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Other cities have haunted tours, so why not Milwaukee? After all, we have numerous historic buildings said to be plagued by lingering spirits of the past, some of which have garnered national media attention. Here are the most high-profile places for paranormal activity.

Pabst Mansion

2000 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Beer baron Frederick Pabst was one of the city’s wealthiest men and spared no expense on his home, designed by prominent architects George Bowman Ferry and Alfred Charles Clas. Sophisticated woodwork flows throughout, framing the ornately embossed fabrics adorning the walls. A massive chandelier made of wrought-iron and elk antlers greets visitors in the reception hall, and when the family settled into the mansion in 1892, it boasted nine fully plumbed bathrooms as well as electrical and heating systems.

But the Pabsts had little time to enjoy it: Captain Pabst died in 1904 and Mrs. Pabst in 1906. It was in danger of becoming a parking lot when a nonprofit now known as the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion Inc. bought it in 1978. Dawn Hourigan, its executive director, says reports of inexplicable phenomena began shortly after her group acquired the home. As the stories spread, intrigued reps of the Syfy network’s hit series “Ghost Hunters” contacted Hourigan to ask questions.

Many of the Pabst’s ghost stories were collected by Marylin Boinski, who volunteered at the mansion from 1981 until her death in 2009. Some were published in the Pabst Mansion’s monthly newsletter.

In the summer of 2010, volunteer Brenda Nemetz spent two months surveying staff, volunteers and visitors to collect tales of ghostly phenomena. Respondents described doors opening and closing, chandeliers shaking and objects falling to the floor. One witness reported a cold breeze that made her legs immobile. Another described the perfumed whiff of an unseen spirit brushing past her. One of the most common tales involves a laborer – doing repairs or some other work – who is disturbed by a man overseeing the job. The laborer then approaches museum volunteers to complain about and describe the nosy man; ultimately, when shown an old picture, the laborer identifies Captain Pabst as the overseer he encountered.

“While perhaps a little hokey,” Nemetz writes, “it is pleasant to think that maybe Captain Frederick Pabst is still watching over his home.”


Photo courtesy Pfister Hotel

Pfister Hotel

424 E. Wisconsin Ave.
When Charles Pfister, son of leather-tanning tycoon Guido Pfister, built the hotel in 1893, he was guided by his father’s vision of a “Grand Hotel of the West,” a “palace for the people,” says Joe Kurth, the hotel’s general manager. And grand it is – gold leaf frames the walls as far as the eye can see, from the shiny marble staircase to a cherubic mural above the lush main lobby.

For more than a century, the Pfister has enjoyed a reputation as one of Milwaukee’s finest hotels, accommodating pro athletes, celebrities, every U.S. president since William McKinley and perhaps an odd ghost or two.

An Internet search yields numerous accounts of a “portly smiling gentleman” resembling Charles Pfister overlooking the lobby from the grand staircase. These tales date back at least 10 years.

In May 2009, Florida’s Palm Beach Post reported that four Florida Marlins players at the Pfister witnessed events so spooky that they insisted on sharing rooms. The Associated Press and even “The Today Show” picked up the story, providing accounts of other major league players who heard strange noises and experienced odd phenomena in the hotel. The AP reported that current Milwaukee Brewer Carlos Gomez, who played for the Minnesota Twins at the time, heard voices in his room and was spooked when his iPod began changing songs for no reason.

Kurth doesn’t mind the haunted image so much (“There’s a wonder that comes in that.”) but says that after all the press coverage in 2009, the hotel solicited stories about ghosts from longtime employees and came up empty-handed.

The Pfister Hotel. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hotels.


On the Right Track Roadhouse Cafe

3724 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
If you’re looking for an otherworldly experience over a bowl of chili, you might try this diner in St. Francis. Manager Kealy Scordato has seen patrons’ arm hair stand on end as they report an unseen entity touching them.

Scordato recounts a number of paranormal occurrences, including Tupperware flying off shelves, cake batters crashing off tables and coffee machines overflowing for no apparent reason. Patrons regularly report seeing a shadow in the kitchen doorway when no one is there. Gloria Brandenburg, Scordato’s mother and the restaurant’s owner, lives above the restaurant and says she often hears the sounds of a party downstairs, with music and raucous voices. When she ventures down to the cafe, it’s as quiet and empty as she left it.

The restaurant opened in 2005, but the building was built in the 1860s, Brandenburg believes, and old-timers say it was a brothel until the 1950s.

“Older gentlemen who used to drive taxis brought a lot of men here,” she says. “A lot of older ladies say their dads used to come here.”

Nadine Leder of the TriCounty Paranormal Group investigated the restaurant last July and picked up electronic voice phenomena with lewd conversations and references to women going topless.

Scordato’s 5-year-old daughter, Eliza, has told her mother that she plays in the basement with a man named Jack. Eliza has not been told about ghosts in the building, but since she began playing in the basement, she’s picked up an old-fashioned vocabulary, “scoundrel” and “villain” included. No one else has seen this man.

Brandenburg has embraced the building’s shady history. The decor includes antiques found during a remodeling and a collection of vintage-style nightgowns. Period photographs of the building flanked by women who appear to have been the “working girls” of the brothel are displayed above the bar. There are even old newspaper stories documenting the end of Prohibition you can read while eating your meal.


Brumder Mansion

3046 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Built in 1910 by George Brumder of German-language publishing fame, the mansion houses a grand Gothic staircase and arts and crafts-style details. One of many magnificent manors gracing the old Grand Avenue, the home was a gift to Brumder’s son, George Jr., who lived in the mansion with his family for some 15 years before selling it.

Sam Pick, a notorious Chicago club owner and gangster, converted the mansion into a speakeasy and high-stakes gambling operation. In 1928, Pick was injured in a shotgun attack on the corner of Water and Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Sentinelarticle reporting the shooting confirms Mrs. Pick indeed inhabited the home, though perhaps for her husband’s protection, she claimed he hadn’t lived with her in years. City directories confirm she and her son stayed there until 1933. After the Picks left, the home changed hands numerous times, and served as a boarding house and parsonage until being converted to a bed and breakfast in 1998.

When Tom and Julie Carr bought the Brumder in 2008, Julie says the spirits enjoyed teasing the living. Vacuums were unplugged for no reason and things went missing. She claims several spirits call the mansion home: Suzanne is sweet and motherly and haunts the Gold Suite. A melancholy woman favors the third floor, where she looks out the window, and a ghostly maintenance man keeps an eye on the ballroom in the basement. A guest who claimed to be a psychic approached Julie with a list from Suzanne, who insisted the basement should be pretty and bright, and retain its hardwood floors.

Joe Couto, founder of the Northern Alliance of Paranormal Investigators, says he’s seen apparitions in the building on two separate occasions, both times while accompanied by a group. They saw a man cross in front of them onto the ballroom stage. And on the third floor, a member of the group felt someone pressing on their foot. Someone pointed a flashlight in the direction of the activity, and Couto saw an apparition of a woman.

But Julie believes they are all friendly spirits. And, she adds, “they have good Midwestern manners.”


Sabbatic

700 S. Second St.
On any given night, an unclaimed shot of Powers Irish whiskey sits on the bar at Sabbatic in Walker’s Point accompanied by a simple note: “For the ghost.”

It’s something of a peace offering to a ghost who has caused quite a stir at Sabbatic. Jay Stamates, general manager of the punk-rock themed bar, has heard footsteps emanating from the empty second floor and says one bartender dashed out of the building questioning his own sobriety after seeing an apparition of an old man apparently deader than a Dead Kennedy.

Sabbatic’s interior is a sophisticated take on classic punk décor: There are posters paying homage to the Misfits and their contemporaries, but its dark wood, burgundy walls and ambient lighting gives it a grown-up feel. Stamates believes the 1890s-era building was once a boarding house and brothel for longshoremen working the nearby docks. Directories list it as a soft drink establishment, the standard euphemism for a speakeasy during Prohibition, and as a tavern since then. There were once about 10 small bedrooms on the second floor.

It was bartender Matty Gonzales who saw the ghost in February 2010. While closing up, he had just taken out the trash and locked the doors. “I saw a skinny old man in a suit with long gray hair” standing inside the building, Gonzales says. He wondered how the man had gotten in and was about to throw him out when the person moved toward him “without moving his legs,” as Gonzales recalls it. The bartender grabbed his coat, set the alarm and left without closing his till for the night. Gonzales is a tough guy, Stamates says, and the last person to embellish stories. “His skin will start crawling even thinking about it,” he says.

After that, Stamates checked with the previous owner, who said his staff had seen and heard strange things, and that one worker saw an apparition of a man in the basement liquor room. But so far, that shot of Powers has yet to be quaffed.


Marian Center for Nonprofits

3195 S. Superior St.
Inside its towering stone walls, do phantom nuns in full habit roam the halls?

The campus’ oldest building, originally known as Loretto Hall, opened in 1904 as an all-girls Catholic boarding school, St. Mary’s Academy. Rosary Hall and the Clare Wing were added in 1931 and 1935, respectively, to accommodate Saint Clare College, which eventually became Cardinal Stritch College.

In 1962, Cardinal Stritch outgrew the building and moved to its current location, and St. Mary’s took over the space. The academy graduated its last class in 1991, and the Marian Center began renting out classrooms as office space and meeting facilities for artists, writers and others.

Linda Mrochinski, operations manager, recounts the story of one tenant who was locking up for the night in Rosary Hall when she heard fabric swishing. Peering toward the Clare Wing, she saw a nun in full habit walking toward her. Noticeably absent were the sounds of footsteps. The sister passed through the doorway connecting Rosary and Loretto halls, but when the tenant followed, she found the doors, as they always were, still locked.

One spirit is quite courteous. As a tenant entered the building with her hands full, an unseen presence turned the lights on. “There’s been nothing negative,” Mrochinski says. “Everybody says when they come in this building, they feel a sense of peace and calm. We’re happy with that.”


Shaker’s

422 S. Second St.
Perhaps no place in town has more ghost stories told about it.

Built in 1894, Shakers has a tall, brick facade typical of the Walker’s Point neighborhood. Inside, it has high ceilings made of ornately pressed tin, a brass-topped front bar and a stained-glass divider that separates the back-room – a Victorian-style seating area, where antique portraits add an air of elegance.

Before Milwaukee’s street renumbering, the building was at 214-216 Reed St. It began as a cooperage that made barrels for a subsidiary of Schlitz Brewing Co., according to the owner of Shaker’s, Bob Weiss. City directories show that from the early 1900s through 1923, the property served as a coal and oil distribution house for the William J. Kramer Oil Co. Next, from what Weiss has learned, the building served as a speakeasy owned by Jack Zagozen, with a brothel, known as the Hotel Frisco, in the upper floors. No records verify this illegal activity, yet as soon as Prohibition ended in 1933, Zagozen registered the building as a tavern, which it has been ever since.

Since Shaker’s opened in 1986, staff and customers alike have recounted stories of inexplicable occurrences and otherworldly sightings: Lights with fried bulbs turn on and off by themselves, doors close by unseen hands, and figures appear and disappear.

Weiss says the ghosts can get convivial. “Sometimes on busy nights, you’ll see someone that actually sits at tables with people. They’re there, but not quite there. It’s like monochromatic shades of black and gray,” he says.

The basement is said to be the home of a spirit named O’Connor with a penchant for pilfering the bar’s rail whiskey. Weiss says a long list of delivery drivers, repairmen and employees have run upstairs from the basement in fright. Some employees left the building – and their jobs – behind altogether, he says. They’ve encountered sudden changes in temperature, unexplained shadows and items moving seemingly on their own.

A walk-in cooler that’s no longer used was a spooky presence. Its door takes great force to be opened or closed and makes a high-pitched scraping noise as it moves across the concrete floor. Bartender Amy Sarff says employees who entered it would find the door mysteriously shut behind them. “All they hear is ‘click,’ and they turn around, and the door is closed,” she says. Sarff says employees are warned to bring their cell phones when they enter the basement.

The most talked-about spirit is Elizabeth, the name behind the bar’s distinctive drink, Elizabeth’s Raspberry Martini. Almost as soon as the bar opened, Weiss says, “We had women come out of the ladies’ room saying, ‘Who’s that little girl?’ We’d say, ‘What little girl? There are no kids here,’ ” he says.

In the restroom, she has been heard giggling and knocking on stall doors. Sometimes, her little boots are seen underneath the door. She has been reported to play with the hair of women sitting in the back room.

Two psychics who investigated told Weiss that in the 1850s, the land the building now occupies was an orchard. Elizabeth, they claim, fell from a tree, broke her neck and died. To complete the legend, there is an antique portrait of a baby that came with the building. Weiss and others suspect the baby is Elizabeth.

Weiss has one other story that may explain all the spooks. During the speakeasy days, it seems, there was a party for City Hall types, and some got out of line. “The story is, per the psychics, that they were disposed of and were buried downstairs.”

But so far – thank heavens – no ghosts of any politicians have materialized.


This story appeared in the June 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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