Michael Horne
Bar Exam

Lee’s Luxury Lounge Has Blessed Beer

Bay View bar is oddly sprawling place with unique history and ritually blessed bar.

By - Jan 16th, 2017 03:50 pm
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Jim Klisch performing the Blessing of the Bar. Photo by Michael Horne.

Jim Klisch performing the Blessing of the Bar. Photo by Michael Horne.

For decades the old Indian Trail known as S. Kinnickinnic Ave. served as the major automobile route between Milwaukee and Chicago, bringing much traffic to the sinuous street that is the backbone of the Bay View neighborhood. The avenue is still designated as State Trunk Highway 32, although the interstate traffic has largely been conceded to the freeway.

The nearly solid core of business establishments that defines the northern end of the neighborhood peters out at its southern end where modest single family residences tend to dominate the street, punctuated here and there by commercial structures like this 1927 building that houses Lee’s Luxury Lounge, a spacious place that has been pieced together over the years from four separate stores that were not initially intended for tavern use. It just goes to show you the versatility of commercial storefront buildings built right up to the street.

The story began ninety years ago this month, on January 11th, 1927, when Sam Taxman and his Shorewood Building Co. took out a permit to construct a $14,000 structure of ordinary brick construction to house four equal-sized stores in its 74- foot-by-40-foot space. Taxman was a young man at the time, and the Taxman Investment Co. remains in family hands, but has long since sold this place.

A Very Mixed-Use Structure

Sam rented his four stores out to a revolving cast of businesses over the years. There was Arthur Bartman, the upholsterer, and Mike Korban the tailor. An insurance office opened in one part of the building, followed by H. J. McKibben‘s doughnut shop in the corner location in December 1930.

Bartman’s space was at the north end of the building, and in 1930 he had some windows cut in to the rear of the building. “The front windows now equal 1/10 of the floor area of the store,” the inspector noted for some reason. By July, 1931, the doughnut shop was out, replaced by Anna Buehler‘s bakery store. The Depression brought great turnover in the occupants. C. M. Fowler ran a barbershop, and Michael Wisniewski took over the bakery in 1932. Then, in 1933, it was time for Peter Lehr to run the bakery. In 1934, the bakery was out for good, leaving Bartman with his upholstery, another fellow who repaired furniture, a fruit store and a vacant store.

The Tavern Era Arrives in 1934

Even though it was not a permitted use during Prohibition, the first tavern here opened immediately after Repeal.

On July 20th, 1934, upholsterer Bartman packed up his hammer, spit the tacks out of his mouth and turned the keys to the northernmost storefront over to Thomas Fellows. The tavern era had finally come to the seven-year old building.

Eighty-three years later, it is still serving beer and cocktails. But for many years, the bar was just this small 20′ x 40′ space, while a flurry of businesses occupied the adjacent stores.

There was the Bay Fruit Market, Lake View Ice Cream Co. and Herbert Jochima, the tailor. E. A. Bernstein and Wm. F. Quick opened a law office in one suite, while the Rite-Way Market, and the Fix-It shop shared the building with the attorneys and the tiny saloon. The lawyers moved out and a chiropractor moved in. Meanwhile, the street hummed with traffic.

In 1953 Gene and Alex Ciesielski, by then the owners of bar and building, put $2,000 into the place, lowering some windows, having the doors swing out, and installing the stone veneer seen under the windows today. This tan stone was considered the height of class in its day. In 1954, the brothers spent $900 to install the dropped ceiling with neon trim above the bar, another classy touch, and worth the money if the owner could get a quarter for a shot and beer, rather than a lousy fifteen cents. It operated under the trade name of Bay Cocktail Lounge, or Bay Tap. A Schlitz sign hung above the door, where the traffic could see it for some blocks.

By 1956, with the highway at the front door busier than ever, a permit was taken out to provide a kitchen for the place. It could serve the locals, and hungry travelers. The next spring the adjoining store was added to the tavern. In April, 1957, a 7′ archway and steps were added between the tavern and the new dining room, also with its stone veneer. By 1959, with the opening of the southernmost store as a “Meeting Hall,” the tavern’s extension to the entire building was complete, and the upholsterers, repair shops, fruit vendors and attorneys were all memories.

Having completed their domination of the old building, the Ciesielskis put it on the market in 1962, asking $84,000. According to the real estate advertisement, it was “a choice location. Gross in excess of $85,000 in 1961. 3 dining rooms. 2 are carpeted. Bar room also carpeted. Key shaped bar. 25 stools. Very good luncheon and dinner trade.”

The building sold on April 30th, 1962 for $78,000. It was purchased by Vincent, Alberto and Dominic DeMarinis. In 1965 they got to work removing partitions, closing some of the exit doors, bricking up windows and otherwise messing with the exterior of this building in such a fashion as begs to be reversed to its original state. Inside, the carpeted floors, stone veneer and pecan paneling exuded warmth, and it went by the high-toned name of DeMarinis Cocktail Lounge. In 1972, the place reported gross sales of $572,629 to the City Assessor.

But in 1977, DeMarinis complained to the assessor. “In view of declining sales since 1974, I agreed that we would review [the assessment] again in 1978,” the assessor wrote in his files.

The freeway and a changing society marked the end of the South Side cocktail lounge dining craze. It would be decades until S. Kinnickinnic Avenue would become a food destination again.

In 1990 a change in the bathroom allowed the capacity of 80 to be increased to 150, and a grease fire in the boiler cost $500 in property damage on November 25th, 1990. Finally, in 1997, Mark Maynard opened the by then vacant tavern as Maynard’s Sports Connection. Since 2002 it has operated as Lee’s Luxury Lounge.

The Tavern Today

The entrance today is on the north end of the tavern, where the bar is immediately to your left. You can sit at the end, with your back to the window, or along the bar where you can look at the north wall of the building, well stocked with spirits of many, many kinds. The drop ceiling and neon tubes are visible here, and it is as good a place to get started as any. It is clear from a look around the place that this is one of Milwaukee’s signature beer bars. There are dozens of bottles and cans in the cooler. and a discerning selection of beers on tap, including some from the area’s newest and smallest breweries.

Lee's Luxury Lounge. Photo by Michael Horne.

Lee’s Luxury Lounge. Photo by Michael Horne.

The men’s room is just beyond, and features a pair of Rundle urinals. You sure don’t see a lot of them anymore. Now, back in the bar, note the floor, which is tiled. The carpet is long gone. Take a look to the south, and you can see clear to the end of the building nearly 80 feet away. You can see where the walls were removed to expand the bar, and you can also tell that the site is not level, since the floor heights vary. This adds to the charm, as do the aged maple floors in the bar rooms beyond. All the way at the end you will note two pool tables, well lit and well provisioned. There are also two skeeball machines, electronic darts and a shuffleboard table. You collect 100 tickets from the skeeball machine, and you’ve won yourself a free cocktail. The pecan paneling is of the early mass-produced kind, made with real veneer pressed onto plywood and scored with black lines. This stuff is actually valuable nowadays. This is a big enough place to wander about, and there are plenty of seating options if you want to get away from the bar crowd. For example, you can plop yourself down on one of the newer attractions — a row of seats salvaged from the balcony of the Avalon Theater just up the road.

Back to the bar. It is the authentic 1956 number, with two-toned formica woodgrain finish. The doors to the coolers are heavily decorated with stickers from breweries and other venues. This motif helps place the bar firmly in the hipster-friendly camp. If you’re looking for the dice cup, it’s behind the yellow lamp at the end of the back bar. There is a television in a corner above the bar, tuned into seasonal sports, but hardly dominating the scene. Just enough so you can keep up with the score and your date’s attention simultaneously, with neither being favored over the other.

Over in the old dining room, an old television rack, designed for the bulky units of yesterday, has been transformed into a holder for a blackboard listing the weekly specials. They range from $1 off tap beer on Mondays to $3 Lakefront products on Sundays, but the $5 “South Side Specials” offered on Wednesday add a bit of mystery to the list.

It makes you wonder what old Tom Fellows, who first opened a tavern here in 1934, would have thought of a $5 South Side Special. That would have been a whole night’s business for him.

A Rite to Drink Beer

As a good vendor of Lakefront Brewery products, Lee’s Luxury Lounge is among the select few taverns that offer a free Lakefront product for those who visit with their ticket from that day’s brewery tour. Every couple of weeks or so, Jim Klisch of the brewery comes by and writes a check for the value of the beers. This got him to talking with Jason and Josh Anderson, the brothers who now run the place, about enacting a “Blessing of the Bar,” to be held at the lounge on January 6th.

That Friday was the feast of the Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night, or Three Kings’ Day, and it was a northern European tradition to bless ordinary things at that time in honor of the visit of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar to the infant Jesus. A similar ceremony has been observed by Klisch and friends since 1988, when Lakefront was in its infancy and needed all the blessings it could get just to survive. Sometimes actual clergy was involved.

Blessing the Bar. Photo by Michael Horne.

Blessing the Bar. Photo by Michael Horne.

The brothers agreed to have their bar be blessed. Accordingly, Klisch turned to his dog-eared copy of the Rituale Romanum, and turned to Chapter VIII, Blessings of Things Designated for Ordinary Use. Bypassing the rituals for the blessing of Bread, Pastries, Grapes, Cheese or Butter, Lard and Salt or Oats for Animals, he copied down the words of Blessing Number 5.

On the appointed evening, Klisch appeared at the tavern and disappeared briefly into the unused dining room. He appeared moments later dressed in a monk’s habit, ready to begin the ritual. His visage was reminiscent not so much of beer, but of a bottle of Frangelico.

He introduced himself as “Friar Fish of Our Lady of the Beer Hall.”

After a few introductory remarks from Jeff Platt, who has been long involved with the blessing, Klisch, as Friar Fish, uttered the solemn phrases:

“Lord, bless + this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord.”

Klisch then approached the door nearest the bar, while an acolyte presented him with an oil pastel crayon. He then wrote “20,” the first two digits of the year, on the left of the transom, followed by a +, then the letter “C,” for Caspar, then another +, followed by “M” for Melchior, then another +, and a “B,” for Balthazar, a final +, and then “17,” to represent the final two digits of the year.

The blessing having been attended to, Klisch returned to his civilian attire, and the customers present had a blessedly good time, fortified by the sanctified spirits within.

On Tap - Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery

  • Ale Asylum Velveteen Habit IPA
  • Fermentorium Belgium Spice
  • Guinness Stout
  • Lakefront Riverwest Stein Beer
  • Squatters Anniversary Ale
  • St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
  • Third Space Mocha Java
  • Wisconsin Brewing Company Porter Joe
  • Great Lakes Christmas Ale
  • Upland Bad Elmers Porter

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Name: Lee’s Luxury Lounge
  • Location: 2988 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee 53207
  • Neighborhood: Bay View
  • Subdivision: Savings and Investment Association of Milwaukee Subdivision number 11 in SW 1/4 Sec 10-6-22 Block 1 S W 40′ (lots 5 and 6) bid 44
  • Phone Number: 414-744-5960
  • Website: None found
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lees-Luxury-Lounge-155872892009/?rf=200659209947895
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/leeslounge
  • Description: Huge, one-story, hodgepodge brick building, takes up the whole corner.
  • Capacity: 120
  • Year Established: 2002
  • Year Building Constructed: 1925
  • Estimated Annual Rent: 2,938 sq. ft. bar area at $8.74/sq. ft. = 25,678.12 per year, according to the City Assessor’s calculations.
  • Property is assessed at $9,600 for the 2,960 sq. ft. lot ($3.24/sq. ft.) and $247,400 for the 2,938 sq. ft. building for a total assessed value of $257,000.
  • Property taxes: $7,827.07
  • Property Owner: Ms. Sophia LLC
  • Business Owner: Sons of Ander LLC. Jason J. Anderson, agent, DOB 6/27/1971, 50% owner. Joshua J. Anderson, DOB 3/9/1974, 50% owner.
  • Business: Alcohol, food, and entertainment.
  • Walk Score: 65, Somewhat Walkable. City Average: 61
  • Transit Score: 42, Some Transit. City Average: 49
  • Aldermanic District: 14th; Tony Zielinski
  • County Supervisor District: 4th; Marina Dimitrijevic
  • Police District: 6

The Verdict was researched by Jordan Garcia

6 thoughts on “Bar Exam: Lee’s Luxury Lounge Has Blessed Beer”

  1. blurondo says:

    Having a priest make a visit to a soul in need is harder than finding a doctor who makes house calls. Jason and Josh are, undoubtedly, some very pious individuals.

  2. Dale says:

    Thank you Michael! A delightful bar exam to start the new year. The Avalon seats, rundle urinals, & key bar are truly Milwaukee. Can’t wait to find out what the South Side Special is.

  3. Caligula says:

    Jesus healed with cannabis not rot gut liquor. He never baptized anyone, he annointed them and he did so with cannabis oil. The recipe is in Exodus 30:23. The miracles Jesus performed were most assuredly the result of cannabis oil being used as it is today by many states to treat epilepsy, MS, and a myriad of other ailments. The “fragrant cane” referenced in the Exodus recipe has been identified by scholars as Kaneh Bosn, or Cannabis. Cannabis is the healing of the healing of the Nations. Alcohol is the destroyer. Time for Wisconsin to get right with God.

  4. Joe says:

    About 10 years ago the South Side Special at Lee’s was a shot of Jack, a PBR tall boy and a marlboro light for $5. Not sure what it is these days.

  5. JEFF OLSON says:

    What a treasure these histories and reviews are! God Bless everyone involved and God Bless Lee’s Luxury Lounge!

  6. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    If ever a “creature” needed blessing, certainly Beer does! Thanks for this wild review, Michael Horne!

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