Other Eastside Scenes
A Collection of Snippets by James Searles
Century Hall was originally built (about 1900) as a bowling alley and hall on Farwell just off North Avenue. In 1970 it was renovated. The wood from the bowing alleys was used to make tables and furnishings. The hall ended up a counter culture outpost, combining a bar serving food, a concert area booking rock bands and an upstairs area where small theater companies, poets and others performed. Ralph Larson, held a benefit to a packed crowd in the concert area for the Kaleidoscope newspaper.
Now it gets complicated. The final facts are at best stitched together – never went to court. The theory holds that on April 24 1988, Daniel Giowski went to the family house in River Hills and used his revolver to murder his wife Judith. He admitted to cleaning up the scene and moving the body. Then he drove to the Lower East Side and set the Larson’s Paint and Wallpaper store (2374 N Farwell) on fire. This spread to Century Hall setting it on fire. By the time the fire department arrived five or six big houses were on fire, maybe 30 cars – a real nightmare as the wood frame houses there were tightly packed. Now it gets sticky. There just was not enough evidence to charge Daniel.
The facts are that Mrs. Giowski had such a fear of her husband’s temperament that she kept him from the family mansion during divorce proceedings. The additional facts are that Daniel Giowski was the target of another investigation – the Century Hall fire on Milwaukee’s East side last April.— Milwaukee Sentinel, 2-4-1988. A week later Daniel used his revolver to commit suicide and the whole affair was closed as a family matter.
ESHAC (East Side Housing Action Coalition) 531E Burleigh, Milwaukee, 53212 started out in 1977 as a service to help tenants dealing with slum landlords. At that time the area was totally black & poor. The slum lords would buy up to 15, or sometimes more houses for 10 to 14 thousand. Rent the bottom for 500 and the top for 450. They never made repairs – even if ordered by the City. If the inspectors started to close in on them they would change the property into another relatives name. Thus for the time killing the order.
On one call that I took, there had been a heavy rain. The water pouring through the room caused the light fixture to drop – leaving two wires hanging loose. I called the Inspection Office. They tried to put me off asking if I was an electrician. How did I know if the wires were still hot? “Just get over there!” I swear that an angel had a hand in this. The ceiling had lath plaster – much heavier than drywall. Just as the inspector walked under the light about a four foot piece of plaster broke off, hitting the Inspector and knocking him out.
Real estate at that time had the thought that the poor could just be kicked around. The area is desperate not due to the people living there but rather to the Riverwest area being strangled.
On a large map, ESHAC put push pins marking where American Family had agents. There were none in the central area of the hood. American Family said that was just a coincidence. The fight for the City was on. In court American Family agreed to put an agent in the area. They managed to twist that about. They only offered depreciated insurance in the hood and replacement insurance in the “right” area even for houses of the same age. Back to court. But of course the power circle still was not about to let Riverwest come back to life. No bank would lend money in the hood – redlining. That did not sound quite right. If the person had the income to support a mortgage – why not in the hood? Back to court. Out of that spun the Community Development Act requiring banks to lend money in the hood.
The Newport Co-op
Ted and Susan lived at the Newport (a co-op), 1610 N Prospect – a different life style. The Newport has a uniformed doorman, a large outside terrace on the Lake side, a sundeck on the roof, a first floor apartment available for overnight guests, valet parking for cars, only six very good sized apartments per floor, and an in-house staff. You could not go upstairs to visit anyone unless the doorman called ahead.
When you purchase a condo you purchase the unit that you can get a loan on. Co-ops are different. You buy one share in the Newport Corporation and lease your apartment from the corporation. You need three letters of recommendation and a notarized financial statement for approval from the board for the purchase. If you default on a bank loan for the purchase the bank must go after the co-op first before they can get at you the buyer. Joan Levine was Chair of the Board of the Newport Co-Op.
Joan quietly worked behind the scenes to bring the Lower Eastside back to life. On a regular basis I was dropping off dispatches for her with the doorman at the Newport. In contrast Ted was very much in the public eye trying to make the city a better place. For example he promoted German culture at the Goethe House & the German Fest not to mention the development of soccer in Wisconsin. Both were regulars at the Brady Street Pharmacy’s coffee shop.
The two of them together – now that’s a combination. Mix in the Newport and various contacts and things were bound to happen. I got a call from Joan. We are going to have a reception here in a few weeks. “Will you come.” “Sure.” She called me in the morning of the reception “Are you coming?” An hour later she called again. “You are to be here at 8 sharp.” No idea what she was up to.
I drove over skipping the valet parking. I knew where to park. Walked back to the front door - everything different. There were lots of guys in body armor, helmets and fully automatic guns. I headed into the front entrance – more security. At a long table they were checking people against the invitation list and verifying all photo ID’s.
The reception was on the 15th floor. Another twist. They had a reception line of about 15 people that you had to go through to get in. I was debating on heading right back down as the formal reception looked scary. Still, I knew about half the people in the line. Headed into the room. Waitresses in short skirts were moving through the crowd carrying trays of champagne. I took two glasses and made my way over to the opposite side – near the food. I barely got one glass down when I heard a voice “Jim. Put your drink down I want you to meet someone.” We weaved through the crowd stopping as Joan introduced me here and there. People were picking up – looking over. We finally got over to the Chair of an Agency that had flown in from Washington for the reception. Joan convinced him that we had to walk the streets in the area to try to figure out how to bring the Lower East Side back to life.
Cass Street Playground
A small group of parents and residents in the Lower Eastside started to meet in October, 1999. Their goal was to get the Cass Street School’s playground (corner Cass and Pleasant) changed from black top to an impact friendly tot playground. Frank and Rachelle Alioto were very much involved. They live a half block off Brady Street on Astor. They were also active in the Brady Street Area Association. Frank said “we are a group of parents and residents working to improve the neighborhood and make it more family friendly. We are working to bring back the family friendly atmosphere.”
The original estimate for the project was $150,000. They got 50 thousand dollars from the City and 50 thousand dollars from the Community Block grant fund. In addition residents and business in the area chipped in. A “stand display” in the tot lot has names of a small number of donors on plaques. That was another way to raise funds. Barbara Searles name is on one of the plaques. Julilly Kohler also was active in the project. Up to this point other than getting Barb’s name on a plaque I had just followed along listening. I got a call one morning from Julilly. “We have tried everything Jim and we are still short eight thousand dollars to cover the cost of the wrought iron fence around the playground. Can you help”? I called Peter Ogden at his home. He got off a personal check right on the spot covering the remaining amount needed.
The tot lot now has wood chips instead of black top. The swings were set low to keep the big kids from coming in and pushing off the smaller kids. There are large wonderful whimsical fiberglass “animals” in the tot lot – a cat-shaped gateway arch, a dragon and a bird not to mention the plaque stand. They were created by Marina Lee. The work was recognized with the Mayor's Design Award in 1998.
Oscar Kaiser originally owned the Knickerbocker Hotel (corner Astor Street & Juneau) – running it as a hotel. Built in 1929, the Knickerbocker had a very elegant first floor lobby and an elegant ballroom. Oscar lived on the top floor in one super-large apartment (# 825). On each floor unit number 725, 625, etc there was one super big unit. Because the building had been built as a hotel, there was one 15-amp electric service serving two units – quite enough for a hotel in 1929.
Oscar sold the Knickerbocker to George Bockl, George Spector and Lillian Post with the hotel turning into a residence for the elderly. On the second floor, George Bockl had three apartments put together creating the Juneau Club. That’s where some of the elderly residents got their meals. The Juneau Club also had housekeeping service and 24-hour emergency call service through the switchboard service on the 1st floor. The ballroom was replaced with shops on each side of hallway. A pharmacy and small coffee shop was at the front with the hallway going through the middle. There was a beauty shop at the back.
My wife Barb and I bought the pharmacy in the Knickerbocker Hotel (1028 E Juneau) for ten thousand dollars. Shortly afterwards adding on the coffee shop on the other side of the hallway. The previous owner (not a pharmacist) had created quite a mess that we had to turn around. George Bockl, George Spector & Lillian Post were easy to work with. When I wanted a large flag at the front of the building George Bockl complained that they could not afford it. We ended up splitting the costs. That was my start with the later to come Brady Street customers, a rather eclectic crowd. One of the waitress headed over. “There is a girl with no clothes on in the coffee shop. You’ve got to do something about it” I walked over. The girl about 20 years old had on a robe with just a loose rope tied at the middle. She had sat down with a group telling one of the guys that he was her uncle. This was just not on my list of things to do. I called the police. By the time the cops arrived she had wandered off to just outside my back entrance into the Knickerbocker. One of the cops walked over to talk to me. She hit you. No she didn’t. If she hit you we can take her in for observation. She hit me.
Shortly before our lease ran out, Oliver Plunkett bought the hotel. Several weeks later he gave everyone in the building a 30-day eviction notice which said that he needed to get them out so he could renovate the building. Many of the residents who by now were friends poured down into the pharmacy begging for help. Three days later Helen Kirschbaum, (age 90) was found dead in the lobby – massive heart attack. Everyone was convinced that was brought on by the stress of the notice. In the morning I called for a press conference – that went around the area fast. By the evening the pharmacy and coffee shop was packed beyond dreams. Lots of clergy were in the crowd, upset over their parishioners being kicked around. I hopped on to the checkout counter. “Oliver Plunket is not planning renovations. He is converting the building into condos” With that the fight for the city began. Oliver had Senator Robert Kasten on his Board of Directors not to mention City Hall connections. In addition to getting the churches in Lower East Side upset Oliver had messed around with a Jesuit and full Professor at Marquette University calling him a liar in the conversion. The Journal gave me a full page writeup as Dudley Do-Gooder, the not-so-bright corner druggist. They wrote up Oliver up as the savior of the Lower East Side, as he was converting 13 buildings all on the Lower East side. I pointed out to the press that the numbers for that did not add up. Other than the clergy no one believed me.
Oliver wanted to sell the Knickerbocker as condos with no disclosure of structural problems. At the time there was no law requiring disclosure. Getting back to the 15-amp service. All day long they had a maintenance man running around the building replacing the screw in fuses that had blown. The residents had all worked out a system whereby Mabel could make toast at 8 in the morning and Ralph in the next door unit made toast at 8:30 to avoid blowing fuses. But in a conversion there would be residents with lots of electrical appliances. The FBI told the Building Inspection to enforce code or they would take over. That meant all new service being run up from the basement and all new boxed with 65 amp service per unit. Then there was the roof. When it rained someone from maintenance ran all over the 8th floor with pails. The Building Inspection Department (with a bit of a push) wrote up orders for the Knickerbocker to get a complete new roof. Next is the main power vault room in the basement. When it rained the drains did not work. The water sometimes got within inches of the 14,000 volt 8 foot high transformers. I was told if water made contact with the transformers, it would likely send a fire ball straight up to where the pharmacy was. Orders were given to get that fixed.
The first investors in the condo conversions made lots of money. For reasons that I do want to get into, it finally blew apart. Oliver had been using money for later conversions to pay off the earlier conversions, even though each was set up as a separate group of investors. The money moved from group to group. Then the money moved to a shopping area in the islands. Then it disappeared – about 150 million – gone. He was charged & convicted of six felonies – four counts of securities fraud, one count of selling unregistered securities and one count of illegal transfer of funds. Pleading no contest, he got a 2-year prison sentence in 1984.
When the case was finally settled the investors got less than a quarter penny on the dollar. “On January 18th, Plunket completed a 3-year probation that followed a prison sentence for several convictions stemming from the real estate operation he operated here in the 1970’s and early 1980’s” He moved to Florida only to find that his past actions followed him. Oliver had burned a number of newspaper’s editors in Wisconsin on their investment with him. Everywhere he turned up and tried to start over, the newspapers in that state would run articles on his previous fraudulent activities.
About a month before he declared bankruptcy Oliver Plunkett gave the Knickerbocker to Eli Frank, his attorney – no charge. He explained that his attorney was his friend. My lease at the Knickerbocker was fast running out. For $150,000 Barb and I bought the ROA Film building at the corner of Astor & Brady Street. ROA Films was previously the Astor Theater. It never occurred to us that if we had saved enough money to buy the building we could not get a loan for the much needed repairs. The M&I Bank would not even take an application. The 2nd bank officer told us to start signing contracts as the loan was approved only to call back days later. The board had turned down the loan. They said that the Brady Street area was finished. It never would come back. Brady Street and the area then was pretty much shot. You easily could pick up a house for 30-thousand dollars. The bank officer asked what are you going to do now? He called ahead to the 3rd bank to try help. Peter from M&I Bank also was a big help working behind the scenes. After a couple of months I called the bank to say that I was calling it a day – could not hold on any longer. The bank officer said not to worry. They had someone from the bank fly the papers out to Washington. The Small Business Administration approved the loan over the week end. The Board of directors of the Bank had approved the loan at a 9 am meeting. We also had a Milwaukee Economic Development 2nd mortgage, not to mention our charge cards maxed out. And the coffee-shop gang followed us to the new location on Brady Street.
Back at the Knickerbocker we had tried to get laws passed for the people who were poor, elderly or handicapped as defined by the law. Laws that would give a 90-day time span to move out during the conversion. We got a date for a hearing on this at City Hall. Sue from ESHAC, arranged to pick up four busloads of people to attend the hearing, not to mention the many people who came by cars. We filled the entire first floor area and every hallway all the way up to the top at City Hall. Also lots of people outside for the spill over. You might say that City Hall was not expecting that. Some of the opposition to the change in the law caught the attention of the members of the Common Council. A banker said that of course someone who is 70- or 80-years old can get a 30-year mortgage getting the crowd stirred up not to mention the council who did not buy that. Days later the City Attorney ruled that that the City could not regulate conversions due to home rule exclusion. We headed up to Madison this time not about to be outsmarted. We had churches from all over the state supporting us, not to mention the Real Estate Board and the Banking Commission. With no opposition, we got the laws on real estate amended to require that any sale of real estate must have full disclosure of structural problems.
Von Trier Bar & Pub (Formerly Rieders)
There's been a bar on the southwest corner of Farwell and North for almost a century. In the 1930s and 1940s the east side neighborhood around North and Farwell had a mix of factories, apartments and taverns including a place called Rieder's which occupied the spot Von Trier does today. Rieder's was a place where, despite many other successful bars in the immediate area, survived well for more than 30 years. I remember drinking "dark" beer with an unusual crowd of people of all ages while listening to classical music, jazz and opera on the jukebox. Musicaians from the symphony, students and other east-siders made up much of the clientèle.
In 1978, Frank Rieder sold the bar to Karl Lotharius who continued the European theme and upscale cocktails, adding his own German heritage to the decor. Lotharius, who came from the town of Trier in Germany eventually settled on "Von Trier" (from Trier) for the new name. Lotharius worked in beer halls as a boy before immigrating to the U.S. Much of the decor came from Trier in Germany and Lotharius would continue to bring in more pieces from his trips to the Old Country.
Business at Von Trier was good for Lotharius while he also owned Oliver's on Milwaukee St. But behind the scenes things were going on that pitted the "mob" against Lotharius, creating ill feelings between mobsters and Lotharius who would not do business with the so called mob at the time.
On the morning of Dec. 20, 1981, after closing up for the night, Lotharius began walking home up Murray Ave. As he approched his back door he was struck by an arrow fired by an assailant lying in wait. The attacker fled, leaving Lotharius to his fateful death. To this day the case has never been solved and no one has been charged.
More on Karl Lotharius and Von Trier:
Murder of a Tyrant
Von Trier is a Teutonic Treasure