To find the brightest gems, sometimes you have to stray from the beaten path. Our marginalia, it turns out, is as surprising as the city itself: Think mass graves, impossible treasure hunts, medieval architecture and squid jerky. It's worth a look.
St. Joan of Arc Chapel
When this narrow, 15th century French chapel (approx. 550 N. 15th St.), which can fit only five chairs across, was reassembled on Marquette University’s campus in 1966, it instantly won the title of the city’s oldest building. Prior to arriving here, it was owned (and renamed) by a railroad heiress and Joan of Arc admirer, Gertrude Hill Gavin, who placed a stone behind the altar she claimed the French leader had kissed before riding into battle against the British. The clammy stone is still there, whether St. Joan nuzzled it or not.
A decades-old book could lead to a canister buried in Lake Park.
Buried somewhere in Lake Park (most likely) is a small, ceramic cask, about the size of a coffe can that contains a key. That’s what a number of treasure hunters who have read The Secret, published in 1982 by Byron Preiss (not the self-help best-seller), agree upon. But where in the park, exactly, nobody knows for sure. Preiss is said to have personally buried 12 casks in 12 different U.S. cities in 1981, before dying in a car accident in 2005, a tragedy that brought about a brief period of freer information sharing among Secret hunters. The free-for-all ended when Preiss’ widow announced that she still had the prizes for finding each capsule, a jewel, including an amethyst for Milwaukee. After 35 years of searching, only two casks have been recovered, in Chicago’s Grant Park and in Cleveland. In Milwaukee, a large amount of digging and arguing and puzzling has so far turned up nothing. A hunter here for more than a decade, Betsy Grueninger, tends to believe the cask remains buried at the base of a tree in Lake Park, and like the other sleuths, she draws her conclusions from the cryptic words and illustrations in the 35-year-old tome. She worries that landscaping at the park may have broken the cache. To mentally undo these changes, she’s on a mission to see how the park looked in the ’80s. “We must find photos of that era,” she says.
Tripoli Shrine Center
This Taj Mahal lookalike (3000 W. Wisconsin Ave.) with carved limestone camels out front was built in 1928 and is the Milwaukee headquarters of the Shrine branch of Freemasonry. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Milwaukee’s supreme architectural oddity,” it sports a series of domes and minarets, giving it a mosque-like look. The interior is patterned after the Alhambra in Spain with thousands of colorful tiles, arranged in an intricate Arabesque design, covering the walls. Gather a group of 10 or more, and you can arrange for a guided tour for less than $20 per person, complete with lunch.
The main attraction at George’s Pub (224 E. Washington St.), besides the libations, is 84-year-old owner George Vomberg, whose impromptu singing style has been compared to the late Johnny Cash. Sadly, Vomberg has been missing from the bar in recent months as he recuperates from his second heart surgery, but he hopes to return in time to entertain the boisterous Pedal Tavern patrons he gets during warmer weather.
American Geographical Library
Locked inside a fireproof, waterproof cabinet on the third floor of UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library is a large Italian atlas drawn in 1478, meaning the maps roughly depict the world as understood by explorers Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan upon their departures. This ancient artifact is one of about 16,000 atlases held within the American Geographical Society Library (2311 E. Hartford Ave.), along with some 600,000 individual maps, which can be viewed by appointment.
Milwaukee Fire Museum
On the first Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the doors to this converted 1927 firehouse (1615 W. Oklahoma Ave.) are fl ung open to visitors, who can see how firefi ghters cooked in a 1920s-era kitchen and ring the alarm bell, which connects to a nifty telegraph system. Kids will love the 1947 Cadillac ambulance and trying on a slew of vintage helmets and coats.
Map of all 31 Hidden Milwaukee Spots
T.H. Stemper Co.
Around the corner from busy Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View is a low commercial building (1125 E. Potter Ave.) that contains a long retail outlet for church supplies, ranging from minuscule baubles to imposing statues. Anyone in the market for a priest collar, vestment robes, chalice or refurbished 5-foot-tall statue of Joseph should look no further. And anyone looking for some top-level browsing should also give this heavenly Kohl’s a try.
During Prohibition, the consumption of alcohol carried on in the Brew City, often inside hidden speakeasies like “Mike’s Soft Drink Parlor” at First and Washington streets (the building now home to the c.1880 restaurant) and Kegel’s Inn in West Allis (which is still in operation), according to the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s magazine. At Mike’s, booze was stashed in an armoire with a false bottom, and delivered from an upstairs bedroom through copper pipes. And at Kegel’s, the proprietor brewed beer in the basement, with a button-operated, motorized trap door leading down.
Wadhams Oil and Grease
Architect Alexander Eschweiler designed a series of these gas stations during the early 20th century that had simple walls but ornate pagoda-style roofs. More than 30 once graced the Milwaukee area, but most have been demolished or have fallen into disrepair. The most famous survivor (1647 S. 76th St.) has been restored, and there’s another specimen in downtown Cedarburg that’s enjoyed a second life as a jewelry store.
Swords and Dreams
The wares for sale at this storefront (7143 W. Greenfield Ave.) make little sense until you meet the proprietor, Tom McNeil, whose never-boring personality accounts for the emporium’s snakes, lizards, broadswords, switchblades and chunks of silver ore. McNeil would like to sell or hand off the store, he says, but he’s having a hard time finding a good match. His next adventure? Gold prospecting.
Dretzka’s Department Store
This rummage sale of a store (4746 S. Packard Ave., Cudahy) dates to 1902, and it seems not much has changed since. Most of the merchandise is old, and some of it’s very old. Highlights include a large array of turtleneck dickies, housecoats and go-go boots. Look up to the ceiling, and you’ll see small baskets and wires that once transported customer customer payments to the store’s office.
The History of Communication Mural
One of the most unassumingly historic buildings in town is the WTMJ studio on Capitol Drive, a utilitarian-looking structure completed in 1942 that claims to be the first building in the country designed to house both radio and TV studios. The 1941 fresco- mural designed by then-Milwaukee artist Jefferson Greer (who carved the Theodore Roosevelt head at Mount Rushmore), and spread across the four walls of the lobby, speaks to this visionary spirit. The painted plaster contains numerous figures representing the great hopes for broadcasting’s future. The walls represent the giving spirit, sounds and light of broadcasting, and the reception of said output by happier and better-informed consumers. But what draws most viewers’ attention is the odd emphasis on nipples, as seen above. ◆
Written by Ann Christenson, Claire Hanan, Matt Hrodey, Karisa Langlo, Carole Nicksin, Dan Simmons and Tom Tolan
Edited by Matt Hrodey