Henry Maier was one of Milwaukee's most influential and controversial mayors, leaving an imprint on the city that, for better or worse, is still visible today.
Henry Walter Maier was a giant of a mayor in an era that was full of them. He served 28 years in the city’s top post – the longest-tenured Milwaukee mayor and, at the time of this retirement, the longest-tenured major city mayor in American history. He oversaw massive changes in the city during a time of great turbulence and made as many as enemies as friends during his controversial reign.
Maier was not a native Milwaukeean – he was born in Ohio and didn’t come to the city until after he graduated high school – but he was as close to a natural-born politician as there ever was. Raised in a poor but politically active family, he was encouraged to run for office from an early age. He made his first bid for mayor in 1948, but finished on the bottom half of a crowded ballot. He was elected to the state senate in 1950 and in 1960 beat Rep. Henry Reuss in the race to replace retiring Mayor Frank Zeidler.
Maier took a modern approach to running the city, seeing the threat of suburbanization and the need for Milwaukee to remain a clean and well-managed place to live. But his “modern view” failed to change with the times. His response to the civil disturbance of 1967 was heavy-handed and failed to fully recognize the plight of black Milwaukeeans. Indeed, his tin ear on racial issues would become the most glaringly negative aspect of his legacy – one he would try to dispute many times. He resisted passing an open housing ordinance, but did so in part because he wanted public housing projects to be located in the suburbs, not just in the “poor man’s land, Polish land” of the city.
The suburbs were just one of the entities with which Maier waged war during his term. He had a long-standing battle with the Milwaukee Journal, claiming they took a suburban view to city issues and had an unfair bias against the Mayor’s office. Maier even paid personally for a half-page advertisement in the Milwaukee Sentinel weeks before his retirement and printed a letter to the city explaining his issues with Journal. He similarly battled with other members of the press, governors, the common council, and nearly anyone with a platform who had unkind words for the mayor. Near the end of his term, he had become so isolated that one assemblyman called him “the Howard Hughes of City Hall.”
But Maier always won big when it mattered. He was seven straight elections, averaging nearly 70 percent of the vote and never being seriously challenged for his seat.
At his retirement, he was – as he had been in 1960 – the champion of Milwaukee’s mostly Polish and German middle class. While similar groups had fled other major cities in droves through the 1960s and 70s, Maier had fought to keep them in Milwaukee. The city saw a far less drastic population decline during his tenure than in most rust belt metropolises. But Milwaukee would also emerge from this period as one of the nation’s most segregated cities. He had helped to spearhead development downtown, highlighted by the Shops at Grand Avenue Mall, but the mall aged quickly after Maier’s departure and never fulfilled its promise. Maier’s most visible contribution to the city will always be Summerfest, which he envisioned as a world festival that would heal the city’s racial divides through enlightenment and culture. The festival flourished, but never came close to Maier’s grandest hopes.
This paperweight was presented to guests at a dinner honoring Maier’s 28 years in office, held at the Pfister Hotel on February 8, 1988. It is made from a piece of a brick from the City Hall complex. Maier died of pneumonia in 1994 at age 76.
Antique Milwaukee is a new Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.