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Milwaukee: Something's Brewing

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005

Raised Baptist, I never did get the hang of dancing. But I can stamp my feet along with the best of them, and enjoy watching other people make damn happy fools of themselves.

The polka dancers at Art's Concertina Bar in Milwaukee get so happy that I'm tempted to join in. When an older gentleman invites me to be his partner, I allow my klutzy self to be led to the floor. It hardly matters if you miss a step because there'll be another one just like it a split second later.

Being in a town where no one knows me only partly explains my loss of inhibition. Fact is, it's easy to get caught up in the spirit of a rousing concertina number. And Art's is both the best, and claims to be the only, concertina bar in America.

Art's is part of old Milwaukee, that familiar Midwest city of breweries and bratwurst, bowling and polka. But there is also a new Milwaukee of high culture and chic.

A $1.5 billion investment in private and public funds has paid for major new attractions, including a grand centerpiece -- the $121 million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum by the highly lauded architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava. Other old buildings have been refurbished and new ones built. And in the next few years, another billion dollars' worth of projects will be added, including a big development along the Lake Michigan waterfront, with two aquariums and a Great Lakes educational center.

On my only previous visit to Milwaukee 20 years ago, I left with an overall impression of a rather downtrodden Midwest city suffering, like Detroit, from the downturn in American manufacturing plants. Last summer I returned to find that the brick warehouses along an oily river had been transformed into trendy restaurants, with alfresco dining along a new riverwalk of brick and stone. The downtown galleries, shops, museums and free concerts reminded me more of a mini-Chicago than a factory town turned to rust.

Although the number of visitors to Milwaukee has remained at about 6 million per year over the past five years or so, their spending patterns suggest that they're coming for different reasons. Tourism officials calculate that visitors in 2000 spent $19 million on arts and culture; two years later, the figure jumped to $33 million. Milwaukee boasts 56 performing arts and culture groups, and in 2003 readers of AmericanStyle magazine chose it as the 10th best arts destination in the United States.

Milwaukee has managed to create new things without bulldozing what it already had. I found, for instance, that Mader's, the 103-year-old German restaurant I enjoyed years ago, is still serving big plates of sauerbraten and still displaying what seems to be the world's largest beer stein. You can still get a great Serbian meal served by the children and grandchildren of an elderly man who says his goal in life is to make sure Americans get a chance to experience Serbian hospitality.

Milwaukee still has a brewery and a Harley-Davidson factory tour. There are still unpretentious bars, and bowling alleys, professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams, cheese stores and, of course, the concertina bar with thrice-weekly polka dances. But much has changed, and for the better. In fact, if the old sitcom girls Laverne and Shirley returned to Milwaukee, they, like me, would barely recognize the place.

I'm not a great admirer of modern architecture, and I sometimes feel like I'm on the verge of seeing one museum too many. But I make an exception in both cases for the gleaming white marvel overlooking Milwaukee's Lake Michigan waterfront.

Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum -- his first completed work in the United States -- is not only an architectural standout but a feat of engineering. A pair of enormous, angelic white wings spread for the opening of the museum at 10 a.m. and close when the museum does. Like a preening peacock, the building also shows off its steel and concrete wings, flapping open and shut each day at noon.

Light streams inside the wide, open foyer of Calatrava's addition. The filtered light reflects off Lake Michigan outside and bounces off the white marble floors inside. In the end, it's as if outside and inside have merged, and you feel a bit as if you're walking on water.

The building is so impressive that it wouldn't even matter if there weren't any art to speak of. But there is. It boasts a major collection of works by Georgia O'Keeffe, German expressionists and Haitian artists, among others.

The museum is also the perfect vantage point for gazing at the waters of Lake Michigan. I stop to watch the high masts of the tall ship S/V Denis Sullivan pass by, loaded with tourists, sailing along some of the 60 miles of Milwaukee coastline.

A walking tour and driving tour takes me to other sites of history and high culture. My second favorite, after the art museum, is the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, designed in the style of a 16th-century Italian villa in 1923. In 2002, the extensive gardens around it were renovated and an outdoor cafe was created in one of the courtyards, where live classical concerts are performed in summer.

The villa sits high atop a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. The decorative arts inside are the furniture and art a person of taste would buy at the finest European auction houses, if money were no object.

It's one of the city's cultural treasures that may have continued to be widely overlooked, were it not for the attention Calatrava's work has focused on Milwaukee.

In fact, his addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum has brought the city its first recent taste of international acclaim. As Calatrava's reputation grows, even more eyes will be turning to his Milwaukee masterwork. City tourism officials believe that Americans' awareness of his work here will grow once he completes his commission for a glass and steel building at the site of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.

Once the iconoclastic winged building on its perch along Lake Michigan is widely known, I'm guessing it will be to Milwaukee what the Opera House is to Sydney or the Parthenon is to Athens.

With that thought in mind, I start thinking I could use some beer and polka.

On weekends, Art Altenburg arranges gigs by professional polka players at his concertina bar. I arrive on a Thursday night, when anyone who knows how to play a polka can walk in and give it a try.

Altenburg, who's been reporting his age as 81 for quite a few years now, is credited with keeping alive interest in playing the concertina in the United States. He owns 74 of the instruments, some more than 200 years old, and displays most of them in his bar. They look like accordions, but a concertina key plays one note when you pull the instrument out and another when you squeeze it in.

Located in a building finished in 1900, the bar on the old South Side is being considered for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Altenburg, I learned this week, recently put the bar and the building up for sale. He's hoping to find an owner who will keep the concertina tradition going, but admits, "If someone comes in with the right money, he's got it."

In the meantime -- and hopefully for a long time -- Art's is filled with polka enthusiasts. Some are of the legal drinking age of 21, but the range is large, with the oldest appearing to be Altenburg's contemporaries, or older.

I poop out long before my seventy-ish partner, and after an hour or so of watching and another hour of stepping, I head back downtown and pull up a seat on the grass for a summertime park concert. Thursdays are free jazz nights; Wednesdays, the city hosts a more eclectic mixture of live music, including blues and rock.

Festivals, though, are Milwaukee's stock in trade. They operate year-round in various venues but kick into high gear in summer. Between June 11 and Sept. 18, Milwaukee will host 20 major festivals, including the largest Native American festival in the country and Wisconsin's largest gay pride festival. An annual art festival is a highlight, but most of the events celebrate ethnic heritages. It would be the rare American who'd find his heritage left out of the mix. Festivals are so much a part of the fabric of Milwaukee summers that a huge park is dedicated to their annual arrival.

I happen to stumble into town during Irish Fest (it runs this coming summer Aug.18-21) and discover myself in the midst of what claims to be the largest Irish festival in the world. Musicians and dancers from throughout the United States and Ireland, including top headliners in the Irish world, perform on 16 lakefront stages in the Henry Maier Festival Park.

Dozens of classes in Irish dance, music and lore are held, including several in playing the concertina. I'm by nature more of an observer than a participant, especially when it comes to dancing, so I settle in to watch a hurling contest, and later root for my favorite "wee one" in the red hair and freckles contest.

Over the next months, the billion dollars' worth of projects in the pipeline will begin coming to fruition.

In July, the Milwaukee Public Market will open. The year-round market will feature Wisconsin vendors selling local products, including food and flowers.

In January, on a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan just south of the art museum, a new complex devoted to water themes will open. The so-called Pier Wisconsin Center will include two aquariums, one for fresh-water and one for salt-water creatures, a theater and educational center focusing on the Great Lakes, and a science and technology museum with lots of hands-on activities for kids. The pier also will be the new home of the three-masted schooner, the S/V Denis Sullivan.

Motorcycle enthusiasts will have to wait until 2008 for the opening of the Harley- Davidson Museum, which will showcase the history of the vaunted motorcycle developed in Milwaukee. Enough outdoor space is planned to allow for motorcycle rallies.

And I'm hoping, as Art Altenburg is, that America's only concertina bar will continue to have a home in Milwaukee for years to come.

The new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum by architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava is drawing cultural tourists to a city historically known for beer and motorcycles.

Milwaukee, which is pouring more than a billion dollars into new projects to polish its image, draws visitors to its lively riverwalk area lined with restaurants.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company