Watching over the Pabst Brewery
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
These words, attributed to the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, seem to fit Milwaukee developer and philanthropist Joseph Zilber to a tee.
Zilber, who died last week at the age of 92, started building homes for middle-class Milwaukee families following World War II. His company grew into a real estate empire with residential or commercial properties in Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, California, Arizona, Hawaii and several other states.
At his funeral Tuesday at Marquette University’s Memorial Union, Zilber was eulogized as not only a man who made big plans, but who had a deep and personal connection to the people who worked for him and for the city where he was raised. My Third Coast colleague Patti Wenzel did a very nice job at summing up his record of philanthropy.
The sheer size of his $50 million endowment of the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative is enough to take your breath away.
But following the Tuesday service I was drawn to the site of the former Pabst brewery, which Zilber bought in 2005 with the intention of developing into a mix of business and residential properties that would serve as a crowning jewel of his legacy to the city.
The Brewery is still very much a work in progress, but the thousands of people who drive by on I-43 might be surprised by how much of the site is already renovated and occupied. The former Keg House has been bought and redeveloped as the 95-unit Blue Ribbon Apartments and the former Boiler House has been converted into 55,000 square feet of office space.
The property still hasn’t achieved the critical mass envisioned by Zilber. The rotating sign atop the former grain silo that replaced the former iconic Pabst logo announced The Brewery as a Joseph Zilber Historic Development, and that seems prematurely self-congratulatory. Several of the most prominent buildings have yet to be redeveloped, though potential tenants like the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Public Health suggest a bright future.
Zilber seemed determined to set the forces in motion to ensure that his vision would become a reality.
At the funeral, Zilber’s daughter recounted that when his health deteriorated last year, doctors asked if he wished to be resuscitated if needed.
“Absolutely,” she recalled him saying. “I need three more years to finish what I’m doing.”
Sadly, he wasn’t given those three years. Little traffic passes through the streets and the property remains oddly quiet.
There is a pocket park on the property that features a statue of Zilber and his wife, who predeceased him, that sits a block or so away from one of Captain Pabst himself.
Perhaps the three of them are looking down to see if Zilber’s dream for the Pabst property comes to pass.
It would be yet another great gift to Milwaukee from a man who made no little plans.