside one, in Brisbane Hall, high above Sixth and Juneau. 

Brisbane Hall is long gone, and there’s nothing to mark its spot today other than a fire hydrant. Appropriately enough, it’s red, but unless Anita Zeidler is nearby to fill you in, you’ll miss the whole story.

Seventy-four years ago this spring, Agnes Reinke, 19, climbed the Brisbane stairs and stopped in at the offices of the local Socialist Party. 

Reinke was a graduate of Milwaukee Girls Tech High School (which still stands at 18th and Wells, though it’s now home to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission) and had received a scholarship for college. But it wasn’t quite enough money, or not enough to convince her father that college was where a woman belonged. 

Reinke knew where she belonged: out in the world, active in politics. She worked in a bookstore, became a peace activist and joined a peace choir. The Socialists were anti-war, too, so she went to see them and discovered a place she could do some good. 

Starting with their windows.

“She was an amazing housekeeper,” says Reinke’s 68-year-old daughter, Anita Zeidler. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Reinke took it upon herself to clean all of the office’s windows. When she finished, though, something wasn’t quite right. The windows were clean on the inside but still dirty outside.

No problem. Reinke went to a window, hauled up the sash and determined the only way to tackle the job was to lean out – way out – and hook her legs inside while she cleaned.

This is how Milwaukee County Surveyor Frank Zeidler, who’d been elected to his post just the year before, met his future wife. 

“He saw her hanging out the window,” Anita recalls, “and he thought this would come to grief.” So he caught hold of her and pulled her back inside. His protectiveness didn’t end there. He later insisted on walking her home, and even though the trek turned out to be three to four miles, he followed through. (Perhaps Zeidler knew that romances beginning at Sixth and Juneau tend to last. In 1907, Carl Sandburg met future wife Lilian Steichen at Brisbane Hall. They were married for 59 years.)

Anita,  learned late in life how her parents met, but ever since, she’s thought the story a “perfect expression of each personality: My mother was so fun-loving, and my father was serious, quiet, reflective.”

Frank Zeidler, who went on to become a three-term mayor of Milwaukee, died in 2006, just a couple months shy of his 94th birthday. Agnes died three years later at age 90. Frank’s fun-loving wife “didn’t think life was any fun anymore,” Anita says. 

But they’d had a great run, married 67 years when Frank died. “They were each other’s best friends,” Anita says. “At events, he never failed to mention her, to thank her for all the work she did for him.”

I never have been nor will I be Milwaukee’s mayor, but Frank and I have this in common: We married remarkable women. And Frank Zeidler and I are both writers: I’m a novelist; he was a poet and “translator” of Shakespeare into “modern English” (wherein Hamlet’s To sleep: perchance to dream, becomes, alas, To Sleep! Perhaps to dream!).

When people ask about the secret to being a writer, I always say the same thing: Marry well. My wife has given me time and space and reckless encouragement. In return, I’ve given her (and my publishers) a couple of books but also countless hours of angst and unrest. It’s not easy, writing. 

But neither is teetering on a sill to wash windows, nor governing from a perch in City Hall. And it’s certainly not easy being married to me. But this much I do know: With apologies to the Zeidlers, the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen window-wise was 20 years ago this fall, when I was inside the very small, very old church where our wedding was to take place, and I caught sight of my bride – flowing dress, veil, hair, smile – streaming by outside. The windows were old, tall, Palladian, clear-glass, and they didn’t open, which meant I couldn’t do what I suddenly wanted to do, which was reach through the window and catch hold of her.

But I didn’t have to. Like Agnes Zeidler, my wife – my light, my air, my life – came right on inside.

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