Being in Brewers Hill, I just figured this was part of a brewery.
My out-of-towner mindset had fooled me again. This was the F. Mayer Boot and Shoe Co., originally built in 1892. Back in the earliest days of Milwaukee, tanning was one of the largest industries in town. By 1890, Milwaukee was deemed the largest leather producer in the
In 1908, a Chamber of Commerce report said Milwaukee’s leather industry came only second to metalworking products in total industry output — $40 million to $77 million. It turned out everything from shoes, boots, horse harnesses and saddles.
Some 9,000 pairs of shoes were produced daily on the factory floors of F. Mayer Boot and Shoe Co. The number is baffling. Knowing how much we depend on automation in today’s industrial world, I can’t imagine how they accomplished such a capacity.
I met with Kirk Thomsen from The Quasimondo, a local theater operating in the building. He showed
me around the joint, which was much appreciated, because without his guidance, who knows where I would have ended up. We traveled upstairs, downstairs and all around what used to be the factory floor. Kirk asked if I’d like to see the tower. Of course I said yes! But I figured there was a simple stairway leading to that part of the building.
He lifted a window, and we crawled out onto a fire escape. I’m sure I looked at him with wide eyes. There is no normal stairway to get you there; the only way is out that window and onto this fire escape, which is followed by scaling up a 20-foot wall to the roof. From the roof, you climb another ladder to the tower. Then, perhaps you get in through a
window. I’m not sure. I didn’t quite make it that far.
Kirk slipped my notepad into his coat pocket, and up we went. I crawled up this ladder (attached to the side of the building — no parachute, trampoline below or ropes attached). I made it about six steps up, accidentally looked down and hollered, “Oh my word! What am I doing? I cannot do this!” And back down the ladder we went.
The building plays an important role in Milwaukee’s art scene. It’s home to several businesses and live-in artists, making everything from puppets and clothing to furniture. Kirk said that over the years, the Milwaukee Fortress Building, as it’s also called, has housed several artisans. With its affordability and creative layout, it’s been a perfect nest for
lovers of art.
“Having this available is how we keep the arts alive in Milwaukee,” Kirk said.
Here is an eye-to-eye photo of “the tower.” I’ll always look up and wish I could have pulled on my big girl boots and kept climbing. But had I climbed two more steps, I’d probably still be stuck to the side of that building, thumb in mouth.