Southern Wisconsin – a Hidden Gem in Plain Sight
Is there life between the coasts? Most certainly! Many places have much to offer. A surprise to many may be the variety of options in Southern Wisconsin. Milwaukee, Madison and Spring Green each present a different face.
Potential travelers to Wisconsin may be aware of the Green Bay Packers or the prevalence of lush green meadows, dairy cows, and cheese. Beyond that, Milwaukee may be recognized for beer and brats, and for motorcycle enthusiasts, Harleys. But, there is much more to this city. Like a smaller, more accessible Chicago, art, architecture, and natural beauty abound. A city that was often overlooked has recently become a go-to destination in the Midwest.
The character of Milwaukee was built on immigrant groups, beginning with prolific German immigration caused by the ouster of liberals after the 1848 revolution. The uprising which rejected autocratic political structures in the 39 independent states of the German Confederation failed, so the revolutionaries sought democracy in a new land. Although current Milwaukee hosts a highly diverse population, it is still the most German of major American cities.
The importance of beer gardens, music festivals, and sports contribute to the gemütlichkeit of the city. In fact, the immigrants who made Milwaukee famous considered alcohol consumption integral to their way of life. Defending the right to drink often became a political rallying cry. And taking advantage of the warm months by partying is apparent in its Summerfest which has become the world’s largest music festival; hosting more than 800 bands over 11 days starting in late June.
As the home to historic national brands such as Pabst and Schlitz, Milwaukee does not disappoint as a beer culture. Quaff a brew at one of the many pubs along the 3-mile Riverwalk or tour a brewery. The surviving giant, Miller, offers tours as do over a dozen craft breweries.
The business center and many neighborhoods preserve a traditional look from the grand architecture of the Gilded Age to the brick of the Great Depression. In many of the arts and much of the architecture familiar beer brewer names abound. The Pabst Mansion, built in Flemish Renaissance Revival style, which was home to Milwaukee’s pioneer brewing family and five archbishops, sits in the heart of the city. Many beautiful Catholic and Lutheran churches line the streets, as do the attractive buildings of Marquette University, the first co-ed Catholic University in the world, established by a missionary to provide an affordable Catholic education to the emerging German immigrant population.
For the artistic nature lover, the Lake Michigan waterfront, Lakefront Park, affords beautiful treed walking and running trails, as well as all manner of water activities. Overlooking the park and lake, many beautiful mansions can be seen. So what else makes it special? It also has the county zoo with over 2200 animals, the Milwaukee Public Museum with a natural history focus, and the distinctive Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory with three seventy-foot high glass domes filled with over 750 plant species. But the iconic edifice is the Santiago Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum, that beckons to all that behold it. This gleaming white pavilion whose “wings” are raised when the museum is open and lowered when it is closed, houses a rich collection from Old Masters to contemporary art.
The city’s history and culture is further sustained by many other museums and performing arts companies. The Harley Davidson museum in the Industrial area by the Menomonee River draws motorcycle enthusiasts and curiosity seekers with its display of over 450 choppers. The Performing Arts Center includes Milwaukee’s Repertory Theatre one of finest regional theaters in country and Marcus Center for Performing Arts, home to several major music-based arts organizations.
For the sports enthusiast, all the major sports are represented. Two of them play at special venues – The Brewers baseball team at Miller Park with its industrial design and retractable roof, and the Bucks basketball team in its brand new $524 million eye-catching arena that replaces the Harris Bradley Center. The new arena which features an immense wall of glass and imposing arched roof will anchor a developing 27-acre downtown district linking the historic Old World Third Street, the riverfront, the heavily commuted Water Street, and the exhibition space at the Wisconsin Center. Milwaukee is somewhat unusual when it comes to football. Its “hometown team,” the Green Bay Packers, is not only two hours away, but it is further than one of its competitors, the Chicago Bears.
Drive an hour west of Milwaukee to the state capital, Madison, the second largest city in Wisconsin. As with other special small cities such as Santa Fe, Ann Arbor, and Monterey-Carmel, Madison overachieves. Benefiting from the flagship state university and the exquisite National Historic Landmark capital building, it is a hive of activity. The Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts architecture of the capital building like many of its peers is a dome and rotunda structure. Galleries extend in each of the four directions and the interior detail is quite striking. The capital sits on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Lake Monona, and by legislation no building in the city may be taller than the columns surrounding the dome. The neighboring streets are home to many shops and restaurants.
A short way along the paved Capital City State Trail is a lakefront convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of the largest and most respected public state universities in this country, the University of Wisconsin. A stroll around the campus shows a mix of classic stone-faced and functional modern brick buildings. Relax with a bite to eat and drink at the Memorial Student Union Building on the shore of lovely lake Mendota.
The arts scene is vibrant with many museums. And the impressive Overture Performing Arts Center’s $205 million construction cost, fully funded by husband and wife Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland, makes this the largest private gift to the arts of its kind. Designed by Cesar Pelli it is certainly worth a tour – holding theaters with seating capacities for 2,251 and 1,085 along with four other smaller performing spaces. It is home to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera, Madison Ballet, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and Repertory Theater, as well as local and touring acts and Visual Arts Galleries.
Besides museums, libraries, educational facilities and the arts, on Saturdays during the warmer months, Madison claims to have the country’s largest producers-only Farmers’ Market. Make sure to try a Wisconsin specialty – fresh cheese curds.
For a more bucolic experience with some real surprises, an hour drive west from Madison lies Spring Green, a remote town of 1,600. The biggest surprise is to find the remarkable repertory theater company, American Players Theater there. That such a scant population in an isolated area hosts a highly professional company with an outdoor theater seating of 1,100 and a more intimate indoor venue of 200 seats boggles the mind. In addition, there are four other small theater companies in the area! Who would have thought to find such reverence for serious performing arts here?
Two other worthwhile nearby sights are Taliesin and House on the Rock. Taliesin, was Frank Lloyd Wright’s longtime home, workshop, and now educational foundation. The architecture emphasizes his usual spare Prairie style, bringing the outside in and blending with the surrounding landscape. He designed it with great functionality, particularly the drafting workshop, focusing on the light needed from natural sources. It is easy to see Asian influences throughout the architecture and artifacts. Although Wright was a stickler for his beliefs when designing for clients, he did not always adhere to those strictures in his own country home. Much can be seen and learned by a tour from one of the knowledgeable docents.
Alex Jordan started building House on the Rock in 1945 as an elevated, grand mansion with 360 degree views. But Jordan was a great collector, and he kept expanding to accommodate his collections. What resulted is a great warren of interconnected pieces, highlighted by the spectacular “Infinity” room, 218 feet long. Jordan’s menageries include assemblages of doll houses, Santa Clauses handcrafted animals, 20,000 lights, and the world’s largest carousel.
If these sights build an appetite, Spring Green has several restaurants, cheese shops, and a Wisconsin fast food institution. Culvers, whose specialties are frozen custard and burgers, puts a major dent in the normal presence of some of those national chains who will remain unnamed. All manner of goodies can be found to appease the appetite of the hungry traveler after completing this short and sweet Southern Wisconsin tour.