Michael Horne
Bar Exam

The Tale of Tony’s Tavern

Once a hotel, it was a classic bar owned by same family for 83 years.

By - Aug 22nd, 2016 05:18 pm
Tony's. Photo by Michael Horne.

Tony’s. Photo by Michael Horne.

This week, Bar Exam takes a look at a type of establishment we have never visited before — one that is no longer in business. You couldn’t tell that from the photo gallery below, since Tony’s Tavern, 412 S. 2nd St., is almost exactly as it was when the late Tony Pogorelc closed the doors more than four years ago.

Today, the old bar is the Reed Street Insurance Agency, run by Tony’s son James G. Pogorelc. It is outfitted with the apparatus needed to conduct that business, which is pretty much a stack of business cards, some brochures, a printer and a place to put your laptop.

Stained glass window. Photo by Michael Horne.

Stained glass window. Photo by Michael Horne.

But everything else in the room, which is robustly furnished, was there in the bar when Tony ran the place. There is an upright player piano of the showy tavern type (25 cents per play, originally a nickel), a “Tony’s” stained glass window inset above the front door, facing inward, to remind customers where they were, artwork ranging from Medieval portraits to Pilsner Urquell signs to a copy of Abraham Lincoln‘s saloon license.

The liquor — it’s all there, too. Boy, I could use a shot of Kruskovic Pear Liqueur right about now, and there is a bottle of Croatia’s finest spirit staring me in the face, and bringing back memories of Tony. It’s right next to the Nut Hut, once my source for warm salted cashews.

Do not overlook the panoramic painting on the wall — it is a rare, and possibly contemporary — painting of the Third Ward fire as seen from the southeast.

The room has large windows opening to S. 2nd St., a product of a remodeling around 1933, so there is plenty of light. The ceilings have cove mouldings, which was a nice touch. The natural oak woodwork is varnished and nicely patinated.

A Homey Touch

Generally speaking, the place exudes a homey touch, and well it should, since the building also serves as a residence for Ann Pogorelc, Tony’s widow, and the owner of the building.

Anne has lived here since the day she was born, which I’m reckoning was sometime during Prohibition, or only very shortly thereafter. And I think she likes things just the way they are.

As far back as 1894, the substantial brick, or southern, portion of this building was a hotel, and it must have been cramped, since in its later incarnation as a rooming house, it was listed as having 12 boarders in 1,800 square feet. Just to the south, across an alley, the 1894 map shows that a foundation had been laid for a three story building which is now Shaker’s Cigar Bar, 422 S. 2nd St., which will have to substitute for Tony’s if you want a drink. Shaker’s is a “Ghost Bar,” allegedly haunted, which is a suitable counterpart to this time capsule.

What became Tony’s Tavern was near the railroad station, and in the center of Milwaukee’s early industrial zone with such Machine-Age giants as Harnischfeger, A. O. Smith and Allis Chalmers all having had their start within blocks of here, along with such forgotten enterprises as the Gem Hammock and Fly-Net Co. just a block to the northwest.

By 1910 industry had burgeoned in the area, and the Shaker’s building was the office of a heating oil concern.

Tony’s Tavern first enters the city permit files in June, 1934, when Anton Smrekar took out an application to occupy 1,170 square feet of this building “in industrial neighborhood” as a tavern. Its Prohibition-era use? “Tavern.” He called it “Tony’s.”

In 1950, the owner was cited because the basement of the building was “not of fire restrictive construction.” This was a real concern, especially with twelve roomers, the Smrekar family and the patrons all crowded into the place, which was heated by coal.

In 1951 when thousands were switching from coal to the heating oil sold next door, or the brand new natural gas piped in from the south, Smrekar invested in a new stoker for the coal-fired burner, and got around to enclosing the boiler room in 1952. A Crane gas boiler was finally installed in 1957.

The awnings which are a conspicuous feature of the building must have been there for some time, since they were re-covered in 1954, and many times since. In 1955 the concrete block garage was built; in 1964, a second toilet room was added.

By that time Tony Pogorelc took over from his father in law. He didn’t even have to change the name of the place. With the removal of some adjacent buildings to the north in 1975, Tony gained a 12-car parking lot, which he enclosed with a $6,000, 5-1/2 foot high cream city brick wall that remains.

Woe to anybody who would try to park there and not go immediately into Tony’s bar, and take his car with him the moment he left. If he went to another tavern, even after spending good money at Tony’s, he was liable to find his car ticketed and/or towed.

Tony was of solid build and of a philosophical bent. He kept abreast of the news, particularly of the financial sort. He might have been the only Wall Street Journal subscriber in the whole Walker’s Point district.

As the years went on, industry fled the area which became a fertile zone for gay bars, what with its incredible number of suitable establishments. Through it all, Tony remained a stalwart representative of the old Slovenian tavern customs. For him, that meant never drinking while tending bar, never buying a customer a drink, and never visiting the businesses of his rivals located just a couple dozen feet away.

In the 1980s, Tony’s was discovered by the artists, actors and other creative types who reveled in its Old World character. It was a hangout for Theatre X performers and fans. Tony was especially proud when his tavern was used for a Miller Beer advertisement. That picture, now a quarter-century old, hangs on a wall today, and may be the newest thing in the collection.

Ornate cash register. Photo by Michael Horne.

Ornate cash register. Photo by Michael Horne.

Ornate Cash Register

The cash register is the ornate type, brassy, and the kind of machine that takes a little muscle power to operate. Two plaques obscure the part of the register that shows the amount of the sale. They’ve been here forever, too. One says, “We Do Not Serve Minors.”

Another, a poem, reads:

The four saddest
Words that were
Ever composed, are
These dismal sounds,

On Tap - Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery

  • Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
  •  Lakefront Fixed Gear
  •  Lakefront IPA
  •  Lakefront White

The four tap handles remain in place.

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Trade Name: Tony’s
  • Location: 412-14 S. 2nd St. Formerly 208-10 Reed St.
  • Neighborhood: Walker’s Point
  • Subdivision: Walker’s Point
  • Phone Number: 414-277-0414
  • Website: https://www.reedstreetins.com/
  • Facebook: None Found
  • Twitter: None Found
  • Description: Old rooming house tavern was last licensed in 2012, and now is office of insurance agency. However, entire bar remains as it was for decades, right down to the bottles and the Lakefront Brewery tap handles. A time capsule.
  • Signature Drink: You’ll have to go next door to Shaker’s at 422 S. 2nd St. for that.
  • Capacity: Was 25
  • Restrooms: 1 Men’s, 1 Woman’s
  • Year Established: Was licensed Soft Drink Parlor during Prohibition, license applied for Tony’s on June 20, 1934 by Anton Smrekar. Son-in-law Tony Pogrolec continued as Tony’s, April 4, 1963 – c. 2012
  • Year Building Constructed: 1892, with substantial work done around 1933, both interior and exterior, including new facade on old hotel building / rooming house
  • Estimated Annual Rent: 3,086 square feet square feet at $14.99/s.f.=$46,274 per annum according to City Assessor’s calculations.
  • Property is assessed at $34,700 for the 4,333 sq. ft. lot [$8.00/sq.ft.] and $377,300 for the 4,886 sq. ft. building for a total assessed valuation of $412,000. Has been in same family for at least 83 years.
  • Property taxes of $12,050.85 are Paid in Full.
  • Property Owner: Frisco Kid LLC, Ann J. Pogorelc, Agent
  • Business Owner: Tavern Business is closed. Reed Street Insurance agency run by James Pogorelc in fully equipped bar.
  • Business: Now insurance agency.
  • Walk Score:  90, Walker’s Paradise. City Average: 61
  • Transit Score: 57, Good Transit. City Average: 49 Bus right in front of the place.
  • Bike Rack: A couple doors away at Camino.
  • Aldermanic District: 12th Ald. José G. Pérez
  • County Supervisor District: 12th Peggy A. West
  • Police District: 2

Hours of Operation

Tony’s is closed

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7 thoughts on “Bar Exam: The Tale of Tony’s Tavern”

  1. Tom D says:

    Bus Route 49 (Freeway Flyer serving Bayshore and Brown Deer) runs elsewhere. Routes 19, 23, and Blue run there.

  2. TheTileNinja says:

    This was a great place for scenesters like me to duck in and have a quiet drink and shoot a game of pool. Taps were cheap and you could park in the lot as soon as you were hanging out there. Tony was always into telling stories and asking questions and chatting you up. It was a great place that was a good escape from the “cool kids” scene.

  3. Dale says:

    Interesting background on the heating history of the early 50’s. Even better is all the bar art and paintings of yesteryear Walker’s Point. Thanks Horne.

  4. Observer says:

    Tony loved to sit on the far end of the bar beneath the TV which was always showing WMVS. If something had caught his eye, you would wait until he was good and ready to serve you a beer. Probably the quirkiest bar in the city when it was open.

  5. DTtoTosa says:

    Tony’s was like no other bar in the city. No gimmick or hook – just a bar, which was quiet and invited conversation. I have a very fond memory of taking my grandparents there not too long before it closed; grandpa was able to talk with Tony about WWII, when all of his friends and war buddies were already long gone. Priceless. Also fondly remember seeing Anne in their kitchen at the end of the bar, passed what seemed to be their dining room. This is certainly a set-up not seen in too many other places these days.

  6. Joe Hausch says:

    Great choice Mr. Horne! Tony’s was a jewel, and everything you say about it – including the parking, or especially the parking – is true. Many great pool games, conversations, debates, dates and fun little mini-MIAD gatherings there. Ann was so sweet, so fun to chat with and always so humble and I almost forgot her burgers – they were so incredible! Maybe they just paired so well with all Tony’s perfectly poured imbibements, but I know I always left with a warm and fuzzy feeling like with no other place around. And if that jukebox wasn’t the best in the city (state), it was runner-up. Truly just not another smoke filled fun little jewel way back when; it was more like a family gathering.

  7. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Wish I’d had a chance to visit this bar (didn’t even know about it)!

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