January 23, 2010

Downtown's hidden treasure - By George Wagner

George Wagner, a knowledgeable HMI guide who recently scripted our Six Points walking tour, is working hard to bring Doors Open to Milwaukee.

Something like 10,000 people have moved into condominiums and apartments in the downtown Milwaukee area over the past 20 years. When these folks are asked why they live downtown, they say it's the proximity to great cultural and sports venues, a beautiful lakefront, terrific restaurants and exciting events.
But they also mention something less tangible: They love the downtown ambience that juxtaposes the old and the new. They enjoy walking among and inside our downtown buildings. And that squares with a comment we volunteer tour guides at Historic Milwaukee Inc. often hear from visitors: "You have a lovely downtown with so many beautiful old buildings!"
When we give these tours, what elicits the "oohs" and "aahs" are often the interior spaces: from the federal courthouse atrium to City Hall's light well; from the elegant Grain Exchange Room to the Pfister Hotel lobby; from the remodeled interior of St. John's Cathedral to the Plankinton Arcade.
Yet many visitors to our downtown, from near or far, are unaware of the treasures that lay within. We have a great heritage inside those buildings.
There are a number of cities in the United States and Canada that have inaugurated "Doors Open" weekends to highlight these kinds of hidden gems. Ten years ago, Toronto was the first. It was so successful that its province started Doors Open Ontario two years later. New York City followed suit. Two years ago, I visited Denver to investigate its program and came back excited and convinced that Milwaukee could do the same. These cities' Doors Open events continue to expand to include neighborhoods outside of their centers. We could do likewise.
Here's how it works. Every year, on a weekend in the spring or fall, about a hundred buildings open up to the public free of charge. Building owners are invited to open their doors, deciding how much of their building they want to showcase. Some feel comfortable allowing the public into their lobby; others have their staff present tours of the building. Visitors decide which sites they want to check out on their own schedule. In addition, these two-day events typically include dozens of "expert tours" that are ticketed but free and open on a first-come basis.
What kinds of buildings are featured? Churches, office buildings, theaters, museums, libraries, hotels, condominiums, government buildings, shops, athletic facilities, architectural firms, banks, restaurants, schools, clubs and historic homes. From belfries to boardrooms, from the newest to the oldest, from the ornate to the simple, from original use to total do-over.
Whether you want to climb City Hall's bell tower, peek into luxury condos, examine the Grohmann Museum's rooftop sculptures up close or find out about downtown's "green hotels," a Doors Open program could make that happen.
In a sense, such an event could be a kind of homecoming for our own area residents. It's returning to the roots of our parents and grandparents and understanding that what made Milwaukee great in the past continues today in its built environment.
Historic Milwaukee Inc. is working to make this event a reality here. Preliminary plans envision Doors Open Milwaukee for September 2011.
It's time to show off our downtown's wonderful architectural heritage, both outside and in.

George Wagner of Milwaukee is a retired librarian. E-mail gwagne61@yahoo.com


  1. This looks like a terrific idea! What will it take to make this happen?

  2. We are currently putting together a business plan and organizing meetings potential project partners. Later this year we will put out a call for volunteers to help us begin putting the nuts and bolts of Doors Open together. Email info@historicmilwaukee.org if you are interested in volunteering.