The Phenakistocope was invented by Joseph Plateau in 1841.
The Phenakistocope was invented by Joseph Plateau in 1841.
Our beloved Princess Theater, in tawdrier times, blissfully unaware of the hurricane of renewal soon heading its way. By 1978, our hometown version of 42nd Street was already on life support.
One of Milwaukee’s deadest corners used to be its most alive.
Thirty years ago, the historic Plankinton Hotel (Michigan & Plankinton) was razed for lifeless Grand Avenue parking — when it could have just as easily been restored and incorporated into the mall footprint.
More on this Lost Milwaukee landmark soon.
For generations, one of the city’s leading residential hotels was the St. Charles Hotel (786 N. Water St.) Built in 1857 by Captain Uppmann, the 125-room St. Charles was among the oldest in the city when it was purchased and reconstructed by the Pabst family in 1895. The new building was an eastern anchor to a gorgeous, European-style City Hall Square that included the Blatz Hotel, the Pabst Theater, the Henry Bergh animal drinking fountain, and City Hall (for awhile, the tallest building in America.)
Soon, the Pabst Hotel register was filled with the names of distinguished German royals and politicians of every level.
By the 1920s, City Hall Square was no longer swank. In 1923, the Pabsts sold the hotel to a new owner and removed their family name from the cornice. Their timing couldn’t have been better, because the St. Charles Hotel promptly plunged into a scandalous moral decline.
By 1964, the tired old building at the corner of Water Street and St. Paul looked like just another downtown dive waiting for the wrecking ball. After all, “slum clearance” in the Lower Third Ward had already rezoned 34 acres, razed 85 buildings, and relocated 359 families. Within a decade, the close-knit, colorful lifestyle of Milwaukee’s multi-generational “Little Italy” neighborhood had been erased, leaving behind disconnected buildings with disjointed purpose.
What most people didn’t realize was that the Cross Keys was the oldest building on the oldest street in the city — and probably one of the oldest buildings in the state. Before being ravaged by fire and razed for parking, the Cross Keys had a long and colorful life, filled with disaster, violence and scandal.
Bailey Stimson, described as a “mutton chops Englishman” from Cambridgeshire, established the Cross Keys here as a two-story wooden frame house in 1843. It quickly became the favorite destination of visiting Englishmen. Everything about the Cross Keys was English, featuring heirloom silver pots of tea, plum pudding, racks of beef, Cornish hens and homemade divinity. Meatpacking pioneers Frederick and John Layton lived here when they arrived in Milwaukee in 1845.
The tiny English inn was replaced with a modern four-story building in 1853. Although built of Cream City brick, the Cross Keys was painted in bold reds because Stimson found the Cream City color “sickly.” Iron work was just coming into vogue, so the building was decorated with a wrought-iron balcony and iron balustrades fashioned by the Reliance Iron Works. During construction, a limestone plate was erected above the main entrance at 400 Water Street, reading “B. Stimson July 4, 1853.”
On December 16, 1853, the hotel’s grand opening was celebrated with an old-fashioned housewarming party, including punch with raisins, baked apples with maple syrup and hot corn bread with buttermilk. It was boom times in Milwaukee: mayor George Walker was expanding the city in every direction, gas pipes were being laid, wooden buildings were being replaced by fireproof brick, and the population had just cracked 25,000. Clearing the remains of Solomon Juneau’s log shanty was considered a symbolic act of progress.
The Milwaukee River froze over on December 19, 1853 and was closed to navigation. However, hot and cold water still ran from the pipes of the Cross Keys at the twist of a faucet. Before most Milwaukee homes and businesses were outfitted with city water, the Cross Keys installed wooden conduits which piped water from a spring at the lakeshore. The hotel didn’t fail to deliver on its promise of “running water at all times.”
On September 30, 1859, an American president put the hotel’s hospitality to the test. Abraham Lincoln visited the Wisconsin Agricultural Society convention, held at 12th & Wells in the old Red Arrow Park. Although he stayed at the most fashionable Newhall House hotel 3 blocks away, Lincoln came to the Cross Keys for breakfast, gave a speech from the iron balcony, and then took a “long and leisurely” bath in a Cross Keys tub. Apparently, the Newhall House didn’t have tubs large enough to suit the 6’4” president. For decades, antique vendors sought to locate Lincoln’s bathtub, but it was never found. After the hotel closed in 1879, the tub was used as a coal bin for decades and eventually discarded.
The building was forever known as the Cross Keys, even though it operated by that name for less than 20 years. Afterwards, it was known as Stimson’s Hotel (1861), Juneau House (1863), Russell House (1867), American House (1869) and European Hotel (1875). In the 1840s, the area was filled with travelers hotels supporting the Huron (Clybourn) and Detroit (St. Paul) sea passenger docks. When the railroads came to Milwaukee, the hotels moved to where the depots were (first, 2nd & Seeboth, then East Wisconsin Avenue, and then Fourth & Michigan.) By 1879, the old Cross Keys Hotel closed its hotel operation forever and the ground floor was renovated as commercial storefronts.
The hotel was fortunate enough to survive both an 1865 fire and the Great Third Ward fire of 1892, but a vicious fourth floor fire in 1923 destroyed its original Italianate features and required the removal of the building’s top floor. The Cross Keys went from heavily decorated to sparsely streamlined almost overnight.
By 1954, the Milwaukee Journal described the Cross Keys as “simply an old building that has long lost its name and purpose.” Over 100 years’ time, Water Street had been raised three times and the old building continued to settle into the unstable marshland it had been built upon. The lobby of the old hotel had been above street level on opening day. By 1954, the same space, now a barbershop, was more than five feet below the street.
In 1969, architectural historian H. Russell Zimmerman expressed doubt that the Cross Keys would survive the expressway era. It was recognized as the oldest surviving commercial building in the city.
Depopulated by urban renewal and amputated from downtown by freeway construction, the Third Ward became somewhat of a floating museum. While relatively busy by day, the area was almost completely desolate by night. By the late 1960s, gay bars began migrating to the down-low streets of the Third and Fifth Wards.
The River Queen, one of the more popular, opened in the Cross Keys sometime in 1969. Originally owned by Al Berry (proprietor of the Rooster Bar at 181 S 2nd St., now known as Just Art’s Saloon), the River Queen was rumored to be financed by organized crime. It is well-remembered today for its ornate decor, including a crystal chandelier. The River Queen was also famous for celebrity sightings: LIberace, Milton Berle, Paul Lynde and others could be seen here after local performances.
Of course, the bar was forever being slapped with trumped-up charges of disorderly conduct, serving after hours, underage loitering, prostitution, and fire code violations. Its liquor license was in constant jeopardy for most of its existence.
In January 1976, the River Queen was the scene of a massive scandal involving Milwaukee Police corruption. To avoid police harassment, the former owner had given cash payoffs in excess of $1,000, expensive gifts (including 25 electric razors,) cases of liquor, and daily free drinks to over 50 police offers and their wives between 1973 and 1974. He claimed that officers would stay in the bar after closing until 7am, while vice officers were serviced by prostitutes (female and male) at the bar.
An intense investigation ensued, and the findings were bizarre. After hearing how a drunken officer showed off his new gun by firing bullets into the bar’s ceilings, detectives removed wood paneling and found two bullets wedged in the walls. One officer reported seeing a colleague staggering drunk down Wisconsin Avenue at 6:30 a.m. after having 8-10 after-hours drinks at the bar. Two police officers were accused of homosexual conduct with a minor in a nearby apartment. Investigators traveled to Minneapolis and Chicago to obtain shadowy testimonials from former bartenders and patrons. ”Detectives say that homosexuals, like prostitutes, are often valuable sources of information about criminal activity,” reported the Milwaukee Journal.
Although the investigation did not result in any charges, mainly due to a lack of cooperation and hard evidence, the controversy caused the end of the River Queen. When it closed, its patrons took every souvenir they could get out of the bar, and some people still own barstools to this day.
In early 1977, a new owner tried to overcome the scandal by opening a “sophisticated” jazz club. Due to continued licensing problems and high rent ($1,000 a month in 1977), Sharon’s didn’t last long. Side Door and Jocks opened and closed here within the next two years, and by fall 1979, the building’s only occupant was the Waterfront Cafe.
On Wednesday, November 28, 1979, a three-alarm fire broke out at the Cross Keys at 4:15 a.m. It was fought by over 100 firefighters. The fire started on the first floor, but the State Fire Marshal never found its cause. The loss was cited as only $200,000.
After 127 years at the corner of St. Paul and Water, the Cross Keys was finally razed in May 1980 for a parking lot. The land stayed vacant until 2005 when the Milwaukee Public Market was built on the exact footprint of the old Cross Keys Hotel.
It’s hard to imagine the northeast corner of 2nd & National looking like this.
The German American Bank Building was the cornerstone of the intersection for almost 100 years before an arsonist burnt it down on September 10, 1986. Although the bank didn’t survive the Great Depression, the building continued to house Fifth Ward businesses and tenants. By the 1970s, its only tenant was a notoriously seedy rooming house that was eventually condemned and closed in 1980.
An earlier fire on June 13, 1980 had caused moderate damage and injured a homeless man squatting on the property. This time around, the building was unoccupied and vacant, aside from ancient telephone equipment and wiring that melted in the fire. It took 125 firefighters, 15 fire engines and six ladder companies all night to bring the five-alarm blaze under control.
The German American Bank Building went out in high style, with flame jets shooting 20-30 feet into the sky and a smoke cloud that could be seen for miles. And it’s been a parking lot ever since.