May 17th, 2010

Spaces and Traces: Brewers' Hill

This spring's Historic Milwaukee open house tour was titled "Brewers
Hill and the Beer Line," which covered the neighborhood just north of
downtown, which, along with Walker's Point, which we toured a couple of
years ago, remains one of the areas in the city with much of its
original housing left. The "Hill" is also a Historical Preservation
District, so many, but not all, of the homes in the area have nicely
restored exteriors. Others are still feeling the effects of the
neighborhood's depressed past, and we noted a couple of buildings in
the first stages of structural collapse due to neglect.
The area has an interesting mix of Queen Anne, Federal revival, and
Greek and Italianate revival homes, showing its architectural genesis
stretching from the 1860's to the early 1900's. The history of the
neighborhood is a microcosm of the American experience of the time. A
surprising number of the original home owners were German immigrants who
came to Milwaukee, found work in the tanning, brewing, or other
industries, and, within five years or so were building substantial
homes. (Ironically, we toured homes built by several families in
Milwaukee's once-predominant leather industry, but the early homes of
the beer barons in this neighborhood are all gone--.) The bustling and
entrepreneurial spirit of a new city on the edge of the frontier is
shown by the number of lots that held two, three, and even four houses
at one time, and the "ferment" of the neighborhood by the number of
houses that were moved, expanded upon, and substantially rebuilt during
their existences.
The historical preservation order does not apply to interiors of houses,
so, many that were broken up into rental units during the Depression,
World War II or thereafter, are being remodeled into modern
single-family homes. A typical project seems to have been gutting
houses out to the studs, removing superfluous partitions, and completely
replacing wiring, plumbing, and walls to make spacious open-plan living
areas. Interestingly, while remodeling tends to reduce the number of
rooms in the houses' sometimes small footprints horizontally, there is a
strong tendency to reclaim space vertically, turning the deep basements
into family rooms and bedrooms, and the upper parts of tall rooms into
office lofts.
As seems to happen for us, we were most pleased by one of the first
houses on the tour, in this case THE first house, the "Frank and Emile
Poetsch" house at 2037 N. 1st. St. This house is a Queen Anne which owes
its attractive proportions to a substantial addition in 2003, but which
preserved architectural details such as the high narrow windows, and
added some interesting window gables on the south wing. The house has a
pretty but not flamboyant "painted lady" exterior, and the interior is
both comfortable and dignified, with a very nice kitchen that suited the
proportions of the home. (A typical "new" kitchen is a big square space
with an "island". This one was more of a "galley" kitchen with a
side-to-side arrangement, but still large enough for serious cooking.)
The major exception to the "gut the interior" rule was the
"Sanger-Phillips" residence at 1823 N. Palmer Street. This 1872 Cream
City Brick Italianate house is now the property of a gentleman whose
business is historical restoration, and the first floor of the main
house is rather a showpiece for his work. This is one case where things
might be a bit TOO real, since the parlors have been wallpapered in
Morris-esque designs, one with a dark magenta background and one with a
dark green background. Combined with the sparse lighting, the rooms were
dim by day and must be positively gloomy at night. The one advantage to
the color scheme is that it makes the handsome white marble fireplace in
the green parlor stand out like a pearl. The modernizations of kitchen
and loft office have been corralled into the back of the house where a
former breezeway and barn have been converted to these uses. The
property is a triple lot, and two thirds of it are taken up with a
gorgeous naturalistic garden space with walks, benches, and fountains.
Other houses on the tour ranged from the homes of former managers to
workmen's rental cottages refurbished into pleasant homes. The tour
also included some commercial buildings, such as the Frederick Ketter
warehouse at 325 W. Vine St., which is now an architectural office on
the ground floor, and living quarters on the two upper floors. We found
all the places we toured interesting and attractive and the history
portions of the tour very interesting and informative.

Milwaukee Ballet, "Peter Pan"

Sunday afternoon the 16th, we went to the Milwaukee Ballet for the
closing performance of "Peter Pan," an original ballet by Artistic
Director Michael Pink, with score by Philip Feeney. A first in
Milwaukee ballet history, and a good omen for the 40th anniversary
season, the production was entirely sold out for its four-performance
The ballet, in three acts, was perfectly charming. The narrative is
familiar, but has some interesting additions. The first act is set in
the Darling family nursery, and deals with Peter's eavesdropping upon
the family, especially Wendy's storytelling. In a nice touch, he loses
his shadow when Mrs. Darling, alarmed by the intruder, slams the window
on it. Preparing to go out for the evening, there is a very nice dance
between Mr. and Mrs. Darling (David Hovanhannisyan and Jennifer Grapes)
which expresses their love and devotion to one another. (As is
frequent with the Ballet's major productions, the show was double-cast,
with a Thursday-Saturday cast, and a Friday-Sunday cast. However,
Sunday's "Peter", Michael Linsmeyer, was taken ill, and was replaced by
the Thursday-Saturday "Peter", Marc Petrocci-so extra kudos to
Petrocci, who not only danced a very athletic role flawlessly having
just done it the evening before this matinee, but integrated his
performance seamlessly with the second set of principal dancers.)
The act opens with a parade of identical nannies, perambulators, and
neatly-dressed children all dancing in unison, until the entrance of the
Darling children. It is immediately apparent they are "unconventional".
Besides being accompanied only by the dog, "Nana" (Elizabeth Glander),
instead of being attired in a pink coat and neat hat, "Wendy" (Susan
Gartell) wears a dramatic magenta cloak and her hair loose. The action
moves inside with readying for bed as John (Petr Zahradnicek) plays a
hook-handed pirate fighting Michael (Nicole Teague) as a feather-wearing
Indian. When the pirate loses his sword, Wendy seizes it and joins in, a
nice bit of foreshadowing.
The loss of Peter's shadow brings on Tinkerbell (Luz San Miguel) who did
an excellent job of portraying the petulant and jealous fairy.
Tinkerbell's costume was particularly clever, since not only did it
contain its own light sources, but had the small wings built
symbolically as part of her headgear, instead of trying to work out some
form of larger back pieces that would both allow the wearer to dance and
not flop around.
Peter's pangs when Wendy sews his shadow back to the bottoms of his feet
were clever and funny and not overdone. They flying scenes, done by
wire in the classical Broadway fashion, were elegantly done and very
well coordinated, with other dancers working the wires. The act ends
with Pan and the Darling children flying off to Neverland, the nursery
set folding back to reveal a sea of cloud with the tower of Big Ben
seemingly drifting past below.
Act Two begins by showing us Hook (Hovanhannisyan, playing the double
role as is frequently done in play and pantomime versions) and his men
in fruitless pursuit of Tiger Lily (Tatiana Jouravel) and her band of
Amazonian "Indians". (Of course, these are fantasy "Indians", just as
the pirates are fantasy pirates, but I think the Indians' very brief
costumes the weakest point of what was otherwise a very elegantly
costumed show. It must be admitted that even these were very pretty and
decorative costumes. Instead of the classic Disney-esque scarlet coat,
Hook was given a very handsome buff and dark red ensemble. I was amused
to note that instead of the Jacobean wig, Hook also had a more flowing
tangly hairdo confined by a bandanna, ala "Jack Sparrow" (no dreadlocks
or dangly beads, though--).) In the course of the chase, Hook stumbles
across Peter Pan's hideout, and starts to lay plans.
In another part of the forest, Tinkerbell has arrived ahead of the
Darling children, and bullyrags the Lost Boys into shooting down the
"Wendy bird" with bow and arrow. Peter and the others arrive horrified
to find Wendy apparently dead. Grief turns to joy as it appears that
the arrow was blunted and she was only knocked out by the impact, then
to rage at Tinkerbell's treachery, whereupon the fairy is banished.
Peter's attempt to introduce Wendy into the Lost Boys' domestic
arrangements eventually founders, continuing the piece's theme of
jealousy and possessiveness as a problem, and Peter expels the lot of
them into the hands of the waiting Hook, who has by now succeeded in
capturing Tiger Lily and her band as well.
Alone, Peter falls asleep, allowing Hook to creep in and poison the
tonic Wendy left for him. Tinkerbell sees this, enters to sound the
alarm of Wendy and the boys' capture, and prevents Pan from taking the
poison by drinking it herself. As she lies dying, her light fades, and
Pan appeals to the audience for help. This was nicely done: since
ballet is essentially mime, Pan can't make the traditional "I do believe
in fairies" speech. Instead, children in the audience were given little
light wands and instructed to wave them only when given the proper
visual cue. This was quite magical as the seats lit up with waving
lights to save Tinkerbell.
The third act opens with the triumphant pirates "abusing" their
captives, which translates to making the Indian maidens be their
partners in a mildly "Apache" dance number (I was somewhat reminded of
"Pirates of Penzance" and the pirates avowed intention to "marry"
General Stanley's daughters--). After locking the Indians away in the
hold, Hook approaches Wendy in a seductive manner that is rather
alarming until we see that he also wants Wendy to read to him. This cozy
scene is broken up by the sound of the Crocodile nearby. (The actual
appearance of the Crocodile in Act 2 is a highlight also--.) Pulling
himself together, Hook decides it's time for the boys to walk the plank.
This is Pan's cue to enter, sneaking aboard and disguising himself under
Wendy's cloak while she frees the boys from their ropes and the Indians
from the hold. A general battle ensues, which ends up with Hook walking
the plank to the joy of all-even the pirates.
The ballet ends with Pan delivering the Darlings and the Lost Boys back
to the Darling home, where Mr. Darling is literally living in the
doghouse due to his grief. Pan surveys the reunion from his lofty perch
as the curtain comes down on a joyous dance.
All in all, this was a wonderful piece of entertainment. The integration
of balletic dancing with the wire flying and fight scenes is an
accomplishment, although there's probably not a lot that would be
considered deathless dancing. The score by Feeney is pleasant, though
forgettable, but serves its purpose admirably to set the emotional tone
and tempo of the action. The orchestra, conducted by Pasquale Laurino,
delivered the music on time, with vigor and fine sound. The modular
sets, especially Hook's pirate ship in Act 3, looked good, worked well,
and were cleverly employed for effects. The overall result was fun,
emotionally satisfying, and a highly enjoyable afternoon at the Ballet.