Happy Days in Milwaukee, WI

“Wait, what was that? Did I hear something in the attic? There it is again. Oh wait, never mind. It was probably my imagination.” After giving the nod to Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, how could I not look up The Fonz when in Milwaukee? Fonzie and his catchphrases were part of what made the TV show Happy Days last 11 seasons.

Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the 1950s and ’60s, Happy Days presented an idealized view of post-World War II middle-class America, seen largely through the perspective of high school (and later college) student Ritchie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) and his pal Potsie (Anson Williams). The boys fraternized with the crowd at Arnold’s Malt Shop, where they sipped floats, dumped dimes into the jukebox, fretted about girls, and lamented the minor misunderstandings they had with their parents. Although Ritchie was the show’s protagonist, the most indelible character was Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler)—known as “Fonzie”—whose greaser style and love for motorcycles clashed with the show’s cast of wholesome, all-American characters. But under his leather jacket, Fonzie was anything but rebellious. His reputation as an outsider and a ladies’ man and his cachet of “cool” could be used to mitigate tensions and restore order. Although Ritchie, an upstanding, clean-cut youth, was Fonzie’s apparent opposite, the two were rarely in conflict, and their relationship became increasingly harmonious as the characters grew up and moved on in life.

The leather-wearing, t-shirt sporting, jeans-clad bad boy was a favourite of mine. I hadn’t realised though that he was so short.

The Bronze Fonz, by American artist Gerald P. Sawyer on Milwaukee Riverwalk

Built Milwaukee

The city is an odd mix of old and new with more than its fair share of local neighbourhoods, each marked by the various tides of immigration that are embedded in its DNA. A visit to Calgary Cemetery is like paging through a history book. I have it on good authority that there are 80 streets in the city whose names begin with the letter H. I wonder what that’s about. It’s not often that a visit to City Hall makes the list but our intrepid semi-local guide GP had done her homework. I lost count after my sixth WOW. The place is amazing. And, apparently, it’s the same height as a stack of 55,013 nickels. Someone had too much time on their hands.

City Hall, Milwaukee, WI

Stained glass window with City Seal Interior City Hall, Milwaukee, WI

Billed as a Landmark of Flemish Renaissance design completed in 1895, [the] Common Council Chamber and Anteroom retain their turn-of-the-century character with ornately carved woodwork, leaded glass, stenciled ceiling and stained glass windows.

I was seriously impressed by notices on the wall telling employees how many laps of a floor they had to walk to make a mile and whether they should lap clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the day they chose to walk. A city ahead of its time, City Hall was modelled on the Rathaus in Hamburg . But I doubt the architects had lunch-time laps in mind when they designed this gem.

The North Point Water Tower is another architectural feat. And no, you can’t climb the stairs. But you can get a look inside once a year, during Doors Open. (This year it’s on Sept 29th so if you’re in town, don’t miss it.)  It’s set beside St Mary’s Hospital and some old mansion-style residences that surround the iconic water fountain.  The neighbourhood is marked as a historic district and is a lovely spot to wander. During the Vietnam War years, it was here that many protested US involvement; it doesn’t take much imagination to get your head back in the day.

North Point Water Tower and fountain Milwaukee

Harps lights at North Point Water Tower Fountation in Milwaukee

Harps lights at North Point Water Tower Fountation in Milwaukee

The magic of Milwaukee is captured at its coast. And no, I’ve not lost my reason. I know Wisconsin is an inland state but down by the shores of Lake Michigan, I could be forgiven for thinking I was at the coast. The beach. The water. The sand. It was lovely – and deserted. And it was hot. But apparently Lake Michigan doesn’t get that warm so while the temperature may well have agreed with me, it doesn’t seem to do much for the locals. I’ve made a note to self to pack a swimsuit and towel next time around.

The beach at Lake Michigan Milwaukee

Religious Milwaukee

No visit anywhere would be complete for me without popping into at least one church (I have to get those three wishes). We were blessed indeed that a little old lady spotted us trying to get into the Cathedral. She came and took us around the back entrance and then gave us a little tour, trying her best to get us to stay for mass in the side chapel. This part of the world seems to have a thing for suspended crucifixes.

This one, a product of the creative minds and hands of Italian artists Arnaldo Pomodoro and Giuseppe Maraniell, is fibreglass but looks like metal. The crown of thorns measures just over 4 m (14 ft) in diameter. I thought it amazing, but the whole renovation has been dubbed by some as the Supreme Wreckovation. If you’re interested, you can take a virtual tour of the Cathedral and see for yourself. The baptismal font was pretty spectacular, too.

controversial crucifix at the Cathedral in Milwaukee

Baptismal font at Milwaukee Cathedral

I’ll admit to being more interested though in seeing the St Joan of Arc Chapel on the grounds of Marquette University. The original chapel was built in the early fifteenth century in Chasse, a village in France’s Rhone Valley. Fast forward to the early twentieth century and the world of Gertrude Hill Gavin, a woman devoted to St Joan with a bank balance that enabled her to do as she did. She bought the church, had it taken down and shipped to Long Island where she had it put back together next to the French Renaissance chateau she’d had shipped over a few years earlier. The lives of others, eh!

The chapel wasn’t always named after St Joan of Arc. For about 500 years it had gone by the name of St. Martin de Seysseul but Gertrude had a way about her. She renamed it and got written permission from the Pope to have mass said in it. Long Island though is a long way from Milwaukee.

In the early 1960s, Marc Rojtman bought both the chateau and the chapel from Gertrude. But less than a week before he was to move in, the chateau burned down in a fire that left the church unspoiled. Rojtman decided to donate the chapel Milwaukee’s Marquette University. Workers took the chapel apart stone by stone and then loaded them on a fleet of trucks to travel to Milwaukee. It would take nine months. Four years later, in 1966, after being put back together and some improvements made, the chapel opened for business. Remarkable. It closed at 4 the day we were there, so a return visit is very much on the cards.

Earlier in the day, I’d seen a statue of Pére Marquette, a French Jesuit who played a leading role in Milwaukee’s history. And then, in front of the chapel, I saw another. The two couldn’t have been less alike. One looked timid and meek, the other a firebrand, bring-it-on type of chap. It made me stop and wonder. If I ever get be famous, the sort of fame that inspires people to make statues, what would I look like? How would I be depicted?

Statue of Pere Marquette in Milwaukee

Statue of Pere Jacques Marquette on the university campus in Milwaukee

Museum Milwaukee

My museum pick for the day wasn’t the Milwaukee Art Museum or the Harley Davidson Museum or the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame (I didn’t even know what a bobblehead was!) The one I picked was  Milwaukee Historical Society, and the How Dry I Am exhibit, a fascinating insight into the days of prohibition and how people managed to whet their thirst regardless. I was particularly taken by the interactive quizzes that tested my knowledge of speakeasy slang. I’ve watched too much TV!

Prohibition Era Slang Milwaukee Historical Society

It’s a great city, Milwaukee. And now that I know the way, I’ll be back. Massive thanks to GP for hosting and humouring and to MJ for introducing me to estate sales.

Notes to self for next time

Additional reading on Milwaukee, WI

Like most cities, Milwaukee has precious few statues of real women

Jacques Marquette – a biography

A history of the Joan of Arc Chapel



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2 Responses

  1. I’m so glad you liked my hometown of Milwaukee. The next time you go, give me enough advanced warning so I can join you! My dad graduated from Marquette university the year i was born (1957). Take care.

    1. Yes, I certainly dropped the ball on on this one Shelly. Hadn’t known (or if I had, had completely forgotten) you were a Milwaukee gal. Next time, it’s a date

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