Hello everyone, my name it Tim St. Thomas and I grew up on the corner of 39th and Center Streets in Milwaukee. I became interested in the Milwaukee Renaissance group when I found that several people in the group were working toward restoration of The Venetian Theater Building. It was located on the corner of 37th and Center Streets.
It was torn down starting the week of April 3.
I had a moment of being in the building shell and standing on the stage. It was a moment I had wanted to experience since I was a small child.
I’ll add items to this space, in hopes of helping everyone understand what was lost and how we can prevent this from happening again.
By Tim St. Thomas
© 2007 Tim St. Thomas
When a building that has a rich history is torn down. Reduced to dust and landfill material, much more than a building has been lost. Gone too are the possibilities to bring history alive to future generations.
What if the Ford’s Theater in Washington DC had been leveled? This historic site where President Abraham Lincoln lost his life when shot by John Wilks Booth would be lost. Having stood in this very building, and been in the place where he was shot, I can tell you it was a powerful experience. I was moved as I stood there in this spot where history took place. The story was told by guides from the National Park service who was passionate about it, and some where in tears. Standing on the stage, where Booth yelled “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Latin: “Thus always to tyrants”) I was struck by what it must have been like to be in the audience at that moment. I am told that they laughted at first, thinking it was part of the play; Our American Cousin. Then the chaos that followed when the realization of what had taken place.
Movies truly are magic. Consider that is a simple matter of individual frames of film passing by a light bulb, each frame of it holding a photo, each a unique photo. The concept for it had to be arrived at by great trial and error. When they were shown for the first time, there was a mixed reaction. People were amazed by it, others were dismayed calling it the work of the Devil.
Only two things, I believe, can transport us to another time and place in the same way as a movie can, the other being a well written book. But movies touch us in a way that reading cannot. Though the visual medium we can see where the story is taking place, and in some cases, experience almost being physically moved as is often the case in an IMAX movie. Add current surround technology and the transformation is even greater.
Movie theaters built today are build on simple ecomony. Seating, with some comfort, plan or curtained walls, a screen that is open and has adversting on display while you wait for the movie to start. There is no real archetectual magic to these simple boxes.
One Theater in Particualar
From American Terra Cotta Collection - 1927
The Venetian was a building that was designed and built with such care and detail in such a way to transport you to another world.
The Venetian was build for ½ million dollars in 1927 ($5,514,990.84 in 2007 dollars.) for the Venice Realty Company. It was designed by Peacock and Frank. They had also designed the now closed Bay Theater (http://cinematreasures.org/theater/7978/), The Egyptian (http://cinematreasures.org/theater/2375/), and the Paramount in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.(http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1184/) The Paramount is the only existing sample of their work that remains yet today and a thorough effort there has revialitized the building.
Built in 1927, in a working glass neighborhood with a diverse mixture of families who attended the near by St. Annes Catholic Church, some Lutherans who attended a variety of churches in the area and a other religions and backgrounds such as German and Italian and Irish the idea of placing a building of this type must have been considered a contrasting idea.
The journey of transportaion begin at the exterior. Terra-Cotta columns and other trim framed the visible corners. The colums had capitals at the top of the in the Roman/Venetian style and are loaded with detail and amazing color. Keep in mind that at a height of 100 feet, some of these details would never be seen by the general public. Futher toward that. Upon close inspection, one can see that the work included layers of color and work to make the plaster like material appear to be marble. One has to move close to see it, but from the ground, it could not be. Yet, somehow the impression of that being marble added to the alure of the building. When I consider that the workers who did this did not have thoughts of anyone seeing it up close, I am impressed by the level of workmanship.
A piece of the top scroll work on upper facade
One recient observation that was pointed out to me was that the colors of the shields that were on each section were not uniform in the order they were put up. The section to the east was semetrical. But, the two faces on the west end where not. They contained the correct number of colors of each shield to make a semetrical face, put this was not done. One has to wonder if it was done on purpose, as a joke by workers. Was it an error or was it following a custom that some builders of that era followed whereby they created some inperfection in the building because “Only God can make something perfect.”?
Shields on the front of the building.
Each piece of the fascasde was numbered so it would correspond with a location on the building on a drawing, so the error calls up this question, at least for me.
I can picture workers lifting each piece and placing them on the building. The neighbors watching with great excitement as the building took shape.
Inside the lobby, a tin ceiling with lots of detail work begin the journey to another land. To the left there was a large consession stand with large glass display cases where one could buy candy and other snacks. ”Enjoy Pure Buttered Popcorn” reads a sign on the top section of the bin for popcorn; perhaps a tip of the hat toward the fight against Margerine. At three locations in the lobby there were double door entrances to the auditorium as well as a pair of slightly curved stairs that led to the balcony. These stairs were shiny with many brass details, even in the 1970’s when they lead only to a after build door which blocked off the second level.
To each side of the double doors, large, 5–6 foot ‘Gaines’ were situated. They appeard to be flowing busts, much like one might find in an ancient Italian city on a building. One such Gaine is visible in the photo above, to the left edge of it. (These were removed from the building several years ago.)
The second floor hosted a lobby as well, lined with chairs for smoking and taking in some social time during intermission. A fountain trickled water amongt the garden painted walls. Later you will see another view of this lobby.
Upper Lobby as show in Exhibitors Herald Magazine when the Venetian Opened
The auditorium was large room, 95 feet by 59 feet, with a balcony that ran the entire width. It was here that the theater earned the term “atmospheric”. Inside you were transfererd to another place and time.
Auditorium as shown in Exhibitors Herald Magazine
The place was a palace garden in Andalusia, Italy with it’s beautiful and wide open blue skys with just a few clouds. The walls were painted and plastered with decorations to replicate a the garden, complete with fountains and far off buildings and skyline beyond. Over the stage proscenium a porch was built, complete with ornate supports and detailed rails and a grotto space in the center. This was common for Eberson School Atmospheric theaters. The projection booth on the balcony was complete with red tiles to make up the roof line. Behind it the ceiling gracefully curved down the balcony.
Photo of booth taken during razing of the Venetian
The stage was 59 feet wide x 18 feet deep. Large enough to host Vaudville shows and below it were the 6 dressing rooms and iron stairs lead from them to the stage level. It was complete with a good size orchestra pit and included a 1.33:1 format movie screen.
The theater had a style F Wurlitzer (2 manuals 8 ranks) that was used to provide music for Silent movies and other occasions. It was later removed and sold to a church in Northern Wisconsin. Currently, it is in a private residence in Minnesota.
The lighting was indirect, pointing toward the ceiling from behind panels. The brighly lighted and decorated auditorium was only the beginning of the atmospheric experience.
Piece of the lamps that surrounded the auditorium and provided lighting effects. See photo below for more.
Get some popcorn, find a seat, the show is about to begin
To help you experience the theater at it’s finest, let me explain how a movie was shown, as explained to me by several people, including a lady who lived above my parents flat on 39th and Center.
(Just for demonstration purposes, this is based on the presentation of a ‘talkie’ movie. Prior to the, shows started with an performance on the organ that also provided music during the silent film.)
During the “Coming Attractions” as they were called then, and the newsreel – the precursor to Television News, the lights would dim and one section would glow orange, like a beautiful sunset and then the room was dark, lighted only by the aisle lights. As the movie started, small lights that were in the ceiling begin to come on in familiar star formations, and would twinkle. As the movie progressed, more of these came on. A specalized projector caused clouds to drift slowly across the ceiling. Then, when the movie was about to end, the sun rose once again, complete with the colors of sunrise and the theater was again transformed to the outdoor sunlighted garden.
(For More about Movie Palaces, seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movie_palace or Purchase Silver Screens - A Pictorial History of Milwaukee Movie Theaters by Larry Widen and Judi Anderson)
Hearing this as a child, as I sat on a piano bench with Mrs. Kaborleign, I was memorized by this building, and have been ever since.
At some point, perhaps it can be determined because of the style, the marquee was changed and other modifications were made.
1946 or later Marquee - Jim Rankin collection.
Venetian Building - 1968 - City of Milwaukee Inspectors Photo
Years pass by.
In 1954 the Venetian Theater closed its doors. TV was the new form of enterainment and it was the death of many other Movie Palaces here in Milwaukee and across the country.
The building sat empty and an effort was made to sell it. A four page flyer promoting the building as a possible entertainent venue was published. Other possible uses listed were storage.
In 1958, the building was leased by Speeris Sporting Goods and they installed a drop ceiling in the auditorium level with the bottom of the balcony, forever concealing the artful ceiling and projection booth. The Venetian was then used as a warehouse for sporting goods until it converted to a store by Charles Karabetsos who hung the word “Sales” on the marquee and named his business Venetian Sales. His nephew Steve, who worked for Charles once wrote on the cite “Cinema Treasures”
He sold a variety of items, almost like a general store, during the Holiday season he had a very large toy department, this was prior to Toy’s R Us. The decline in toy sales and the impact of competition always presented new challenges, he used the stage area for warehousing of Proctor And Gamble soap items for the Coin Op. laundry business, the upper area was rented for several years to a person who sold sewing machines and developed a brush stroke technique to show how the “masters” painted on canvas, he attempted suicide after a partner embellished money from the company, for 20 years time stood still with all his stuff, occasionally we would salvage something to use for a sign or a part. In the 70′s we were able to obtain a liquor license, the seating area was left un-heated and used to warehouse large quantities of soda, beer and soap. The front or lobby became a neighborhood grocery and liquor store. My uncle sold the building and liquor business in either the late 80′s or early 90′s and since then I believe it has been closed entirely.
In the neighborhood, too grown-ups and kids alike the store was simply known as “Charlie’s.”
My experience with the building expanded at this time as my first watch - a Timex with black hands and numbers with a white face - was purchased from a display on what had once been the concession stand. It was my reward for learning how to tell time. My first radio, a red, 7-transistor AM radio was purchased from behind that same counter. At the time, it was state of the art technology. I earned the money for it going door-to-door collecting empty bottles. Signs for Koss headphones were on the display as well as on the exterior of the building. I was aware of the Milwaukee made product as they also ran WFMR, a classical music station I listen then, (And still do).
Every day I would go to Charlies on my way home from what was then St. Anne’s Catholic School and pick up the Milwaukee Journal. On Sundays we stopped there on our way home from church. For over 20 years I entered the building.
The former St. Ann’s Catholic Church - Milwaukee
Sometimes when our family needed to purchase something, like an electric frying pan for example, my father and I would walk to Venetian Sales and go into the former auditorium and check what was on the shelves. I remember the auditorium, with the floor still slanted, but it’s walls painted pure white filled with warehouse style shelving and pallets of soap and similar items. Shelves filled with toys, games and small appliances. I remember seeing water stains on the drop ceiling and my father telling me that the building had a leaky roof. No one gave thought to what that would mean in the long term.
I knew what was up there and wondered what it looked like then.
I longed to go up the stairs near the concession stand and through a door that had been put there to see what I could of that wondrous ceiling. I asked my parents permission to ask Charlie if I could, but was told not to bother him with it. It was not my place to do so I was told. I was tempted to defy them and ask, but I found I could not.
Changes in the area
In the 1970’s the City of Milwaukee begin tearing down houses that were in the block north of North Avenue between Sherman Blvd and 27th Street. This would become a freeway the public was told. It would connect I-43 to the “Stadium Freeway” near Washington Park.
Owners were given a choice to sell at the offered price for the property would be condemned and then they had no choice buy to sell at rock bottom price and move. Many wonderful houses were destroyed and people I knew, school mates and friends left the area, never to return.
The once busy North Avenue grew quiet. The Ben Franklin store on the corner of 35th and North, where one could enjoy a meal at the lunch counter or buy a variety of merchandise ranging from small appliances to fish closed. It was followed by the Woodworth Store soon after. Other businesses along the way closed.
My turn to move.
In 1983 I married and moved away from the area. I went back to visit my parents until the mid 1980’s and then had no longer a need to return there. When I would return I would see the changes that had taken place. Stores that had closed up, new businesses that had moved in. Candy / sweet shops where our barber once had his business. Changes, always take place. I think we notice them more so when we come back to a place only every so often.
Center Street - 2003 - Note that this view has changed since then.
In 2003, inspired by the NPR radio show “This American Life” and the movie “The Majestic.” I returned back to the Venetian.
In the movie The Majestic(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268995/), Jim Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a man who helps to rebuild a run down movie theater. As I sat watching it on my TV one evening, I recalled the Venetian and what a place of wonder it was for me. I had long fogotten about it, stored deeply in my memory.
One Saturday morning I decided to return to visit the Venetian and see if I could get inside of it.
Sadly, it was locked and boaded up. It’s terra cotta fascade still looked as beautiful as when I had seen it every day of my young life.
I walked around, taking several photos. I photographed other places in the neighborhood that I knew. When I returned home I started writing about my old neighborhood. People I knew, where the lived, events that happened there. And, other aspects of my life. I’m still working on that every day.
I found a website called Cinema Treasures and thought it exchanged information about the Venetian. One man I ‘met’ that way, Jim Rankin sent at photo to me of the concession stand and a copy of an Article in Exhibitors Hearld. Jim it turned out was a local expert on classic movie theaters and we exchanged quite a few emails. He helped me to find resources to learn more about it. Sadly, before I was able to meet him in person he passed away. I attended his memorial service in January of 2007. Milwaukee lost a person with a lot of knowledge that day. He will be missed by many of us.
The book Silver Screens by Larry Widen came out and showed everyone a photo of the Venetian. It was fairly current photo from the Milwaukee Journal, and while it was stark and harsh, I think the cold reality of how we have neglected a piece of history was a point he brought up with that photo.
A fighting chance
In February of 2006, I read an email that sent a rush of excitement through me. A group of people in Milwaukee were trying to get the Venetian open again!
It would take a lot of work, and money, about as much as it cost to build it in the first place to return the building to functional. But, the building would be updated, and made more environmentally friendly with a Green Roof and other improvements.
You can read about this effort here:
I had hopes of returning once again to the interior of this building. And, with an offer of doing carpentry services I had hoped to be part of the restoration.
What had survived in the building? Was the ceiling still there. Could it be restored?
On Thursday, March 29th 2007, a crew arrived at the location of the Venetian Theater building to remove asbestos such as the fire curtain and some insulation that remained in the building. On Friday, March 30th a crew arrived and assembled a fence around the area and performed other prep work.
That following Monday, April 2nd, the crew begin to re-enforce the east wall of the building. This side of the Venetian was about 4 feet from a duplex and was separated by what had been an emergency walkway.
Workers enforce the east wall of the Venetian in an attempt to prevent damage to the house next door. Their efforts fail.
On Tuesday demolition begin. First with the west wall near the stage and then pulling down the east wall. This was not met with full success as large portions of the wall fell into the duplex, in one case startling the resident with bricks entering their flat. The roof of the duplex was ripped open and had a 15 foot long gaping hole.
Wednesday the crew took down the roof portion. This closed the last view of the projection booth that was still fully intact with details above it. The famous ceiling of the theater had already fallen as crumbled plaster to the floor, except for portions over the balcony that where protected by the remaining roof, and what could later be seen over the stage.
The proscenium, covered since the drop ceiling was put in during the conversion from theater to retail store. Note the cloud on the sky and great plaster details.
Friday the crew pulled down the remaining portion of the east well while Milwaukee police closed West Center Street for concern that the front wall may collapse into the street. It did not. The sturdy manner in which the building was constructed was evident by the amount of effort it took to destroy it.
Saturday, April 7th, the Venetian facade was pulled down.
In the weeks prior to this, several people interested in preserving this historic building, or at least portions of it and the company doing the razing declined to let them on the property.
On Sunday, April 8th a group of scavengers were tearing at portions near the stage, carting away scrap metal.
The stage remained wall remained standing, complete with surviving portions of the proscenium and parts of the once grand, hand painted ceiling and walls. Sadly, it has taken the destruction of this building to allow us to view the grand details of this building.
Upper Lobby exposed by razing crew.
In an odd twist of fate, this theater that at one time simulated the out of doors spent some time truly having an open sky with seating area and screen. The movie screen, slightly torn and its side curtains intact was still hanging from the ropes used to secure it there some time around it’s closing.
The movie screen awaiting it’s final distruction
Some people who were interested in preserving the terra cotta and other features were also at the site removing them. While looking at these items close up, one can see the care and detail that was put in the construction of this building. 80 years of exposure to the elements and the sun have not dimmed the bright colors of the terra cotta. One can see paint and details work that was done.
A great sample of the details of this fine building.
We worked though out the afternoon to save as many whole pieces as we could.
At one point I stood in the middle of the stage and looked out at the wreckage of what had been this beautiful building. I imagined every one of the 1430 seats filled with a diverse group of people. People of all colors and heritage and faith sitting in them. I saw the stars twinkle overheard. I heard the orchestra play in the pit below and felt the heat of the footlights. I sang aloud the opening lines from the Stevie Wonder song “Shelter in the Rain”
When the lights are down and the stage is bare, there’s no more magic’s in the air, I’ll be your shelter from your pain, I’ll be your shelter in the rain. - Stevie Wonder
I remembered walking out of the heavy double doors from the lobby to the street as a kid, holding the brass handle in my hand and wondering who else had been there. And walking out into the rain.
‘’‘A Visit to a Similar Building Raises Questions About the Venetian
This is the Aragon Ballroom in North Chicago. It was built in 1926, one year before the Venetian Theater as a ballroom. This building was designed by John Eberson, a world famous architect and the father of the atmospheric design. His designs included a star filled sky and projected clouds as well as a plaster and straw mixture that was used to form very ornate interiors achieving the effect of a palatial garden.
The Aragon, while a ballroom, uses this exact same design feature in the ballroom area and the palatial impression is started from the moment you enter the building.
I was able to make such a visit recently and my companion and I had an immediate first impression, even as we drove by to find a parking spot. It looked and felt like the Venetian.
There are several items that give this impression. From the ground, without measuring it appears to be the same height. But aside from that, look at details such the corner and the capital style.
It looks exactly like this:
Note the exact design of the Capital, a birds-head design and they are identical.
The inverted Dome design, that appears in exactly the same locations on each building are of the exact same design, and they are of the same color.
The three rope Pilaster that is in the exact same relationship and number of them on the building facade , rotating in the same direction. From my viewpoint, without the ability to measure the samples on the Aragon, they appear to be the same size.
Brickwork on the front and side of the Argon Building has a cross hatch pattern formed by having some of the bricks protrude from the building. This same texture was used on the Venetian Building.
Compare these two photos.:Attach: Building_details.jpg
This raises an interesting question. How did this happen?
Further here are some points to consider:
The Aragon was completed in 1926. The Venetian was built in 1926 and opened in April of 1927.
John Eberson was living and had an office in Chicago ILL in those years, moving to New York in late 1926.
If The Venetian was not an Eberson design, how could someone have designed the Venetian to match it so quickly after it opened?
If The Venetian was not an Eberson design, why do elements of the building match so tightly such as the capitols and robe decorations? The Polychrome Terra Cotta elements for the Venetian Building were created and made by American Terra Cotta Company in Crystal Lake, ILL. These would have been in the process of being made for the Argon while the Venetian was being designed. Their records, held now by the University of Minnesota do not show them having worked on the Aragon, but many other Chicago buildings, none of them designed by Eberson. They show his work on Rivieria Theater in Nebraska, (1925), Michigan Theater, Lansing MI, (1920), and New Majestic, Houston, TX,(1922) as Eberson buildings. Did someone at that factory obtain plans from somewhere else to create the Venetian Elements?
Could perhaps, The Venetian have been an Eberson design and not a Peacock and Frank as claimed in the article listed above?
Sadly, we will never know the truth.
The City of Milwaukee does not have the plans for the Venetian on file, they are lost. The only related plan they have is for the seats that were built by Wisconsin Chair of Port Washington. This company went out of business in 1959 and no references are listed on it to any other designer.
The City of Milwaukee does not have permits on file for the building of The Venetian, or any type of inspection reports dating to that time.
An extensive search for people who were involved has resulted in no further information. The granddaughter of Mr. Peacock said that her grandmother removed and destroyed all of his papers upon his death. While many people remember the building, have attended shows there, no one who worked in the building as a theater or worked on the building or had relatives who worked in building it have come forth.
The Venetian was buried a landfill
Photo: Proscenium and surrounding areas from balcony – January 2006. (Courtesy City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Department.) – Note the Venetian Logo on the Fire curtain.
A marking that may have helped to determine if The Venetian was indeed an Eberson would have been his trademark of placing his family Crest (a sword and finger) somewhere in the building, mostly near the stage. Examples of this are found in all of his other buildings. However, The Venetian plaster had deteriorated due to the hole in the roof and all hope of finding such a mark was lost.
Last Seat in the House: (Courtesy City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Department) Taken in the Projection Booth of the Venetian Theater, January, 2006 during an inspection tour.
Preserving History Electronically
Once news of the razing of teh Venetian, the website, Cinema Treasures begin to buzz with information about the Venetian. (http://cinematreasures.org/theater/2464/) Some including me, expressed sadness that this building would be lost forever for future generations.
What we lost
When the last brick of the Venetian is gone, so to gone forever is a piece of history. Thousands of people filed though it’s doors to enjoy Vaudeville at it’s finest, or a movie.
Imagine watching a silent film here while the organ was played, or an orchestra.
Imagine watching newsreel footage of World War II or sitting in this beautiful theater on December 7th 1941 when the movie “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” and the movie was shut off and the lights brought up the manager stepping onto the stage to announce that Japan had invaded Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. (Paraphrased from “Silver Screens” - Larry Widen)
Gone is the history of when a building such as this was a spectacular feat, when movies were about more than computer generated worlds. Gone is the elegance of a place such as this. Gone is the craftsmanship… forever.
Why, Why, Why did this happen?
Paul Bachowski - Part of Milwaukee Renaissance - observed the following reasons:
Permit me to add two items to his excellent observations. (My opinion inserted here!)
The latter of these had reared its ugly head in the 1970’s when the Chicago and Northwestern Rail Road Depot was torn down.
Chicago and Northwest Station in Downtown Milwaukee - From Smithsonian Museum
This marvelous building was cleared away to make room for a parking lot. Later in the 1980’s a tribute to this building was placed in a section where it once stood. Now, an office building has been erected and all attribution of the building is lost.
Future generations will little know about the building of the Venetian.
I return back to my original question. What if Fords Theater had been torn down?
Only by keeping a historic record can this building be kept alive in some form.
When will we learn that we look a great deal when a building is torn down with out regards for history or for the future?
Center Street and the Future
While I was touring the area that Saturday morning, a business owner was packing some items in his van and asked me why I was doing so. I told him about living where I did and that I was back to take notes and pictures. He told me that several business owners were working to rebuild Center Street to the level it once was, humming with businesses and residents.
I hope the efforts they are doing can be fruitful. It is a place of many memories for me.
If you have any information about the Venetian, please contact me by sending an email to me: .
I’m interested in hearing from anyone who experienced it in person as a theater or as the retail store. Or, perhaps you worked there or had a parent who did. Or perhaps someone in your family helped build it, or perhaps they appeared there in a show.
If you have a photo or some memorabilia, I would give proper credit to you for its use in a future published work.
What will we do when our history is lost? When the past has been wiped away like dust?