Monday, July 23, 2007

Hold Your Nose


The pungent, potent, powerful aroma of Milwaukee beaches in the summertime has returned at last. The smell of rotting dead algae was wafting up the bluffs this afternoon and was still strong as far away as Downer Avenue.

It's so embarrassing. Can't something be done about this olfactory assault?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Goldmann's Department Store

As was heavily reported a month or two back, Milwaukee classic Goldmann's Department Store will be closing its doors in October, The independent department store has operated since 1896; in recent decades it has lost noticable business to big box stores and department store chains. Its owners, both in their late 70s, have chosen to retire and wish to close the store while it remains a profitable venture.

The store's interior has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s, and even then it wasn't massively altered. The exterior was given a Modernist facade in the 1950s, including a handsome clock and a fabulous neon sign.

Goldmann's Department Store

I was passing by this weekend, and stopped in for a lengthy look around. Normally department stores are loathe to have people roaming about with cameras -- but I wasn't the only one at Goldmann's. I explored every inch of the place -- basement, first floor, a mezzanine, and second floor -- and found it packed with oddities, relics, and delightfully mismatched odds and ends.

Goldmann's Department Store

Even with the 1950s interior renovations, the place retains much evidence of its Victorian origins. Exposed steel beams, an old staircase and modestly elaborate railing, and a prevalence of wood construction speak of a building much older than its facade.

Low Pipe!

The building's plumbing and HVAC systems are a mishmash of haphazard accumulations, added piecemeal over the decades. Some of the pipes in the mezannine area are actually at forehead height -- a condition that would never pass muster with today's building codes. Cooling is provided by massive free-standing air conditioners the size of refrigerators, dating from the 1960s. Heat comes from radiators scattered randomly about, some right in the middle of the sales floor.

Goldmann's Department Store

It is these systems that more than anything doom the interior space as a whole -- they'll never pass code today. The building will surely be gutted by its new owner for renovations.

That sales floor is home to a vast array of merchandise -- clothing in a huge array of sizes, suits in a rainbow of colors. The men's department is presided over by a tailor in his 70s who has worked in the store for decades and has known it since childhood. Alterations and pressing are done in-house.

Goldmann's Department Store

Cash registers throughout the building are vintage analogue machines, the kind that disappeared several decades ago from most other businesses:

Goldmann's Department Store

Long-dated "modernizing" touches are scattered here and there. They give the strong impression of being installed in the mid-1960s, when the New Formalism movement was at its peak -- particularly these faux concrete thin shell arches, complete with hanging globe lamps:

Goldmann's Department Store

The diamond backgrounds for the Men's Wear sign create a similar effect of intended Modern elegance, though they could also date from the Googie excesses of a decade earlier.

Goldmann's Department Store

At the other end of the first floor, the lunch counter is a slice of 1950s diner streamline, against a backdrop of Victorian decorative touches. Three walk-in counters with curving ends offer seating to diners perched on fixed, round, green-cushioned stools.

Goldmann's Department Store

(Victorian? Yes -- note the floral column capitals:

Goldmann's Department Store

When it comes time for fixtures to be sold off, I'm sure someone will pay a hefty price for the slick daily specials sign and its integrated clock:

Goldmann's Department Store

On the mezzanine level, in addition to a wide selection of lamps and shades, the store contains its own mini-museum of photographs, old newspaper ads, and antiquated calculting equipment:

Goldmann's Department Store

Of particular interest is a photo of the building prior to its modernization:

Goldmann's Department Store

(Personally, I find it more interesting with its current facade!)

The store's Going Out of Business sale has begun. In the basement, a corner has already begun accumulating empty clothing racks, and spaces in the 2nd floor are emptying out as well. The time to go see this amazing retail time capsule is now -- it won't be the same for much longer, and very soon it will be gone forever.

Solvay Coke Plant

Sandwiched inbetween the rail lines east of Kinnickinnik and the Milwaukee and KK rivers is a long-abandoned industrial site, with the remains of a number of buildings crumbling away among weeds and broken concrete. A bit of online searching reveals that this is the remains of the Solvay Coke Plant, which operated on the site from around the turn of the century until 1983 when it was abandoned. The coke manufacturing process is intensely toxic and left the site a contaminated brownfield.

Solvay Coke ruins

Solvay Coke buildings

Several intrepid explorers have published photos of this fascinating complex of buildings, including an especially good one here. Most of the site has been demolished in the last couple of years, a massive blank slate awaiting cleanup and redevelopment.

Other pages:
Photos from when the plant was in operation.
Development plans, from the Journal-Sentinel.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Summerfest Promenade

If you've ever been on a stroll down Philadelphia's glorious South Street, then you know what a true urban shopping street is -- a destination, a gathering point, a place where there's always a crowd. It draws the young and the old, the normal and the deviant, families and singles -- everybody. South Street pulses day and night, and people come there not just to visit its innumerable shops, bars, restaurants, and other businesses, but also just to hang out, to watch people, to disappear into the anonymous crowd. The desire for such communal interaction is a basic human need, and South Street fulfills it beautifully. One can observe the same thing at work on Chicago's Clark Street and Michigan Avenues, and Madison's State Street.

So. Where is Milwaukee's South Street?

Some would point to Brady Street, and I'll admit, it's come a long way -- even in the six-going-on-seven years that I've lived here. But even at its summer weekend night peak, Brady never really has a crowd. If you walk up the street, then back down, then back up, anyone paying attention will notice that you went by three times. There's not enough people there to get truly lost in, and while I won't say it's outside the realm of possibility, I don't see that kind of environment in Brady Street's future.

You could also point to the Water Street bar district, but it's a one-note show: an ordinary downtown street in the day, with the crowds only coming out on weekend nights -- and those crowds are functionally homogenous, basically people who are there to go to the bar. It also suffers from being on a major boulevard of a street. East North Avenue is another possibility; its business offerings are much more diverse, but hemmed in as it is by the river and the hospital, its growth is probably about maxed out. The crowds there on a Saturday night are, again, just not thick enough to cut it. The rest of the city's commercial and nightlife streets -- KK, Milwaukee, Farwell/Prosepct -- are all smaller still.

There's the lakefront, but it's mostly a daytime operation, and it's physically separated from the fabric of the city, and its crowds are too thinned by the sheer size of the place to provide urban anonymity.

We simply don't have a South Street here. And as a self-respecting city, we really should.

- - -

If you check the Shepherd-Express's yearly Best of Milwaukee poll, one of the votes that jumps out is "Best People Watching Spot: Summerfest." Summerfest?! Our best people-watching spot is only around for ten days a year!

So... could the Summerfest grounds become Milwaukee's own South Street?

What I'm thinking of is a pipe dream to be sure, but indulge me a moment.

The Meier Festival Grounds are a rather haphazard jumble of permanent stages and kiosks, with no clear sense of navigation or orientation. It was planned and built piecemeal, with nobody quite anticipating how enormous the whole production would eventually become. It's hard to find your way around when the place is jam packed with thousands of people. Sound bleeds between the stages, and you never know if you've missed some aspect of the festival or not. A master plan was finally developed back in 2000, but hasn't really been implemented in full.

If unlimited funds were to fall like manna from the heavens, I'd love to see much of the existing grounds torn down and redone with a clear, comprehensible master plan, oriented along a clearly defined, broad central circulation path. And in doing so, I'd love to see the vendor booths, special exhibits, and midway rides re-oriented to form one long strip of uninterrupted boardwalk-style bliss along the water's edge. Separate it from the stage areas, and they could keep it open all summer. Milwaukee's lakefront has beaches, a marina, lovely walkways, a wonderful pier, lots of trees and grass and even a lagoon... but where's our boardwalk? Summerfest should be it.

Like I said -- it's a pipe dream. I especially can't see it happening now that the new Lakeshore State Park is open just across the water -- can you imagine the howls of outrage if a semi-permanent carnival was announced a hundred feet from a prairie preserve and camping ground? I can't even imagine how successful such a venture might be; for all I know it might fall flat on its face -- there are relatively few people living nearby, and without the music of Summerfest, the remainder might be much less of a draw. But if it worked, it would provide the one component of a major urban city that Milwaukee just doesn't quite have -- our own South Street.

And to have an old-fashioned shore town-style boardwalk would be so, so, so cool!

Related articles:
History of the Summerfest grounds
Plans for renovations to the grounds, an article which believe it or not came out *after* I'd written most of this post.