Despite valiant efforts to stem the tide, much of our dear Wisconsin Avenue has seen better days. A once elegant and grand avenue has lost a fair amount of its Gilded Age sheen to crime, litter, rundown hovels, and innumerable fast-food joints.
It wasn’t always this way. During America’s Gilded Age, prominent Milwaukee families vied with one another in building stately mansions, reflecting in their design the beauty and elegance of the Old World. Many are gone, done in by harebrained urban “development” schemes and preserved only in fading pictures that serve as windows to another time.
Of course, what has occurred on Wisconsin Avenue, in terms of a downturn, is not an anomaly to most American cities. The slow decomposition and crumbling of large swaths of urban centers is a sad reality. At least for Milwaukee though, all is not lost. Ours is a city that has a budding reputation, among historians and hipsters alike, for protecting and cherishing its architectural relics, from those found along Brady Street and the Third Ward, to Mitchell Street and Bay View.
The discerning visitor strolling down Wisconsin Avenue will pass several noteworthy architectural gems still standing tall, citadels resisting the decades of change and decline, reminding passersby of their once-glorious past. The Milwaukee Public Library, with its majestic pillars, immense dome and stunning mosaics stands out, as well as the Wisconsin Club, a regal French Second Empire mansion, built by Milwaukee industrialist Alexander Mitchell in 1876.
For the purposes of Cream City Catholic, I’d like to devote this piece to another standout Wisconsin Avenue treasure: the historic Pabst Mansion, built in 1892. Home to Milwaukee’s storied Pabst family and then, for nearly seventy years, the official nerve center of the Milwaukee Archdiocese and residence of several archbishops, it’s hard to believe that for a short time, this amazing example of Flemish Renaissance Revival was slated for demolition. A parking lot, yes a parking lot, was to fill the void. Of course, Milwaukee never would have forgiven itself for such a brutal display of iconoclasm. Thankfully, the building still stands in all its original splendor. And what a building!
Considering the sad fate of so many of the other grand homes that once dotted Wisconsin Avenue, it’s tempting to think that perhaps, just perhaps, the decades of prayers and scores of Masses offered inside the old mansion had something to do with its seemingly miraculous last-minute death-sentence reprieve.
Those touring the Pabst Mansion enter through the doors of the former private chapel of the archbishop. Transported from the Chicago World Fair, the Pabst Pavilion now serves as a gift shop. (I know, not as inspiring as a chapel, but I’ll take a quaint gift-shop over a wrecking ball, a pile of bricks and a parking lot any day.) While no longer a chapel, conspicuous reminders of the room’s spiritual past remain. You can still see the original stained-glass windows, as sunbeams emancipate their beautiful images. In the silence, you can almost hear the sublime cadences of Gregorian Chant, the Latin prayers and fragrant incense that once filled this intimate sanctuary during decades of Masses.
We owe the Archdiocese, which sold the building to a historical preservation society in the ’70s, a debt of gratitude for the careful preservation of the building’s interior over those nearly eight decades of stewardship. As you pass into the main part of the mansion, much of what you’ll see on the tour is original to the house. That so many of the interior’s ornate furnishings have been preserved is truly astonishing. With a keen eye for tradition, the archdiocese was loath to dramatically alter the interior’s appearance. The attention to detail, the unparalleled German craftsmanship and stately woodwork always take my breath away.
We hope and pray for a Wisconsin Avenue renaissance. We need to reclaim the rich heritage of this grand avenue. In the meantime, if you have a free Saturday afternoon in the near future, check out this treasure.