Welcome to Milwaukee’s Avenues West, a neighborhood born of contrasts in the late 1800s: the grandeur of mansion-lined Grand Avenue, the poverty of Irish workers on Tory Hill, and the ambition of a little college named Marquette. A neighborhood, like so many in Milwaukee, poised for change.
Map of Avenues West Points of Interest
Just west of downtown, Avenues West runs from 11th to 27th Streets, Highland Avenue to Clybourn Street — or, using the most obvious landmark, it is the northwest quadrant of the Marquette Interchange. This neighborhood has been a study in contrasts since its inception in the late 1800s.
Milwaukee’s elite gravitated west along Spring Street in the 1870s, so many that by 1876 the thoroughfare was renamed “Grand Avenue.” Mansions owned by Cudahy, Plankington, and Pabst contrasted with the Tory Hill homes of the primarily Irish workers of the Menomonee Valley. The city experienced a population boom, money started moving outside the city, and mansions became apartments or multi-family dwellings. The Gothic parish Church, Gesu, arrived in 1894; Marquette became a university in 1907; the Irish began moving to Merrill Park and other residents took their place: Eastern Europeans first, then Latinos and African Americans. When the city expanded farther west during the first part of the century and Grand Avenue became “Wisconsin Avenue,” new institutions like the Ambassador Hotel and the Eagles Club helped keep up appearances, unwittingly or not emphasizing the contrasts. The 1960s construction of the Marquette Interchange cemented Avenues West as a distinct neighborhood, where contrasts co-existed and still do so.
Marquette University: Building Boom
Today, Avenues West is the urban setting of its most well-known institution, Marquette University, which continues to expand its footprint well beyond its original 1881 building at 1004 W. State Street. The new, 750-bed Robert A. Wild, S.J. Commons (pictured) is slated to open this fall. It follows on the heels of an almost two-decade building boom: the School of Dentistry, the John P. Raynor, S.J. Library, the Al McGuire Center, Eckstein Hall’s Law School, Engineering Hall and the Dr. E.J. O’Brien Jesuit Residence. An inflatable dome recently transformed Marquette’s Valley Field into a year-round facility and a new athletic performance research center is planned just east of campus in Westown. Additional plans include a BioDiscovery District and Innovation Alley for the new business school and new recreation facility. Even with all the new additions for their over 11,000 students, Marquette University remains rooted — physically and philosophically — in its urban location, balancing its ability to build a new $96 million dollar residence hall in less than a year and foster in its students an understanding of the community and a dedication to service.
A Struggling Community Finds Hope
In the surrounding community, residents experiencing poverty or even homelessness are able to find assistance at various organizations. The Milwaukee Rescue Mission provides approximately 300,000 meals, 40,000 items of clothing and over 100,000 nights of shelter each year. Casa Maria Hospitality House currently provides short-term housing for women and children, as well as refugees and asylum seekers. City On a Hill (pictured) works to combat the cycle of poverty with programs targeting the physical, social and spiritual health of youth and families. Finally, Neighborhood House provides a safe space for youth and families, seniors and immigrants, reaching over 4,000 individuals a year with programs as varied as outdoor and environmental education, after-school support, safe sex and personal responsibility and citizenship training for refugees. Together with the Aurora Sinai Medical Center — the last of five major hospitals that congregated in the area during the early 1900s — these organizations are helping alleviate the very real struggles of people in Avenues West.
Preserving the Past
→ IRISH CULTURAL HERITAGE CENTER OF WISCONSIN
Where: 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Over a century after the Irish settled at nearby Tory Hill, the Irish community’s culture and arts are still alive in Avenues West. Located in the Grand Avenue Congregational Church building, built the same year as Marquette College and the host church for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first Milwaukee visit, the Irish Cultural Heritage Center of Wisconsin is a hub for Irish culture, arts and genealogical research. Meeting and entertainment spaces in its striking stained glass, wood-beamed interior are available for rent.
→ PABST MANSION
Where: 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave.
The most well-known remnant of the grandeur of Grand Avenue, the Pabst Mansion became the home of beer baron Captain Frederick Pabst in 1890. Boasting three floors, a full attic and basement, ten bathrooms, fourteen fireplaces, plus a carriage house and greenhouse, the over 20,000-square-foot dwelling still sits atop a little hill, now squeezed between Marquette’s Mashuda residence hall and The Marq luxury student apartments. In 1908, the mansion changed its identity, becoming the archbishop’s residence and the center of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the next sixty years. Plans to raze it for a parking lot failed in 1975, and three years later it was opened to the public.
→ CHUDNOW MUSEUM OF YESTERYEAR
Where: 839 N. 11th St.
If you look closely, you can see it from I-43, tucked away between Wells Street and Kilbourn Avenue. The eclectic Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear highlights Milwaukee’s history during the first half of the 1900s in a way befitting its location: the home and law office of Avrum M. Chudnow, who collected memorabilia until his death in 2005. You won’t find any glass-cased exhibits in this two-story house that Chudnow bought in 1966. Instead, each room is transformed into a unique environment: the immigrant-run Grafman Grocery Store, the Saxe Brothers Movie Palace (they owned forty-two movie theaters in their heyday), a speakeasy and Dr. Joseph Eisenberg’s clinic waiting room (he was a prior owner of the house). Eighteen exhibits allow visitors to experience Milwaukee’s past through over 250,000 items ranging from the political to fashion to toys and more.
Envisioning the Future
→ HAGGERTY MUSEUM OF ART
Where: 530 N. 13th St.
While the Haggerty Museum, added to Marquette University’s campus in 1984, houses a rotating display of Italian Renaissance painters and Old Masters, it excels at featuring Wisconsin artists, modern American photography, and exhibits focused on contemporary social issues. Open to the public, the Haggerty’s mission aligns with the university’s: “to inform, strengthen and transform our communities.” To that end, exhibits like the current Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships for Individual Artists 2016 continue to delight, perplex, and challenge visitors. The Fellowships support the creation of new work of both established artists and emerging ones. At the exhibit, which runs until September 17, visitors encounter an enlarged frame from emerging artist Rose Curley’s graphic memoir about her transracial adoption. “A Cabin of One’s Own” immerses visitors in Curley’s historical and personal research with two- and three-dimensional representations, artifacts, writing and video.
→ INTERNATIONAL LEARNING CENTER
Where: 639 N. 25th St.
The International Learning Center, quietly operating out of the Central United Methodist Church (you may have noticed the pointy concrete modernism), has prepared, since 1981, over 5,000 adult refugees from Africa and Southeast Asian for their future in Wisconsin. A program of the nearby Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, the Center — run by a mix of Milwaukee Area Technical College and other volunteers — provides literacy and communication skills, citizenship and life skills. Like the other organizations listed earlier, the ILC is always looking for volunteers to work with their eager-to-learn, future Americans.
→ MOBILE DESIGN BOX
Where: 753 N. 27th St.
Finally, keep your eyes open for new pop-up galleries showcasing urban designers, community artists, and other creatives at 27th Street’s Mobile Design Box. A community outreach initiative of UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP), this innovative center’s latest gallery (July 21 from 5 to 9 p.m. and July 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) couples the work of black visual artists (Fresh Perspective) with historical preservation (WasteCap). First popping up at the North End, then the Historic Pritzlaff Building, this is the Mobile Design Box’s third location, a conscious choice given Avenue West’s revitalization.
Avenues West is indeed a “Phoenix Rising,” preserving its past but revealing itself more and more as a vibrant community of arts, academics, and community service.
Where to Eat
Avenues West has no shortage of good places to eat. First, try Marquette campus standbys like Sobelman’s, Real Chili, Mendy Restaurant–even if you’re not a student. Then head over to Miss Katie’s Diner, which has been dishing up 50s-inspired comfort food for 25 years, or splurge for surf and turf at the 5 O’Clock Steakhouse. However, two establishments that represent the luxurious past and the hopeful future of Avenues West are the Ambassador Hotel’s newly remodeled spaces — The Fitz and Gin Rickey — and the soon-to-be expanding Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille.
→ THE FITZ & GIN RICKEY
Where: 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave.
The Ambassador Hotel wants to transport you back to the 1920s of the hotel’s early days on Wisconsin Avenue. The former Envoy restaurant and lounge have been reimagined as The Fitz — an obvious nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald — and Gin Rickey. The blue, cream and gold color scheme has been transformed into a truly art deco space, with warmer golds, browns and greens; the fancy crystal chandeliers have been replaced with abstract, retro lighting fixtures. Chef Jason Gorman’s menus are inspired by the hotel’s past, serving up rich offerings like scallops cordon bleu and spatchcocked chicken. In the new lounge, patrons can enjoy “pre-Prohibition-inspired artisan cocktails” (including, of course, the Gin Rickey, made with Rehorst gin), small plates like red deer venison meatballs and vegetarian entrees like Gardener’s Pie.
→ DADDY’S SOUL FOOD & GRILLE
Where: 754 N. 27th St.
Look for an expansion this fall of Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille, which grew from a family catering business almost three years ago into the beloved and therefore busy place that it is today. Even at mid-afternoon on Friday, happy, boisterous customers filled almost all the tables at Daddy’s, located in the SoHi Building (for “South of Highland”), which is helping to activate the revitalization of 27th Street. Black and white photos of the owner’s father, the restaurant’s namesake, mix with local artwork to create a homey feel. The most popular home-cooked order seems to be the $9.99 buffet, which gets you one meat (try the meatloaf or catfish) and three sides (try greens and sweet potatoes, for sure).