Monday, December 14, 2015

Next Time

One of the useful things about writing a blog for a while is being able to look into the archives to see what you were doing at a specific moment in your life. For a very long time, it has been a tradition of ours to go up to Milwaukee on the weekend after Thanksgiving which also happens to correspond with my birthday. I knew we didn't make it up there last year, but was quite certain we were there the year before.

Thanks to this blog's archive, and the realization that I wrote about Milwaukee the last time we made it up there, it turns out our last post-Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Cream City (named after the color of bricks typically found on its buildings), took place in 2012, three years ago.

Our periodic visits to Milwaukee confirm two of the most undeniable facts in human existence: things change (the title of my last piece on Milwaukee), and the scariest of them all, time flies. Because of that and our all too infrequent visits to one of my favorite cities, I've learned not to take another concept for granted, "next time."

In all my travels, next time comes up whenever I reckon I'll have the opportunity to do something I didn't get around to doing, the next time I visit a city. Until recently, the thought that there may not be a next time never occurred to me. That revelation struck me perhaps the first time a few years ago when I visited Melbourne. Quite frankly, despite how much I enjoyed that lovely city in Victoria, Australia, the idea of getting another opportunity to fly half way around the world to visit Melbourne again seemed quite unlikely indeed. 

Being only ninety minutes away by car, Milwaukee is obviously a different story. We could go up there at the drop of a hat if we choose, but somehow life seems to get in the way.

A couple things came to mind when I discovered that it's been three years since our last Thanksgiving visit. If we wait another three years, who knows what will have changed in our lives, but two things will be certain, I'll be sixty years old and my son will be a senior in high school, perhaps without the slightest desire to join us.

Also unknown is what will change in Milwaukee in the next three years. Both my wife and I have long histories with the city. She lived and studied there in her late teens and early twenties. and I've been going up regularly since childhood, starting with summer vacations with my grandparents. Since my wife and I have been going there together, we've observed the changes that have occurred, usually lamenting the loss of one favorite haunt or other.

Fortunately at this writing, more than a handful of Milwaukee institutions remain intact, unchanged since, well at least as long as I can remember, and no doubt much longer. 

My surrogate grandfather was from Germany and whenever we visited we inevitably dined in at least one of the city's great German restaurants, Maders and Karl Ratzsch's. Much later I had my first legal beer at Maders when I was nineteen, which was the drinking age in Wisconsin back then, two years younger than my home state, explaining the extraordinary concentration of police at the Illinois-Wisconsin state border on weekend evenings back in the seventies.

But Karl Ratzsch's at least in my opinion is superior to Maders in every way and my dear family obliges me on my birthday with a visit to my favorite restaurant on the planet. (Allegedly it was Frank Lloyd Wright's as well).

Looking exactly as it did in my childhood, the redoubtable Karl Ratzsch's restaurant
As you can see in the picture, the joint wasn't exactly jumping when we were there a couple weeks ago. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that German restaurants with their heavy fare are not popular these days, perhaps for good reason. But to me this kind of cooking is the ultimate comfort food, introduced by my Czech father who passed on his passion for delicacies such as roast duck, wiener schnitzel and liver dumpling soup to his only son. The food combined with the gemutlichkeit, accompanied by a soundtrack of Johann Strauss waltzes and other light classical and old pop standards. kept the memory of my father, surrogate grandfather and my long lost childhood alive.

Unfortunately, as yet I have been unable to pass along the passion for Central European cuisine to my own children and I'm probably not alone. My fear is one day we'll drive up to Milwaukee and Karl Ratzsch's and Maders will be gone, victims of changing times, appetites and wastelines. 

Knowing the visit to Karl Ratzsch's would take up a good chunk of our limited time and money, I had reservations about visiting it this trip. Yet well aware of my new found appreciation of next time, I decided we had to go. It was the right decision and it made me very happy to be in the venerable restaurant again, hopefully there will be a next time.

Another valued treasure in Milwaukee is the Hotel Pfister which first opened its doors in the 1890s. The hotel expanded in the sixties, perhaps tripling its number of rooms when it built the adjacent Pfister Tower, one of the butt- ugliest sixties era buildings in a city filled with them. Fortunately the old building remains in tact and as you can see in the photo, every effort has been made to retain its 19th century charm.

The sumbtuous lobby of the Hotel Pfister
In the vicinity of Karl Ratzch's and the Pfister, another Milwaukee institution is still there but eroding before our eyes. George Watts & Son, in business since the 1870s, is famous for its tea room which is still going strong. In addition, Watts once had a retail establishment that occupied the rest of the two floors of its lovely building at the corner of  Mason and Jefferson Streets. The Watts Gift Shop, similar in feel to the one featured in the classic Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner, specialized in exceptionally courteous service and high quality odds and ends. In my wife's words, Watts featured "expertly curated, lovely but non-essential items for the kitchen and dining room," Watts was the go to place for wedding registries and Christmas gifts for the well heeled of Milwaukee's North Shore. Every year we'd take the opportunity to purchase gifts, especially for my mom for whom the shop was perfectly suited. About ten years ago we noticed that the company was reducing the footprint of its shop, renting out bits of space in their building to other high end retail establishments like a bridal salon and an art gallery. Today Watts Gift Shop is limited to the vestibule of their building and one small room on the first floor. Worst of all, a sizable portion of the second floor now is now occupied by a law office. My wife lamented putting off buying many things she had her eye on because she always assumed Watts would be there the next time we visited. Now she's not so sure.

In a post I wrote way back in 2010, I enumerated five of my favorite things in the world that were found in Milwaukee. Today, one of those establishments, Palermo Villa is gone, Alterra Coffee and Sendiks Grocery on Downer Street have both changed hands and altered in the process. We didn't visit Ben's Cycle this time but they have grown considerably and as a reliable source, our friend who is Ben's cousin assures us, the business is doing quite well thank you very much. Of the fives laces listed, only Karl Ratsch's seems to have changed not one iota.

There has been one change in Milwaukee since our last visit that pleased me to no end. Back when I was visiting the city with my grandparents in the sixties, we always made time for a brewery tour. Milwaukee of course is best known as a center of brewing and when I was a kid, the city boasted three major breweries, Schlitz, Pabst and Miller. We visited them all. To me the most impressive part of any brewery tour was the brewhouse and its enormous kettles which boil the liquid known as wort, extracted from mashed, malted barley and other grains. Into those kettles at various times in the brewing process, hops are introduced, typically by hand. From a historic postcard of the Pabst brewhouse that I collected as a child, this is how it looked:

Image from a fifties postcard showing Pabst Brewery workers
monitoring and adding hops to the brewing wort.
Notice in the background of the photograph there is a stained glass window. That window depicts the legendary King Gambrinus, the "patron saint of beer." You can imagine how impressive this room would have been to a little kid. What cannot be conveyed in the photograph is the tremendous aroma of the cooking sweet wort, combined with the spicy fragrance of the hops. That smell is not to everyone's liking but it is definitely unforgettable and in the rare circumstances when I encounter it, I'm magically transported to that very room, c. 1965.

The brewing industry fell upon hard times a decade later, Schitz closed its doors in the eighties and Pabst followed suit in the nineties. Since that time I often wondered what became of that beautiful room with its glorious kettles and stained glass window. Here's a link to a Flicker site devoted to some of Milwaukee's industrial ruins including the old brewhouse. Some of the photographs show markings on the floor where the mash tuns once sat, several stories above the brew kettles. They were no doubt removed in order to salvage their copper. But the beautiful kettles remained, covered with a patina of dust, as grass took seed within the grout of the old ceramic tiles on the floor. I can only guess why those old tanks didn't meet the same fate as the other equipment in the brewhouse, someone must have figured they had not completely worn out their usefulness.

A few months ago, the Pabst Company (whose chief product is now contract brewed by the Miller Brewing Company on the west side of town), announced that it will open up a boutique micro-brewery on the site of their old downtown plant. Naturally I had to go see.

One of my childhood haunts, the Pabst Brewery,
closed in the nineties and left to decay for twenty years
is finding new life. The brewhouse is the building on the right.
Today in the former Pabst guest house where the brewery tours used to originate, there is a gift shop that sells memorabilia from all the old Milwaukee breweries. There I inquired about the plans for the new brewery. Mistakenly I thought it would take advantage of some of the old equipment, thinking of course about the brewhouse. I was told the new micro brewery would be built inside an old church building on the edge of the property. What then I asked would be the fate of the old brew kettles? Clearly I hadn't been to Milwaukee in a while.

It turns out the brewhouse has been converted into a hotel, appropriately named, the Brewhouse Inn. The centerpiece of the new hotel is the lobby one floor above the reception area featuring what else, the six magnificent kettles and the window, all of which have been lovingly restored. The rooms of the hotel sit where the mash tuns used to be, and all overlook the lobby and the brew kettles.

The interior of the Pabst brewhouse as it appears today as the lobby of the new
Brewhouse Inn in Downtown Milwaukee.  
Like an iceberg, the majority of a working brew kettle exists below the surface, except for these giants as their bottoms have been lopped off. You can now stand underneath them one floor below and look up into the inside of the massive tanks from the reception area of the hotel. For a guest just arriving at the hotel not knowing what was going on upstairs, these massive copper voids in the ceiling must appear as brazen, abstract statements of modern interior architecture. 

As I told the doorman who judging from his appearance, could not possibly remember the old brewery, the one thing they couldn't replicate was the smell. He humored me but I got the distinct impression he thought those were the ramblings of a crazy old man. Perhaps he was right, I just couldn't hide my giddiness.

Standing in that room again after so many years, seeing these magnificent symbols of Milwaukee's industrial past as well as my own childhood, made me extraordinarily happy. Yet there was a tinge of sadness as the amputation of their bases means the kettles will never again function as they were intended. They are now only props, relics of a lost past. The lack of the natural aroma of brewing beer drove that point home even more. Without that function, when and if the curiosity of this room wears off, who knows how long the kettles will remain, as they and that space are no doubt costly to maintain. I was just glad to be able to show them and what I consider  one of the most remarkable interior spaces anywhere to my wife and children.

As the sun set in the west on a wonderful day, we left the city of Milwaukee for home, secure in the knowledge that like any great living city, it looks toward the future without forgetting its past. Change is a natural, inevitable fact of life. Cities that do not change along with the world around them, wither and die.  

It's sad to see old friends go away, but that's part of life. Perhaps if you're lucky, one day when you least expect it, they might return. Having said that, I leave you with this:

Yours truly posing with a statue of Good King Gambrinus
restored to his former glory and back in his old home at the former Pabst Brewery

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