The DNC will be, without question, the biggest event Milwaukee has ever hosted. But it is hardly the culmination of a process that began with the groundbreaking of the arena in 2016. Indeed, Milwaukee’s quest to land an event of such international renown dates back to the 1880s and a landmark vestige of that original quest still stands in downtown today.
On what is now the site of the UWM Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theater, the Milwaukee Industrial Exposition Building opened in 1881 as one of Milwaukee’s most spectacular creations. Designed by E. Townsend Mix, the structure was a myriad of arches, windows, and spires and housed such varied spaces as a 6,000 seat music hall, a bicycle track, a fish hatchery and a massive organ with 3,000 pipes.
The building was inspired by the 1876 US Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which ran for six months and drew over 10 million attendees. Milwaukee boosters felt that a world-class convention hall could not only draw convention traffic to the city, but also to prove to the metropolises of the East that Milwaukee was a destination of note.
While the building itself was a marvel, the grand events imagined by its backers never materialized. It would host annual Industrial Exposition trade shows between 1881 and 1902, but these events never were overly profitable. The two most notable events at the hall were the 1882 Grand Union Dairy Fair – which drew attendees from as far away as Russia and featured a number of cabins and cottages made entirely of cheese (an estimated $8,000 worth – over $210,000 in today’s money) and 1886’s Saengerfest – a four-day convention of singing societies from across the globe. The building was hosting a tournament of North American players of the card game skat in 1905 when it caught fire and was completely destroyed. No cause of the fire was ever determined.
Despite the troublesome financial situation the Expo Building had faced it its final years, the city was determined to replace the structure as soon as possible. The Milwaukee Auditorium opened on the site of the Expo in 1909. The Auditorium had the same lofty aspirations as its predecessor. The building was intended as a part of a sprawling downtown public center that would have included the County Courthouse, the Central Branch of the library, and additional planned, but never conceived, buildings situated along a sprawling, park-like mall.
At its peak, the Auditorium was hosting as many as 1,000 events annually, including lectures, concerts, expositions, and sporting events. But its 13,000-person capacity restricted its value for nationally significant events. In 1950, the next-door Milwaukee Arena (now the UWM Panther Arena) opened as the city’s main indoor sporting venue and use of the Auditorium was on the wane. A massive interior renovation of the building in the mid-1970s converted into a more traditional theater-style venue and the construction of additional halls on the same block linked it to the Arena, forming what would collectively be known as the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena – or MECCA, yet another effort to draw convention traffic to the city.
The Auditorium hosted its share of memorable events. Most notable was a speech delivered by former President Teddy Roosevelt during his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1912 – a 90-minute stem-winder given just after Roosevelt had been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. During World War I, the Auditorium served as a barracks for soldiers waiting to be sent overseas; near the war’s end, it served as a hospital for locals infected with the great wave of influenza that was terrorizing the globe.
It has since hosted performers ranging from John Phillip Sousa to the Beatles to KISS to Dolly Parton, as well as Broadway musicals and presidential debates. The named rights to the venue were sold to Miller in 2017, and it is now known as Miller High Life Theatre. The venue will host some to-be-determined events during the DNC, bringing the long-ago dream of city booster full-circle.