Pabst Theater Alterations and Additions Pabst Theater, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Exceptionally detailed descriptions of the Pabst appeared in the Milwaukee papers on September 21 (Journal), November 9 (Journal and Evening Wisconsin), and November 10 (Sentinel), 1895, and the November issues also carried views of the exterior. Comparison of this material and other early views with the building as it is today confirms that the exterior has been changed very little: a few openings have been bricked-up and several new ones created; new fire escapes have been installed; the golden lyre has been removed from the apex of the pediment on the facade; the small balcony at the third story level of the facade has also been removed; and a large vertical electrified sign reading "Pabst" has been installed on the front elevation. Destruction c. 1931 of the remaining section of the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House, adjoining the Pabst on the east, left the east wall in its present bare and unattractive state. On the interior, as is reported in the paragraphs below, the theater has been modified, in some areas significantly so; but it still preserves much of its original flavor--sumptuous and splendidly theatrical.

Building permits and other records document these alterations:

  • Permit No. 286, February 18, 1913, "to install motion picture machine."
  • Permit No. 1588, February 5, 1929, for remodelling by Dick and Bauer, Inc., architects, and Universal Construction Company, contractors. Although this permit is dated 1929, most, if not all, of this work was carried out in 1928 as dates on several of the ten drawings for the project, preserved on microfilm at the City Records Center, B-1 Municipal Building, and newspaper stories of the time attest. Indeed, the effort was essentially complete by September 30, 1928, when the fall season at the Pabst began. This was the single most important remodelling project in the building's history, and, in fact, it is in its 1928 form, albeit redecorated and repaired in later years, that the theater comes down to us.
    The work Included:
    • Reconstruction of the foundation: pilings cut off; new concrete underpinnings
    • New heating, cooling, and ventilating systems
    • New lighting and electrical switchboard
    • Basement: Most spaces redesigned and rebuilt; the original stairway from basement lounge area to the main lobby was removed and a new stairway created.
    • Stage: A new wooden floor and new light trough was added; a fly gallery and freight elevator were removed; stairways east of the dressing rooms just beyond north and south ends of stage were removed.
    • Theater proper: The orchestra pit was lowered and enlarged; the organ grilles, box seats, and arcades flanking the proscenium were removed and these two areas redesigned; a new center aisle was created on the main level; a new art glass fixture was installed in the dome; new seats were installed on the main level and first balcony; new fire escape exits were created; several new cement stairways and new aisles were created, and seats rearranged on the first balcony; a new suspended ceiling was placed over the east end of the first balcony; the structure of the second balcony was reinforced; some risers and seats were rearranged in the second balcony; and restrooms serving the second balcony were redesigned. With the new seats and altered layout of the seating, the theater's capacity, originally 1,820, became 1,549 (684 on the main floor, 502 in the first balcony, and 363 in the second), according to the architect's drawings. The theater proper was completely redecorated, with green, gold, and silver the predominant colors. New stage curtains, draperies, and carpeting also were installed.
    • Vestibule and lobbies: Doors between vestibule and main lobby and between lobby and theater proper were covered with leather; doorways joining the east side of the building and the adjacent building on the east (surviving section of 1870-71 block) were bricked-up; a new, padded, double door framed in green marble was created in the west wall, main lobby to provide access to the new center aisle; wardrobe and other spaces on the north end, main lobby, were redesigned; as noted, the stairway from the main lobby to the basement was removed and a new one built; the marble staircase between the main and mezzanine lobbies was removed and a new staircase created from salvaged materials; and the vestibule and lobbies were redecorated.

    It may be reiterated that at this time a number of the openings in the exterior walls were bricked-up and new openings (largely fire escape doors) created. Most existing fire escapes were remodelled, and new steel fire escapes and fire escape platforms were installed.

    While the total cost of this project was estimated at $80,000 on the building permit, later writers claim that it came to $240,000.

  • Permit No. 939, January 24, 1930, for construction of a new lath and plaster "picture booth," according to plans by Dick and Bauer, Inc., architects. The contractor was the Universal Construction Company, and estimated cost was $6,000. The work was finished by February 3, 1930, a building inspector's notes record.
  • Permit No. 10761, September 15, 1931, $400 alterations; "Underpin wall of east corridor . . . construct 16" brick wall from footing to underside of first story beams; provide additional supports under stairway at first floor." By November 3, 1932, the work was done.
  • Permit No. 10415, July 21, 1943, $10,000 repairs: "Repair and make safe east wall of building." Alexander H, Bauer is listed as the architect, H. Schmitt and Son, Inc., as the contractor; and the project was completed by October 14, 1943. A building inspector's notes on progress of the work and a newspaper story of the time indicate that it involved cutting off pilings and replacing them with concrete, repairs to and rebuilding some portions of exterior brick walls, and repairs to an unspecified staircase and walls on the east end of the interior.

Permits issued after 1943 record minor repairs only. Although not documented by a permit, the renovation project of 1961 should be mentioned. This $30,000 "beauty treatment," as one local journalist dubbed it, involved cleaning and redecorating the theater, lobbies, basement level lounge, and so on and gave the Pabst its present red, white, and gold color scheme (echoing, though not duplicating, that of 1895). New asphalt tile flooring was installed in the vestibule, lobbies, and second-balcony corridor, with new carpeting in theater and lounge. Walls and ceilings (except the dome) were painted, as was the iron portico on the exterior. Theater seats were reupholstered, new drapes and curtains, many new light fixtures, new padding on vestibule and lobby doors all were installed. A second window was created in the ticket office (in the vestibule), and a performers' lounge was created on basement level. In charge of the project were Virginia Swendson, interior decorator, and Sydney S. Plotkin, co-manager of the theater.

Finally, the pipe organ, rebuilt in 1928, has been removed.