Home of the Beautiful People?

The Uptowner, the city’s oldest continuously-running tavern, serves up history with a sense of humor.

By - Mar 3rd, 2013 02:04 pm
Uptowner. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Uptowner. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

To a casual onlooker, the outside of the Uptowner looks white, plain and simple. Little do they know the color is actually called “Grape Beginnings,” and includes hints of purple and orange to make the building pop at any time of day. As Martha Johnson explains, it is often the stuff – the history, stories and people – beyond the first impression that makes the Uptowner unique.

“There are spirits here,” says Martha, who helps her father, Steve Johnson, run the Uptowner in Riverwest. “Not like ghosts, but all the people that have been here over the years.” For a bar that will celebrate its 130th anniversary next year, it has been a part of many lives. “To me it has a life of its own,” says Steve Johnson. “I’m just the caretaker.”

Opened in 1884, the Uptowner is considered Milwaukee’s oldest continuously-running tavern. That year, the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company went on a bar construction binge, opening 54 “tied” taverns around the city, including one at 1032 E. Center St., the location of the Uptowner. They were “tied” because the Schlitz Brewery owned and leased the taverns to operators. Although two other Milwaukee taverns, the Landmark 1850 Inn on Howell Ave. and Puddler’s Hall on St. Clair St., are technically older, both were closed at some point. Not the Uptowner, which even made it through prohibition as a drug store that sold “medicinal alcohol.”

The Milwaukee County Historical Society has designated the Uptowner as the city’s oldest continuously-running tavern. One of Steve’s friends was a member of the Milwaukee County Historical Commission and nominated the tavern for historic significance after researching the bar on her own.

In 1985, Steve bought the bar from Chic Giacalone, who had owned the Uptowner since the 1950s. Even though Steve had been operating Gordon Park Pub (now Nessun Dorma) with his brothers since 1982, his ears perked up when an he heard Giacalone was retiring. “The time was just right,” Steve says. His daughter Martha describes it as more like an act of fate: “The bar picked him. He didn’t pick the bar.”

Games at the Uptowner. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Games at the Uptowner. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Given the Uptowner’s age, not much remains of the original interior. The part of the tavern housing the billiard table, foosball table and pinball machines is not original, but was actually a barber shop absorbed as the bar expanded. When Steve took over, he ripped up four floors and remodeled, but he takes great care in selecting items that enhance the bar’s historical significance. The back bar is a 1880s Brunswick model, salvaged from a bar on Wright St. because it fit the time period when the Uptowner first opened. The front bar is over 25 years old and used to be in Humpin’ Hanna’s on Locust St. Salvaged from the original Riverwest Food Co-op (for nothing), Steve calls it a real gem. When he got it, the bar was covered in Formica, but underneath was Brazilian mahogany, an endangered tree that was commercially restricted during the 1990s and banned in 2003. Even the church pews lining the walls hold significance. They come from Saints Peter and Paul Parish, where Steve went to grade school.

Even more significant is the artwork that adorns the Uptowner’s walls. With a degree in drawing and painting from UW – Madison, Steve has a deep appreciation for art. Some of the paintings are portraits by Mike Fredrickson, whom Steve has known since Fredrickson was a student at UW – Milwaukee. Steve bought his first portrait, called “Mystical Phil,” back in 1984, but now owns over a dozen. “Mystical Phil” hangs above a door to the left of the bar, while other paintings, mostly of Johnson family members or regular Uptowner customers, hang on the tavern’s left wall.

Steve notes another piece of history hanging to the right of the door, just above a life-size Elvis cutout. This clipping, with the bold words HITLER DEAD, came from Stars and Stripes Magazine and was sent home by a soldier stationed in Europe during the war. He was the son of a couple who were good friends with Steve’s parents, and the clip eventually ended up at the Uptowner.

Holy Souls in Purgatory. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Holy Souls in Purgatory. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

“Everything’s got a story,” says Martha. “Nothing’s hung here for no reason.” And beyond the the well-decorated walls is a plethora of other pieces sitting in the basement. Steve is loathe to part with any of it. “Everything’s for sale, but you can’t afford it” is a line he commonly gives to customers interested in purchasing something. However, that does not stop some customers. Martha says pieces have been stolen, including one called Holy Souls in Purgatory, which lists people to pray for. That item dates back to the 1920s or 1930s and has been stolen at least two or three times. It has always turned up again, often with the help of a Good Samaritan who sees it sitting in the thief’s home and convinced him or her to return it. “Things just show up out of nowhere,” Martha says. “I guess it goes along with the spirit of the place.”

The Uptowner is also known for its “Home of the beautiful people” and “Charm School” slogans. Steve says he and his friends used to talk about the beautiful people of the 1960s, like the jetsetters and the Kennedys. “Since we are none of those things,” Steve jokes, “that’s why we call it the home of the beautiful people.” Charm school is one of Steve’s lines. He came into the tavern one day to find four guys basically sleeping at the bar. He jokingly asked if they were running some kind of charm school. The term stuck and, around 25 years ago, Steve’s friend, Tom Galbraith, a neon artist, turned the slogan into a neon window sign.

Although Steve takes great pride in the Uptowner’s history, artwork and other quirky characteristics, he pays particular attention to the music playing in his bar. “The number one thing, and it’s almost subliminal, is the music,” Steve says. “Even if customers don’t consciously hear it, it’s important.” Patrons will hear everything from soul music to Gershwin when they visit the Uptowner. Every Tuesday night for the last ten years, the bar has hosted a hip hop show. It has also hosted countless other live music shows, across multiple genres, over the years.

This wide selection of music is comparable to the wide selection of people and world views you’ll encounter here. “My dad’s always been a person who could talk to anyone,” Martha says. “You have to like people. To be close-minded and judgmental is not going to work.” Customer Kimberly Goins agrees. “They treat everyone the same. It doesn’t matter how you look.”

One day, Goins was enjoying a drink at the bar when someone stole her cell phone. Steve jumped in a car and chased after the guy, eventually getting her phone back. “I hate to sound dramatic,” Goins says, “but you have your whole life on that phone.” She calls Johnson her super hero. “Steve will be over-tipped for life!”

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Categories: Taverns

One thought on “Taverns: Home of the Beautiful People?”

  1. Juli Kaufmann says:

    Several years ago, my husband and I attended an art opening and found ourselves drawn to a particular untitled piece. It captivated us in a way that was hard to articulate, so we asked the artist what she would title the piece if she had to give it a name. Her response: “The Uptowner”. We reacted with astonishment and made arrangements to acquire the piece which now hangs prominently in our living room. Sure enough, if you look closer at the abstract piece, you see the forms of patrons seated at a bar. We explained to the artist that my then boyfriend, now husband, and I met at a bar called The Uptowner in Milwaukee. He was seated at the bar, I in one of those church pews. We kept catching glances, stealing looks at each other in the mirror that reflected our images from behind the bar. We have been inseparable ever since. It turns out the artist of this piece has a love story of her own with the Uptowner. She is none other than Martha Johnson. Smallwaukee strikes again.

    This story is a delight for us, another way the taverns of Milwaukee weave throughout life. I am so happy to know Martha is helping care take this gem for the next generation. And thank you to the Uptowner for changing my life. We still pop in on occasion to swoon at the bar and appreciate what has remained one of Milwaukee’s greatest places.

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