Michael Horne
Bar Exam

Woody’s Is a Ramshackle Gay Bar

Once had tunnel to sneak in booze during Prohibition. It's been crumbling ever since.

By - Feb 19th, 2016 05:16 pm
Woody's. Photo by Michael Horne.

Woody’s. Photo by Michael Horne.

Woody’s Bar has been located in this corner building near the foot of W. Lapham Blvd. on 2nd St. since November, 1997. If you look straight at it, you will see an unusual entryway recessed into the front of the building, clearly added years after the initial construction.

Look at the building from the south, and you see evidence of a patchwork of construction, some frame, some otherwise, much covered in asphaltic fake brick. You can even see where the foundation failed somewhere back. It takes decades to put a pile like this together.

The front, facing S. 2nd St., is faced in “Nu Stone,” a concrete material and there is a nice window, that recessed entryway and some glass block detailing, along with a little courseway above for neon lights. This feature belies a former elegance for the otherwise unassuming two-story building.

These neon lights are on right now, and they display a rainbow of color. “Woody’s” is spelled out in letters of white light with a rainbow background. Around these parts, rainbow colors mean one thing: we’ve found ourselves another gay bar!

Curious recessed entrance. Photo by Michael Horne.

Curious recessed entrance. Photo by Michael Horne.

Let’s go in through that curious recessed entrance. Once you’re inside, there’s no question you’re in a tavern, since the bar circles out to meet you in a classic question mark shape. You can sit at the end with the window behind you, or you can swivel around in your chair to see the goings on outside. You are just a couple steps into the place.

Above you is a wide-screen television, one of many in the bar. Over in a corner is a gaming machine, for amusement only. There is a rainbow flag on a flagpole. All non-rainbow decor is strictly stuff from the beer and liquor interests, or supporting the Green Bay Packers.

Woody’s was the first gay bar to go in really big for the Packers, offering game day features, and free shots for touchdowns. The Pack is backed.

The bar has a formica finish, and a wooden rail, and has been around awhile, but is clearly not part of the original building which was constructed in 1880, and significantly altered over time.  Rounded-cornered deco-like wooden projections hold the liquor bottles against a mirrored background illuminated by a “Miller Lite Time” neon, non-rainbow edition. Two Wisconsin Badger flags hang proudly bracketing a dozen very rainbow Absolut vodka bottles.

The fake stone continues in the bar as a sort of wainscoting, adding a touch of outside to the inside, if you will. There are 16 or so backed, padded, swiveling stools in the main bar area, and a couple more television sets. Some are tuned to a trivia game. Customers are invited to use a little device to play the game for free. One television is hanging from a chimney that runs right though the room. You can walk around it from either side. This is probably where the original building ended.

Wood paneled ceiling. Photo by Michael Horne.

Wood paneled ceiling. Photo by Michael Horne.

A curious note is the terrazzo floor in most areas of the 2,303-square-foot bar. That is a rather fancy material, and quite a heavy one to be installed in an existing frame building without sufficient support beneath, and it certainly did not date to the tavern’s original construction. This topic brings us to one of the building’s additions, just to the west. This is the “Dance Hall.” It is a grand attraction. The ceiling in the long room is coved and wood paneled. Occasional windows on the south and north admit some light — just enough to keep several seasons’ worth of Poinsettias alive on the sills. It is a shame to throw out a living plant, yet virtually impossible to get a Poinsettia to bloom again in this latitude. Still, a little chlorophyll is always welcome, even when arranged in a rather scraggly fashion.

The back room includes some round tables and stools, and a scattering of amusement devices, like electronic darts. One dart board is within shooting range of both the (little used) women’s bathroom and the pool table, even though there are plenty of other places for the dart board to be located.

Or the pool table, for that matter. Watch your step! The pool table, who knows why, is located on a portion of the terrazzo that has sunk a good three inches from the rest of the floor. That the pool table itself is not level, it took not too many shots to determine. Jabbing dart players in the butt with pool sticks was inevitable and apparently not welcome. Sorry. When the pool table failed to dislodge the cue ball after a scratch shot, (caused by table roll, of course) I scratched playing on this table again off my list.

Nearby, on a level patch of floor, is an air hockey game, if you would care to bother with that. Some old Jack Daniels barrels add a bit of charm to the place, and a ledge for your cold beer is thoughtfully and paradoxically located atop a steam radiator. At the far end of the room is another bar that is used for special occasions like Packers games. A Jagermeister banner covers the ceiling here.

Long History Saw Many Changes Here

This building, constructed in 1880 at what was then the northwest corner of Reed and Lapham streets, served as a grocery store in 1894. Both buildings to the north were butcher shops, and the fourth building from the corner was a tavern at that time. Much of the rest of the immediate area was housing — densely packed, often with many buildings per lot.

In 1892 a permit was taken out “to build a new foundation under present building to 18 inches thick.” That would encompass the original footprint of the place, all the way back to the chimney. In 1909 a “new” glass storefront replaced the original one. It, too is now long gone. That is probably when this place first became a saloon. A concrete garage was added for $250 in the prohibition year of 1924. It is entirely possible that a tunnel was built beneath the tavern’s back yard to connect with the garage in some fashion — and for some purpose we will discuss later.

With prohibition ended, in 1933, a $2,500, 16 ft. by 24 ft. one-story addition was built to the tavern. That is the area immediately west of the original bar, and includes the sunken floor by the pool table. In 1939 an additional story was built above the addition for $1,600. It included a “drying room” and a “storage room,” although that which was dried and stored was not described.

The building was sold in 1944 for $11,000 to Mike Vinovich.

In 1947-49 came even more changes for the old building. This is when the dance floor was further extended, and the present entrance constructed to replace the previous one which encroached on the city’s right of way. This is also when the Nu-Stone front and interior touches were added.  In 1952 the upstairs had one five room apartment and four sleeping rooms. At that time it was operated as “The Balkan Inn” and was a rather fancy place as things went on the industrial south side.

The Milwaukee Sentinel sent a reporter to take a look at the place in 1951.

H. E. “Jamie” Jamison wrote in his “Jaunts With Jamie” column that the Balkan Inn provided:

“a rendevous of foreign-born Americans who hunger for the atmosphere of their motherlands. Here gather Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and also Hungarians, Bulgarians, Russians, Romanians, Greeks and Poles.

“They come to speak their native languages, to eat their native foods and to dance their native dances.”

Jamie was somewhat clairvoyant, it appears.

  • He noted the house Tamburica band, and the singing of its members, headed by Big Pete Markovich. “The poignant beauty of their blending voices was reminiscent of  Spanish or Mexican singing.” The building later became a Mexican bar!
  • He also noted a same-sex attraction here, observing that “two girls danced together all evening, a whirl of youth and grace.” The building later became a same-sex bar!

The operator in 1951, Eva Vinovich, by then 38 years old, was getting tired of the routine. Her two kids were grown and ready to move out of the apartment upstairs. She told the reporter she wanted to “get a place in the country and raise chickens and pigs and take it easy. She is weary of business responsibilities, television and juke boxes.”

In 1968 the licensee was addressed in a letter from the city of Milwaukee as “Ms. Betty Hunt,” the first instance I can recollect of this honorific being used in official city correspondence. Gloria Steinem didn’t get around to using “Ms.” until 1971. Maybe it was just a typo.

Ms. Hunt ran the place as “Betty’s Balkan Inn,” and had a Pabst sign installed out front. In 1977 Branislav Ignjatovic thought he would like to own the place, presumably carrying on the Balkan heritage, judging from his name. But his application was cancelled.

Finally, in 1977 one of Jamie’s prophecies came true, and the place was sold to Guadalupe Macias for $66,800. Spanish and Mexican tunes were soon to be heard here.

The gold framed oil paintings of St. Sava and the Karageorge princes battling the Turks which had decorated the Balkan Inn found their homes elsewhere. In their place, the new owner decorated the place with holiday lights, adding a festive Latin touch which did not impress the inspector.

“Christmas Tree lighting may not be used in place of permanent wiring throughout tavern,” he wrote in his order.

Lupe’s” continued in business for a number of years as a Mexican bar. The assessor found the building to be of “less than average grade of construction.” Perhaps the settled terrazzo floor and cracked foundation walls provided a clue, not to mention the many unpermitted activities at the place, like the enclosing of a sun porch and promiscuous use of Christmas Tree lighting.

Around that time the new owner took out a permit to block in some windows on the north side of the building for some bathroom privacy and remodeling. Since the north side of the building was only 18 inches from the south side of the building next door, not much was lost, and the bathrooms were thereby improved.

Lupe’s Place kept in business, and in 1993 took out a permit to repair the foundation where the terrazzo was settling into the old tunnel beneath the tavern. Numerous cracks are still visible on the wall above grade, inside and outside.

For awhile around 1995 the tavern was called 3B’s, its first gay incarnation, and one which Jamie may have imagined when he saw the two girls dancing there 41 years before. Then, in November 1997, the place became Woody’s as it remains today.

The Mystery of the Tunnel

City files show a diagram of the building and its numerous additions from the late 1940s. It shows the original building and its first addition — the one where the pool table is, and where the foundation failed and the terrazzo settled. The diagram shows “no basement” on the north and south portions of the addition, and then intriguingly indicates a “tunnel” in between running to the west, toward what had been the garage.

During Prohibition, and perhaps before, the building was owned by Anton Sweykata. It is he who built the garage in the first place, later connecting the tavern to the garage in 1933, while also making “alterations to the basement.” How convenient!

In 1930 Sweykata was found innocent of running a “large brewery” a block away from here at a cottage and garage at 624 Hanover St., now S. 3rd St. According to a report in the May 8th, 1930 Milwaukee Journal, Sweykata “formerly operated a saloon at 597 Reed St.,” or at this location.

What is interesting about the case is that a “tunnel ran from the basement of [the] cottage to the garage, indicating that supplies were run into the basement and beer run out without any activity in the open.” Sweykata knew nothing, he said, and had been long divorced from the tavern business. Why, he had never even been to the cottage clearly visible from his own building, he said. It was all a misunderstanding, and a jury agreed.

What is curious, of course, is that Sweykata had his own tunnel running from the basement of his saloon to his cinderblock prohibition-era garage in the rear, leading us to imagine that Woody’s, too, operated as some sort of a brewery during the wild days of Prohibition.

One Last Thing

If you miss the old “Dildo Cart” from the former Wreck Room bar, you will find it here, partially disassembled and tucked behind a radiator.

On Tap - Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery

  • Bud Light
  • Budweiser
  • Lakefront Brewery Riverwest Stein Beer
  • Miller Lite
  • New Glarus Spotted Cow
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Miller

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Tax Key: 4621185000
  • Trade Name: Woody’s
  • Location: 1579 S. 2nd St. Milwaukee
  • Neighborhood: Clock Tower Acres
  • Subdivision: S 20 Acres Of N 60 Acres In Ne 1/4 Sec 5-6-22 Block 128 S 25′ Of E 100′ Lot 6
  • Phone Number: 414-828-1048
  • Website: None Found
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/woodys.mke/
  • Twitter: None
  • Description: Old South Side bar had colorful history as Balkan Inn, a gathering spot for first generation Milwaukeeans of Eastern European descent. Later it served as a gathering spot for first generation Milwaukeeans of Mexican descent before entering its two decade career as a gay bar. First gay bar to embrace all things Packer, it is low key, friendly and very much a neighborhood place.
  • Signature Drink: Absolut Vodka in the rainbow colored bottle, please. Make it a double, and I’ll shake you for the next one.
  • Capacity: 99
  • Restrooms: Men’s, Women’s, refurbished somewhat over the decades, with little bits of the old details surviving each time. Clean and flushable. Women’s room visitors must vie with dart and pool players.
  • Year Established: Was tavern since pre-prohibition times. Served many decades as Balkan Inn, later as a Mexican bar and restaurant. Gay bar since 1995, as Woody’s since 1997.
  • Year Building Constructed: 1880
  • Estimated Annual Rent: Estimated Annual Rent: 2303 square feet at $8.75/s.f.=$20,151.25 per annum according to City Assessor’s calculations. Property is assessed at $6,900 for the 2,500 sq. ft. lot [$2.76/sq.ft.] and $180,800 for the 4605 sq. ft. building for a total assessed valuation of $187,700. Property taxes of $13,051.50. Tavern operator owns building.
  • Property Owner: Multiverse Inc  C/O Patrick T. Heney
  • Business Owner: Patrick T. Heney D.O.B. [08/31/1966] 100% owner.
  • Business: Tavern Alcohol 90% Food 10%
  • Walk Score: 77, Very Walkable
  • Transit Score: 56, Good Transit
  • Game of Chance: 9 Amusement Machines
  • Game of Skill: 1 Pool Table, one Air Hockey Table. Pool table isn’t level and who plays air hockey?
  • Aldermanic District: 12, Ald. José G. Pérez
  • Police District: 2

Hours of Operation

Is Open? Day Open Close Expected Customers Age Restriction
True Sun 2:00PM 2:00AM 200
True Mon 4:00PM 2:00AM 100
True Tue 4:00PM 2:00AM 100
True Wed 4:00PM 2:00AM 100
True Thu 4:00PM 2:00AM 200
True Fri 4:00PM 2:30AM 250
True Sat 2:00PM 2:30AM 300

With additional research by Dylan Deprey

One thought on “Bar Exam: Woody’s Is a Ramshackle Gay Bar”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Thank you for this grand tour of Woody’s, Michael Horne! I’d always wanted to go there, but have never been inside yet!

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