If you've wandered down Wisconsin Avenue yet this summer, you might have noticed something: Milwaukee's main thoroughfare is looking pretty good lately. And Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21 recently released a free guided walking tour through the Otocast app. We sent an intern to test it out.
I wear my Wisconsin heritage proudly, like a neon green blazer with Cheesehead cufflinks, and yet before this, I’ve walked around Milwaukee…maybe once. The Milwaukee Downtown walking tour provided the perfect opportunity to lace up my city-strutting boots, hit the town and see what there was to be learned.
My walking tour started with some high-octane elevator music. It rocked and rolled in the background, while the audio introduction explained that this newly-release walking tour, available for free download on the Otocast app, offers a guide to the history and new development of West Wisconsin Ave. The walking tour’s release comes after significant revitalization efforts around the neighborhood, such as outdoor sculptures and murals.
The Wisconsin Avenue Bridge
Mayor Tom Barrett narrates this stop. He tells the story of “The Bridge War of 1845,” in which the towns east and west of the river competed for trade, purposely angling their streets to complicate shipping routes. Eventually, both sides dismantled the bridges connecting the river, including the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge. Though no lives were lost, it was a war that would forever be remembered in the hearts of Milwaukee’s bridge-loving community. Eventually, the war was settled, the united city of Milwaukee was formed, and bridges, both literal and metaphorical, were built. The bridge we cross today was built in 1975.
Gertie the Duck
Next up is Gertie, a bronze duck statue commemorating the life of a legendary mallard. April 1945: young Gertie the Duck lays her eggs on a woodpile under the bustling Wisconsin Avenue Bridge. The story spreads across the nation, as pessimistic onlookers expect to see newly-born ducks inevitably crushed under the tires of passing trucks. But no! 37 days pass and, against all odds, the ducks survive to live long and rewarding duck lives. The nation rejoices.
Who knew that Milwaukee was home to such an inspirational duck-related story? Not this guy.
The Riverside Theater and Empire Building
The Riverside Theater stop includes information about some of the notable performers it has hosted over the years, as well as background music from two of them — James Brown and Neil Young. While learning about the theater’s recent renovations, I had to stop myself from crooning “Heart of Gold” along with the recording. (Milwaukee is full of understanding and kind people, but unprovoked public crooning remains generally frowned upon, from what I’ve seen.)
The Hilton Milwaukee Center
A couple of stops later, I learned about the storied history of the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. When built, it was the tallest hotel in Wisconsin. As a man with a passionate and abiding apathy toward architecture, I am still impressed that the Hilton is a member of the Historic Hotels of American, which recognizes the hotel for maintaining its “authenticity, sense of place, and architectural integrity.” Ninety years later and still authentic as heck. Dedication, thy name is Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
The Milwaukee Public Library
Near the end of the tour, I reached the Milwaukee Public Library, where I learned that it has a rooftop garden open during the summer months. Why was I not informed of this earlier? More so than the historical factoids — such as how it was built after a community organization donated 10,000 books to the city — the revelation that a rooftop garden is available in Milwaukee shook me to my core. This is why an intern needs to learn about this city. Now I can survey the skyline from above, while enjoying some fine literary fiction. [Editor’s note: There’s more where that came from! Check out our Rooftop Dining and Bar Guide.]
The tour draws to a close at Marquette University, about a mile from the first stop at the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge. At the Jesuit University, you can spot St. Joan of Arc Chapel, which was built in 15th-century France and transported across the ocean to its current place at the center of campus. Thank you France — first the Statue of Liberty, and now this.
And that’s it for the tour. The experience is full of fun facts, noteworthy sights, and above all, pulse-pounding elevator music galore.