Digging up Wells Street’s storied past

  • Wells Street has undergone changes over the years — physically and culturally.
  • There used to be many more bars and storefronts along Wells, but those started disappearing by the 1960s.
  • One notable remnant of Wells Street's past that lasted into the late 1990s was the Avalanche Bar.

When construction crews were pounding on the concrete of Wells Street last week to clear way for a new pedestrian median, they were digging up relics of Milwaukee's past.

Uncovered in the rubble were the old metal tracks of the city's streetcar line, which was still running through World War II. The discovery shows how much Wells Street has changed not only in appearance, but in culture.

The block's stretch of mom-and-pops — barbershops and salons, self-service laundries and cleaners, lunch counters and restaurants, meat and fruit markets, and of course bars — is largely gone from Marquette's campus today. But just like the old streetcar lines, reminders of the Wells Street of Old Milwaukee subsist.

Take Angelo's Pizza, for instance.

In 1954, Mike Albano's grandparents opened the first Angelo's at 1600 W. Wells St. The restaurant and bar moved to its current location across the street in 1972. Having grown up in the family business, Albano has seen the changing of the campus bar scene firsthand. Students didn't go to off-campus watering holes as often, and when they stayed here, they weren't "sheltered" to only certain bars, he said.

"The seniors used to embrace freshmen. Partying was a lot more fun than being a big drunk-fest," Albano said. "Now people go to their own bar. Before everyone went everywhere. It was like a pub crawl every night."

Of course there was a lot more selection than Caffrey's and Murphy's. Wells Street bar hoppers went to places like O'Donoghue's Pub, J.V. Grunts, Thoma's and the Midget Bar. By the 1990s, these establishments had closed their doors.

But those places catering to college students were largely an exception to a larger neighborhood tavern culture that had disappeared by the 1960s and '70s, according to history professor Thomas Jablonsky, who authored "Milwaukee's Jesuit University: Marquette, 1881-1981." At one point, there were as many as 23 bars and grocery stores on State Street, 16 on Wells Street and 14 on Wisconsin Avenue, according to statistics in the book.

Male students after World War II would frequent these establishments, but more students tended to stay closer to campus as the neighborhood and times changed. Commercial businesses in storefronts along the south side of Wells Street were consumed in the federal urban renewal plan of the late 1960s and '70s, Jablonsky said.

In the 1950s, local sports fans watched Marquette football games — yes, football — and those who brought transistor radios to the game could tune in to WISN Radio and listen to former Green Bay Packer Bob Forte's play-by-play (so said a billboard on campus as depicted in university archives photographs). Afterward, fans mingled at a Wells Street bar named in honor of the team, so called the "Golden Avalanche."

One remnant of that era on Wells Street that stayed until the late 1990s was the Avalanche Bar, originally located at 1419 W. Wells St. and later at 1504 W. Wells St. For nearly a half-century, Marquette students, instructors and neighborhood locals frequented the bar. Many were said to "get your degree at Marquette and get your education at the 'Lanche."

And quite an education it was.

For 50 cents, bar patrons could have their fill of now-defunct Red White & Blue beer. Glass bottle shreds often littered the floor until the bar started using plastic cups. Most notoriously, the Avalanche would be sight to "naked beer slides" — patrons would pour beer onto the floor, and intoxicated male patrons, wearing nothing but their birthday suits, slid. But the tradition effectively ended in 1991 when a female participant got caught — and fined $150 — by undercover Milwaukee police officers.

The Avalanche was "kind of funky, kind of dirty, but also very fun and very cheap," said Michael Keating, a graduate from 1997, the year the bar closed. A series of fights and vandalism led to the bar's demise. Keating tried to buy the property, which was owned by the university, to reopen the bar.

The bar was not in the condition at which Marquette would maintain a property, said Toby Peters, associate senior vice president. The university either had to refurbish the buildings on the north side of Wells Street or look at alternative uses that would be better for the university and the neighborhood, Peters said.

"We looked to the future," Peters said.

Keating said, "(The Avalanche) was familiar. It was Marquette. If you take those places away, you can't recreate the spirit and community just by building new locations throughout the community."

Karen Parks, a 1993 graduate, said she remembers seeing a few naked beer slides, including the last one. She also recalls the times she opened and closed the bar in "'Lanche-A-Thons."

"Wells Street used to be awesome," Parks said. "I loved the old, rundown buildings. You kids now have such luxury — but I wouldn't change the old stuff we had for a minute."

By the late 1980s, the university's Campus Circle neighborhood revitalization project was underway. Campus Circle was the university's response to its "deteriorating neighborhood," said Peters, who was involved in the project.

"If we were to continue to be a successful university, we couldn't turn our back to the neighborhood," Peters said.

In the public-private partnership, Marquette razed some buildings along Wells Street and rehabilitated others, Peters said. The Campus Town apartments were built, constructing taller buildings where one- or two-story structures previously stood.

After purchasing and renovating the Campus Town properties, the university began leasing first floor spaces to "responsible landlords," Peters said. Some businesses have shuffled locations, like Open Pantry. Others have closed, and some staples remain, like Real Chili.

So it was no wonder that project organizers declared in a fall 1993 review of Campus Circle that "the face of Wells Street is definitely undergoing major change."

Then-Campus Circle project director Pat LeSage said in a Jan. 13, 1992 Marquette Tribune article that the university intended to purchase some bars along Wells Street and there would be fewer bars around campus. But, he added, "I don't want to get rid of all the bars. That wouldn't make any sense."

James Sankovitz, the university's vice president of governmental and community affairs, said in the same story, "It's no secret that we're not always happy with what goes on at these places, and the bars that will be around campus will have to watch their Ps and Qs. It's not a question of what we're going to get rid of, but what we're going to bring to Wells."

Mike Whittow, assistant to the vice president in the Office of Administration, acknowledged that the decreased number of bars in the area might have inspired negative feelings among some people. Nevertheless, the bars that remain have good tenants, he said.

Debbie Thatcher, the owner of Conway's Smokin' Bar & Grill, 2127 W. Wells St., said the university "got the ball rolling" with Campus Circle in helping to revitalize the neighborhood. But today, Thatcher's bar on the outskirts of campus is one of a few remaining storefront businesses in the area. She said she doesn't think the university or city has helped bring businesses to her part of the community.

Rana Altenburg, the current vice president for public affairs and a 1988 graduate, said Wells Street has always had character and been an active place. Although many bars have left the block, student housing and other amenities have kept it a central spot for students to hang out, she said.

"I have very fond memories of Wells Street then, but it's got much more of a community feel now. It has a much broader appeal," Altenburg said.