Looking into infinity. The new walkway connecting the Milwaukee and Chicago airports.  73 miles to the baggage claim.

 

Well I’ve been living in Milwaukee for the better part of a year, but I’ve just begun to explore the zone outside the city limits, which the nice folks at the farmers’ market tell me, is that fabled land called “Wisconsin.”

I was afraid it might be a bit dull, to a New York sophisticate like myself.

What a relief to encounter true and large-scale weirdness.

 

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This spring, on a cold, rainy day, I rented a car and  ventured out-of-town.  At first, it looked a lot like where I grew up, especially the cows, but driving along the Wisconsin River, toward the upper Mississippi,  we entered the “Driftless Area,” winding through sharp little ridges and valleys, sometimes wooded.

And then we visited a very strange place indeed.

 

 

 

Even weeks later, thinking it over calmly, my reaction is still the same – it seems less like a real memory, than a drunken, moldering dreamscape.   Fun, even charming, but also a bit spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from a collection of antique coin banks. These were labelled “Clowns Are Trump, You Pays Your Pence and You Takes Your Chances”

 

About forty miles west of Madison, beginning in the late 1940’s, and working through the ’50’s, a man built a house in the woods, on top of a rocky outcrop.  He called it “The House on the Rock.”

 

 

In a pretty commonplace region of cow pastures, woodlots, small towns, this experiment sticks out, literally and figuratively, as a strange, strange place.

A stray fragment of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm, Tim Burton as the architect, soundtrack by Tom Waits.

 

 

An immense cabinet of curiosities, sideshow extraordinaire, and hoarder’s storehouse of earthly “treasures,” the place where Antiques Roadshow goes off the road.

A crackerjack palace, decorated by Liberace, with every shelf & nook & cranny stocked by the Ringling Brothers & John Lennon, tripping on LSD, raiding every flea market, boardwalk, and carnival, Rube Goldberg tinkering in the back room.

P. T. Barnum’s ghost wanders through, and is humbled.

 

 

 

We didn’t plan on being there.

Family was visiting – – all of them Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts – – and we were headed to Taliesin, Wright’s home and workshop.

The two houses turned out to be a yin & yang thing.

The day we visited Taliesin, the weather was perfect, and the guides were well-informed and well-rehearsed, if a bit dry.

 

Taliesin

 

Wright’s artistic creation was well worth the drive – – an organic-seeming creation, the model of the perfect prairie house, in harmony with its surroundings, and almost spartan in its clean lines.

Yeah, so, we can talk about all that art & balance & perfectness & good taste some other time.

 

And now for something completely different.

 

 

Because the day after visiting Taliesin, we went somewhere else entirely – – a place all about the unhinged and the off-kilter and questionable, about trickery and cheesy excess – – you know, more like the America we actually live in, and that’s what this post is about.

 

Spaceship landing on what appears to be a chocolate cake.

 

It is truly impressive.  I remembered a quote from Dolly Parton:

“It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.”

 

 

It was a weekday, off-season, and the weather was crummy – – cold, gray, windy – – and that is absolutely when you should visit, when the place is nearly empty.  We almost had the place to ourselves.

Just a few miles from Taliesin, but it was another world.

Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, another local guy also built a home and workshop up on a hill.

It was described to me as “interesting…different…maybe the biggest tourist attraction in the state,” by someone who’d never been there, but we decided to stop by.

I hadn’t read anything about it, and you cannot see the place from the road.  The lane winding through the trees gives you the first inkling – – lined with giant bronze vessels, with metal lizards attached to the sides.

 

 

A word about my photos for this post: SORRY.  This is a big overstuffed post, but these are snapshots on the fly, in really dim lighting.  I had family visiting, and gotta keep the old folks amused & moving, or they get cranky and rust up.  But if the pictures are sometimes fuzzy and a bit hard to decipher, that’s actually the way it seemed when I visited – – a huge murky space lit by low-wattage colored bulbs. Some stuff  is in cases with fluorescent lighting and dusty glass.  Think of the photos as a slightly out-of-focus slide show, after having a few cocktails, that’s the feeling I’m going for. 

 

To call it a house is inadequate.  Yes, there is a house – most of it, a dim, low-ceiled, cave-like conglomeration of amateur rough stone, old stained glass, church bells, firepits, and… shag carpeting.  Lots of musty-smelling shag carpeting.

Lots & lots of tchotchkes, statuettes, knick-knacks, bottles, iron pots, etc.

Ebony figures from Africa coexist with imitation Tiffany lights.

 

 

 

 

Lots of graying, yellowing, browning books – the man read anything and everything, apparently.  A wood staircase is lined with bookshelves, for three or four floors.

 

 

 

You come to a big room with slanted windows, looking out over the countryside, and carpeted tiers, what I believe was called, back in the day,  “conversation pits.”

 

And then, the first bit of weirdness – you realize the music you’ve been hearing, appears to come from a mechanized little orchestra, sawing away at “Bolero.”  Complicated contraptions, looking like drunken mashups of hydraulic valve lifters and bits of pinball machines, with a dash of Edward Scissorhands, seem to be playing actual instruments.  You’ll encounter a number of these robotic ensembles, sometimes, I think, just going through the motions while recorded music played, but drums and other instruments were definitely playing – – amazing, impressive, and often sounding kinda awful.

 

 

 

 

If Fred Flintstone moved to the Jetson’s neighborhood, and Wilma started hitting eBay and garage sales, this would be their house.

So I guess I’d call it Groovy, or Cool, Daddy-O, or possibly Yabba-Dabba Doo!

 

A wall made of slabs of glass, with colored lights behind it.

 

And…I’m underwhelmed.

It’s fun, kind of cozy, and the colored glass windows are great, but mostly it’s a higgledy-piggledy maze of eccentricity and clutter, with a dash of tackiness.

 

A number of decorating themes slug it out in the house – – some vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright elements, Asian, African, Flintstones, etc. but the dominant motif was “Rec Room”

 

But the experience hadn’t really even begun.

The entire complex is a “house” in the same way the USS Intrepid is a “boat.”

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about “the man” who built this place.  His name was Alex Jordan, Jr., and he apparently was what my grandmother used to call “a real character.”  And I’m not going to tell you about him.  You may have already googled him, you definitely should.

There’s also a fun video filmed there, by the band “10,000 Maniacs,” (from Jamestown, NY, yea!).  It’s a re-make of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”  (The video was done after Natalie Merchant left the band, and their cover isn’t as good as the original, but it gives a good idea of the place.) https://vimeo.com/108524874

You go up to the roof to admire the view, then down past a minimal, vintage kitchen, and a couple more Buddhas.  Did I mention there are a whole lot of Buddhas sitting around?  Indoors and out, big and small, in gravel courtyards and tucked into niches.  They seemed a little dubious, like garden store knockoffs, looking less contemplative than baffled, just like the rest of us.)

 

 

And as the sound of the endless “Bolero” begins, mercifully, to fade, you hear, around the corner and down a corridor, the theme from “The Godfather.”

And then you enter something that’s that’s not weird, cluttered, and uneasy, but just plain great.

The Infinity Room.

 

 

An enclosed, glassed-in room – – a covered bridge shaped like a Viking longship, juts out, cantilevered to what seems an impossible distance!   You quickly realize the optical illusion, and (spoiler alert) it really isn’t infinite, but it is over two hundred feet long, with a glass window to look down at the far end, at the pine trees and boulders you’re suspended over.

There’s a rocky outcrop underneath, somewhere, to balance the weight of the thing, but you can’t see it, and it just seems like the coolest treehouse-and-walk-the-gangplank-observation-room any daydreaming kid ever sketched in his notebook during geometry class.

The wind was kicking up, the day we were there, and the room creaked and swayed a bit, which was cool, but you could tell it was OK.

And anyway if it did collapse, how cool it would be to toboggan down the hill, through the pine trees, yeah, with the theme from the Godfather echoing in our ears, and the tinkling sound of countless imitation Tiffany lights smashing!

A wonderful external picture on the “Highest Bridges” website http://www.highestbridges.com/wiki/index.php?title=Infinity_Room_at_the_House_on_the_Rock

 

Outside, in the fresh air, smelling the pines, is a garden with a little waterfall, in the Japanese style, as done by a Holiday Inn.

 

And connected to the house, by a series of roofed, somewhat decrepit walkways, are labyrinthine warehouses.  You walk past a waterwheel, into a sort of millhouse, with suits of armor and random artifacts everywhere, including the men’s room.

 

You are entering a delirious steampunk world.

 

You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

 

Acres of massive hangers, filled to the brim with outrageous jumbles of collectibles mixed with giant industrial machinery (an iron drive wheel, bigger than a car, a massive steam tractor, a ship’s propeller, huge electric generators) arranged into cityscapes, draped and intersected with dim colored lights.

 

I don’t mean a few Christmas lights.  They walked into J. C. Penny, and bought every made-in-Taiwan, ruby-glass kitchen light fixture, and grouped them into interwoven, homemade chandeliers of impossible sizes and scales, dangling eerily.

 

It is a glorious shambles – – creepy in places, charming in others, and sometimes a bit sad.  I don’t want to call it “surreal,” because I think “hyper-real” is closer to the truth.

If you’ve ever played “Myst,” a mystery video game from the ‘90’s, you’ll have a similar sense of a semi-abandoned fantasy realm.

 

 

The dimly-lit corridors and sloping catwalks are sometimes a bit disorienting.

 

 

 

 

 

You can feed tokens into antique arcade games – some work, some don’t – decrepit musical machines from a hundred years ago, some still squawking out tunes from Edison rolls, others plinking plaintively from music boxes, or huffing asthmatically from dusty pneumatic  systems.

 

Life-size mannikins jerk into action, pistons and gears and cranks beat out tunes.

 

 

 

 

Player piano rolls unroll, mallets & hammers tap on bells, drums, glass cylinders, chimes.

 

We dance to a Charleston-era tune wheezing from a massive ancestor of the jukebox.

 

 

 

Describing this place seems kind of impossible.  Nothing really does it justice.

 

A huge old diorama, perhaps once impressive, but now creepy as all heck, looking like a decrepit anteroom to the netherworld. I finally remembered what it reminded me of – – an episode on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery called “Camera Obscura,” based on a Basil Copper short story.

 

It is almost overwhelming.

You may think I exaggerate.

No, my regular readers protest, not Robbie!  Not that straight arrow, scrupulously-reliable-fact-checking-chronicler-of the American Way!

And this may all seem like pretty tame stuff, really.  It’s just the volume of it all that kind of swamps you.  Like that scene in “Moscow on the Hudson,” where the recent immigrant from Russia, overwhelmed by choices, faints in the breakfast cereal aisle.  And the dusty stillness of some sections – – they really ought to put bells on the darn maintenance guys, so when they’re tinkering with something behind the scenes, and then step out suddenly, they don’t give you a heart attack.

I got a drink of water, straightened up, and told myself “We’re Americans, darn it, we like stuff!  The more the merrier!”  And pressed on.

 

 

 

 

Another robotic band setting. The museum’s creator, Alex Jordan, designed animatronic figures and mechanical gadgets to play musical instruments.

 

The Smithsonian is far, far more extensive, with over 100 million artifacts, and is often called “America’s Attic.”

Sometimes in idle moments, I wonder what those people want with, for example, 140,000 taxidermied bats, but it’s Washington, D.C. another focal point of weirdness.

 

An assemblage of drums reaches up several stories. I do not know why there are birch trees.

 

You want clocks? We gotta lotta clocks.

 

 

 

The House on the Rock is on a more modest scale, but its chaotic and mostly unlabeled collection seems worthy of being “America’s Basement,” at the very least.  Parts of it might be the props storeroom for Cecille B. DeMille.

 

 

Life-size scenes of medieval mêlées, with armored elephants, depicting…ok, I do not have the slightest idea.

 

 

Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine museum, with glass cases along claustrophobic aisles, and sometimes, like an antediluvian amusement park

 

 

A three-story wooden clock, just past the remnants of a massive old electric generator

And another difference from any other collection of Americana I’ve visited. – -some of this stuff is junk.  By which I mean, it’s unabashedly phony.  Homemade neo-Victorian nonsense is jumbled together with genuine antiques.

 

Rusting outside, is a real cannon or howitzer, probably WWI French or Belgian.

 

A room of firearms contained clearly fantastical creations, like 36-shot pepperbox pistols, that looked to be cobbled together from bits of old piping.  The flintlocks appear to be brass-bedecked tourist items from the Casbah, or perhaps a theatrical prop room.  Naval 32-pounders might have come from a movie set.  Larger items, like a two-story cannon, must have come from defunct circuses or sideshows.  They’re all together, and you’re left to distinguish the real from the imaginary.  Or not.

 

 

 

Heading toward one of the larger mechanical bands, you walk up a dim brick-paved Street of Shops – – storefronts stuffed with antiques.  I paused to take the picture below, of the pale, glass-eyed dolls, staring back from their baby carriages, and was left behind by my group.

And honestly, when the place is empty, it felt a bit creepy, a place one feels watched, and doesn’t want to be alone in.  When a maintenance man appeared out of the shadows, I froze for a couple of heartbeats.

 

 

Overall, it’s not creepy.  But still.

Life-size and doll-size shops

 

After admiring the first dozen dollhouses, I walked and walked past innumerable more examples, barely looking at the tiny tea sets and miniature domestic tableaus, and then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed one tiny figure had apparently given up on escaping, and had tucked a shotgun barrel under his chin.

 

 

Hitchcock dolly zoom

 

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I think there is about an acre of miniature circuses

 

 

The H.O.T.R boasts a number of carousels, but you cannot ride on them. The biggest, claimed to be the biggest indoor carousel in the country, has many creatures, but not a single horse.

 

Instead, the walls of the huge building are covered with the wooden horses.

Hovering overhead are a host of dissolute-looking department store mannequins, like vengeful ghosts from shuttered Macy’s and Gimbels, ready to snatch people like me, who fail to color coordinate – –

tarnished angels in the architecture, women in loose gowns, with huge wings attached.

I imagine they’re intended as angels, but, especially since some are missing hands, or suffering wardrobe malfunctions, they looked like inebriated and menacing Valkyries.

 

 

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Huge glass bells, part of the carousel music machinery

 

Another, smaller carousel, is reserved for hundreds of dolls.  And at least one skeleton.

 

The carousels are spectacular.

 

 

 

At some point, just after looking at more spittoons than I’ve ever seen before (which spilled over, so to speak, into the adjoining exhibit areas), continuing to march along ramps, walkways, and corridors, feeling pretty stunned by the sheer mass of it all,  we  found ourselves in a nautical area.

 

 

 

And as you enter the four-story warehouse, with walkways and cases winding up the walls, looming over you is a giant model of a whale fighting a giant squid.

 

 

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I could not estimate the number of ship models.  Clippers, carracks, caravels, aircraft carriers.  Some were museum quality, some were toy-like, and some would have looked at home hanging over the bar in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.  The Titanic hitting an iceberg.  Big tin Spanish-American dreadnoughts.  Scrimshaw, some real, some fake, scattered amongst the models.

 

 

 

 

Towards the end, shambling along in mostly stupefied silence, we entered the newest wing, for model airplanes.  (Too tired to even attempt a pun.)

 

 

 

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I actually feel that you can learn something from this place.  I’m just not sure what that is.  They call a lot of this stuff “memorabilia,” but what exactly are we remembering?  Mostly, I’d say, those dreams we get after eating a pepperoni pizza, while watching Vincent Price in “House of Wax.”

 

 

One thing that popped in my head.  The scale and variety of this vast repository, and the jumbling of steam engines, generators, and other industrial detritus, with the toys and old arcade amusements, strikes me as perfectly right & proper.

When American fired up the Industrial Age, it also started cranking out industrial entertainment, and decorative knickknacks. “The Theory of the Leisure Class” came out in 1899, and introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption,” that is, buying stuff you don’t need, to show off.

Permanent “amusement parks,” like Coney Island, boardwalks & piers full of rides, penny arcades, and coin-fed fortune-telling machines, etc. and huge “expositions” or “World’s Fairs” started popping up, peddling technology and manufactured fantasy.

 

 

You can learn a lot about a place, and a time, by visiting serious museums, symphony halls, art galleries, etc.

– – but life isn’t all dioramas & statues, Beethoven & Rembrandts, is it?

It’s also beer & skittles, the Dead Kennedys, hotdog stands, snow globes, and graffiti.

In Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on its blue collar solidarity and working stiffs’ pleasures, the House on the Rock takes our pride in unrefined fare to a memorable extreme – – amassing thousands of the cheap thrills of yore, kitschy games, and diabolical-looking toys from the five & dimes, carnivals, fairs, and toy shops.

A house built not on sand, but on bric-a-brac.

 

A turn-of-the-last century mechanical novelty, one of dozens, mostly still functioning – – pop in a token, and the barber begins to shave – – and a policeman pops up in the window. Any idea what this was about?

 

It’s a blast. 

Wear comfortable shoes, and brace yourself.

 

 

Call me Ismael ~ ~ Confronting the giant plaster whale ~ ~   Ish & The Fish

 

Me & me old mum, in front of robots playing kettledrums. She hates clutter, and yet loved this place.

 

1870's, 1890, 1920's, 1930's, 1950's, 1960's, Arrant Nonsense, craft projects for lifers, History, Uncategorized, United States, wisconsin

House on the Rock. A walk through mass production and madness.

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travel

Overlooked and Underloved: Milwaukee

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Here’s a line from a song “The Bay” by the British band Metronomy.

Because this isn’t Paris. And this isn’t London. And it’s not Berlin. And it’s not Hong Kong. Not Tokyo….”.

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This song fits Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of city that shouldn’t be nice, because that contradicts your preconceptions.

You don’t want to admit that you enjoy it, because it’s… Milwaukee.

Located…where, exactly?

It’s OK if you don’t really know.

“Somewhere past Chicago,”

 “near the Great Lakes?”

“Yeah, it’s…oh wait, that’s Minneapolis”

are all acceptable answers.

 

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If your brain does kick out a few random factoids, there’s an image problem.  The city was a byword for industrial decay, notorious for its massive rate of crime and poverty, and Miller Lite on culture.  Even the ball team was sub-par.

> Poster boy for the Rust Belt.

> Someplace dull where people talk about electric power tools.

> The City That Made Beer Famous” – but a lot of it came to be cheap, sticky, mass-produced “value beer.”

Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz Malt Liquor were never seen in my house.  They always seem to be the brands you see in roadside ditches– tossed from rusty pickups with rude stickers.  The pickups are driven by the kind of people that throw their trash and empties out the window, and were driving by old rusted-out Allis-Chalmers hay-balers, a brand once world-famous, manufactured just down the road from my apartment in West Allis, and now faded away.

The city was part of feeling embarrassed about living in the northern U.S., in the Rust Belt.

Bad cars from Detroit.  Bad beer from Milwaukee.  Bad politicians from New York.

 

Last summer, I moved to Milwaukee.  Voluntarily.  I entered of my own free will.

The city continues to get a lot of bad press.  New Yorker magazine just ran an article about the thousands of evictions that take place yearly in this, the fourth poorest city in the country.

 

 

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The art museum on the lake. A fantastic creation by several architects. The central building by Eero Saarinen, an addition with a winged sunscreen that opens & closes by Santiago Calatrava

 

But Listen Up People —  I am here, and I am here to say, Milwaukee is a great city 

 

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City Hall. When it was erected, the tallest building in the country.

 

 

On a great lake.  Literally, the city is right on one of the “Great Lakes.”  Lake Michigan is impressive, one of the biggest expanses of fresh water in the whole world.  It doesn’t need the others to be a Great Lake.   You could drop Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut into it without a trace. And its the only one we don’t have to share with Canada, so it is an All-American lake.

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Mitchell Park Domes. Desert and tropical environments, and a nice break from winter

This isn’t the 1980 Rustbelt anymore!  Milwaukee is ready to be a new poster boy, one for new era, the re-birth of the American city. From Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the revitalized Richmond and Louisville, and of course, NYC – all have stories of revival, comeback, resurgence, regrowth.  And unlike NYC or San Francisco, young people can actually afford to live here, and can afford to have some fun.

America’s comeback is, and will be, taking place in its cities.  A lot of this is change is brought about by an influx of young working people.  Young people who move in, work, and spend their money here.  There are still huge problems, but that just isn’t the whole story.

IMG_6515So it feels good to move to a city that is coming back to life, and showing people that “moving to the city” is still relevant and desirable.

It may be overshadowed by bigger, sexier Chicago, but Milwaukee is very much a worthy, interesting destination city on its own.  I know one Chicago resident, who comes up on weekends, because he loves visiting the local joints in our town.  Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, is prosperous and squeaky clean, and has earned the reputation of being the ultimate college town (though it will always rank below my favorite, Ithaca, NY) but Milwaukee can give them a run for their money — there is a vast population of students and recent graduates.

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You can have an apartment!  Not a cleaning supplies closet “artfully re-purposed into a Living Pod,” or a retro-engineered shipping container, or a squat where the coachroaches have names and their own little bunk beds.  You don’t need to live in a derelict loft with five roommates, and go dumpster-diving behind Panera’s; here you can live a good life on very little money. Beer is cheap, and it is good – Milwaukee’s old-time genetic coding has kicked in, after all this is Brew City, and they’re once again making great beer around here.  Microbreweries like Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner  turn out ales and lagers as good as anything in Europe.  There’s lots of innovative stuff, too, like organic pumpkin beer, tangerine IPA, etc. and a really smooth black lager.  Bars are plentiful, friendly, and the “pub food” is excellent, and the nightlife is good.

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Where I live, West Allis, somewhere between a city neighborhood and a suburb, there are tree-lined streets, and you can walk along the Hank Aaron Trail to downtown, and then along the RiverWalk, which stretches right through the heart of the city.  You can walk on top of the bluffs along the lakefront, and they even have a lighthouse.

A quintessential American city — it’s a diverse population, mostly Germans, Poles and Mexicans, but with dozens of other groups and ethnic communities in the mix. There are African-American neighborhoods mixed with Hmong immigrants just up the road from an old Scandinavian enclave.  Maybe, here in the middle, as the new, monied elites grow richer on both coasts, will be one of the last bastions of middle class America.

IMG_6331A world-class art museum on the Lake (the building alone is an architectural gem, in part a design by Eero Saarinen, who did the St. Louis Arch and buildings that still look futuristic at Dulles and JFK airports), authentic ethnic restaurants, hip lofts and desirable neighborhoods, full of hipsters, yuppies and yup-sters, a cool live-music scene and lots to do, this town is excellent.  To amuse tourists and local visitors alike, a stroll along one of downtown’s main streets takes you past a series of street poles with mini-stories told in ‘flip art’.   Milwaukee offers more green space than any major American city — parks abound along the lake. You can visit the Pabst mansion, the Mitchell Domes (huge geodesic gardens, one for desert, one for tropical), enjoy German food in the restaurant that has hosted four US presidents, celebrate “Pho-bruary”, and experience blue-collar America’s factories, with tours of Miller (and the other breweries too) and Harley-Davidson’s factory.

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“The Streets of Old Milwaukee” in the excellent, and fun, Public Museum

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Celebrating Men in Tights

This town may not have the fashion scene, but it has character. Here, people talk to you. They are sincere; they are friendly.  You can live on a reasonable salary. Housing prices aren’t outrageous. You have all the big city amenities, and none of the traffic. Sure, this town lacks the frenetic pulse and determined weirdness that enlivens places like NYC, but it instead feels like a big small town. You feel like you’re at home, even when you’re not from around these parts. I think it’s wonderful. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

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History, Uncategorized

Old Milwaukee. Troubled bridges over water.

Milwaukee drawbridge LOC

Milwaukee drawbridge. LOC

Milwaukee is often overlooked and overshadowed by Chicago and Detroit (even if usually for bad news), and seem destined to never be quite as cool as the Twin Cities (“The Hipster Capital of the Tundra”).

So it’s natural that the city’s interesting and unusual history isn’t any more publicized that the city itself.

Like NYC, Milwaukee wasn’t always one city – it was formed by a merger of rival settlements.  Three towns became one, and bridging the three-way split required…what do you think?  Rationality?  Efficiency?  Common sense?  Come on, get real, there were politicians and capitalists involved.  And these are Badgers we’re talking about!  These people chose an incredibly combative giant weasel for their mascot.  Of course there was some strife and lunacy before they could come together.

“The Bridge War” was part of the city’s tumultuous creation process — an odd story of destruction and “burning bridges” rather than building them.

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1901 Milwaukee River. NY Public Library

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1885 Milwaukee River from Walker’s Point Bridge. NY Public Library

The Milwaukee River is now mostly a place for pleasure boats.  But people focused on rivers in the old days, in ways that we’ve forgotten.  Rivers were the highways and trade routes, and sources of energy, and were still important, long after the railroads and steam engines came along.  They were lines of communication.  But they also have always served as borders and frontiers.

Natives of New York City are very aware that its boroughs were once proud, independent towns and cities, some for over two centuries.  In the 1800’s, the Roeblings built what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world, to link Manhattan to… those people on the other side of the East River.  The Brooklyn Bridge was an instant hit, and over 150,000 crossed on the first day, between the two biggest cities in the area, but a few years later, when the cities voted on merger, it was a real squeaker, and Brooklyn passed it by just a few hundred votes.

And Milwaukee had its Bridge War, which resulted from a fierce rivalry between three communities.

Juneautown was on the East bank of the Milwaukee River,

Kilbourntown was on the West bank,

and Walker’s Point was on the South bank.

Wait, can a river have three banks?  OK, Walker’s Point turned out to be on the south bank of the Menomonee River, and not pointy at all as far as I can make out.

All three towns were named for their founders, and all three founders were very much alive and well at the time of the War.  In fact, once the city was created, they took turns being mayor.  Which is nice.

But in the beginning, we had three rival Founding Fathers – – who were classic examples of that all-American hybrid, the Politician-Capitalist–Land Speculator.  The competition between their settlements was so intense, they deliberately laid out their streets, so that they didn’t intersect with their rivals’.  Even today, most of the bridges in this city have to cross the river on a diagonal, posing a hazard for boats, as a result of this nonsense.

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1885 Milwaukee River. NY Public Library

In 1845, the state government ordered the creation of a bridge over the Milwaukee River, between Juneau’s and Kilbourn’s sectors.  This proved widely unpopular on both sides of the river, as they enjoyed being independent entities, and feared they would lose out financially if they became part of a bigger collective.  There was also the simple economics of deciding who would pay to maintain and run the bridge.

Then and now, here and abroad, the “West Bank” always seems to be problematical.

On May 8, 1845, the people of Kilbourntown started the war, by simply dumping their half of the bridge into the river. They destroyed the drawbridge, to prevent those on the East Side from entering their town.  In retaliation, the Easterners destroyed other small bridges, to prevent the denizens of the West from crossing to Juneautown.  There were fistfights and worse, but no one was actually killed, and the ridiculous and petty war shortly fizzled out.  The next year, sanity prevailed and a united city was created.

In any case, the Germans had started arriving – including soon-to-be-famous brewers — Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz – and somehow the whole East Bank – West Bank thing didn’t seem so important, after a couple of steins of beer.

Solomon Juneau served as the first mayor, and his rivals Walker and Kilbourn also had their shot at running the city.  Juneau married a member of the Menomonee Nation, and retired to the country.  Once a year, his cousin Joseph would write to remind him, that his town was still called Juneau, Alaska, and why exactly was Solomon’s place called Milwaukee now?  (Ok I made that last part up, but Juneau really is named for Solomon’s cousin.)

Byron Kilbourn went on to various elected positions and business speculations, until his sharp-dealing caught up to him, and a bribery scandal caused his railroad to go bankrupt.  He ended up forgotten in Jacksonville, Florida.  About twenty years ago, the city dug him up and reburied him here – – he was kind of a disgrace, but they wanted a complete set of Founding Fathers.

George Walker was a fur trader, and never had the cash of the other two, and lost control of his patch of land.  But he did get to be mayor.  Twice.

A minute, trivial footnote in history, for a city almost reduced to the skids.  But a good lesson about a place that shook off its selfish, bridge-burning past and united, and made a contribution to America.

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My first day in Milwaukee

Footnote

Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by bridges – the architecture, the symbolism, and the stories.  A good bridge is not just beautiful, it almost always carries with it a good story or two.   So when I first set foot in Milwaukee, I looked at my little map and headed for the river.

My guidebook said the river has Bascules.  My keen, college-educated mind presented three options:

  • If I remembered biology class correctly, a bascule is the digestive tract of an amoeba, or,
  • a mysterious ethnic group in northern Spain, that used to blow things up, or,
  • a mythological creature that asks you three questions or riddles or something, and if you get it wrong, it eats you or you fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Or something.

So, it turned out, all three guesses were wrong.  A Bascule is a kind of drawbridge.  The drawbridge was being pulled up when I got there, and I looked across the river to see what had caused the Panic & Alarum — an attack on Milwaukee, expecting to see maybe…a horde from the Sons of Norway with battle axes?  Scott Walker & The Tea Party, waving torches?  The Menomonee Nation on the warpath?

But it dawned on me — the lift bridges are just  to let the boats go out to the lake.

Bascule bridge Chicago 1890 LOC

Bascule bridge. Chicago 1890. LOC

There is an endless stream of stories about bridges:

  • Brooklyn Bridge 1910 LOC

    Brooklyn Bridge 1910. LOC

    T. Barnum’s parade of elephants, to prove the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge .

  • A really cool science lesson called “aeroelastic flutter,” “mechanical resonance,” or maybe “sympathetic vibration” (I don’t know, whatever, did you think I was a physics major?) when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge turned into “Galloping Gertie” and ripped itself apart – – just very cool, and scary, to see a suspension bridge start bucking in waves, look up the video.
  • The storied London Bridge, (“London Bridge is falling down, falling down…“) now sitting on an artificial lake in Arizona.
  • The Millennium Bridge in London, a beautiful sculpture, and a fantastic pedestrian walkway over the Thames — except the engineers forgot that pedestrians are human beings. When it opened, the first people walking across it, instinctively compensated for the slight swaying motion — and their reactions collectively made it sway harder and harder, until it was impossible to walk.  I thought it sounded fun, but they added more guy-wires to fix it.
  • The Waterloo Bridge, with bronze lamps made by melting down Napoleon’s cannons
  • Tappan Zee Bridge – NY’s sagging, staggeringly expensive symbol of governmental infighting and dysfunction
  • Golden Gate Bridge LOC

    Golden Gate Bridge LOC

    The Golden Gate – beautiful, impressive, but a magnet for over a thousand suicides

  • Even the Roeblings weren’t infallible – – their Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge lasted forty years, carrying trains on one level and pedestrians on another, but when locomotives got heavier, it had to be replaced with a homely, but stronger, steel arch bridge.
  • Hell Gate Bridge LOC

    Hell Gate Bridge LOC

    Hells Gate Bridge in NYC, so-called, because when you cross it, you’re in Queens.  The model for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.  To my eye, kind of ugly, but incredibly strong.  Part of it is supported by another span, far underground, over a fissure in the rock bed.    The bridge’s piers are on two islands, and supposedly, they were made of very smooth stone, so that inmates on the islands’ mental asylums couldn’t climb up and escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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