Tower Theatre

757 N. 27th Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53233

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Additional Info

Architects: Alexander Hamilton Bauer, Gustave A. Dick

Firms: Dick & Bauer Inc.

Styles: Spanish Baroque

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Lobby and staircase of the Tower Theatre, Milwaukee, WI in 1930

Milwaukee’s TOWER theatre was hardly unique in having that name, since there are over twenty others listed on this site so named. Whenever a movie palace was being built it followed the precedent of its predecessor theatres in choosing a name that would make it stand out from others, and if it also could have a literal tower to stand out on the street, so much the better! That was apparently the thinking of Saxe Amusement Enterprises, the local movie house chain that soon began to dominate the scene here. The Tower was one of their first major movie palaces and one of the first for its local architects, Gustave Dick and Alex Bauer, who would add five other major palaces to Milwaukee, the: ORIENTAL, NATIONAL, COLONIAL, GARFIELD, and the MILWAUKEE. Ironically, this last eponymous effort of 1921 was the least ‘palace-like’ of them all, being built at the crossover in eras from the ‘Photoplay Parlors’ to the Movie Palaces.

The Tower was true to its name; it was adorned with a 50-foot-high tower above the two-story theatre and commercial building on the corner of 27th Street at Wells St. This may seem an odd numbering for a street in a then major west side shopping district, but 27th happened to occur on what was once the boundary between the former townships of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, long before the separate municipalities were created. The tower itself had a brown brick base above the roofline balustrade of buff color terra cotta. The same color terra cotta constituted the trim for all the rest of the building including the coping of the square base of the tower. Rising from this 10-foot-height was the second segment: an octagonal structure about 20 feet high with amber glass windows having some twenty square lights each running the full height of this segment of the tower, and it was illuminated from the base at night so that light shown from all eight windows. Above this was a terra cotta ‘crown’ composed of three concentric balustrades, each about two feet high, also octagonal, but done in white with small spires and billets adorning the surrounding panels. Finally, the tower was topped with a six foot circular portion having smaller windows similar to those below, but it was illuminated in blue, and then topped with a small dome of copper above a collar also of copper, the whole surmounted by a flag pole. Perhaps the real reason for the tower was to hide the structural steel under the brick needed to support the four-story-high vertical name sign, which had neon letters and a swinging-bells neon effect at its apex.

The entry bay under the tower portion featured seven, double-hung windows of tall proportions framed by a facing of the buff terra cotta in neoclassically-inspired panels. The twelve east facade and seven north facade bays of brown brick were separated by piers of brick which rose from a continuous string course at the sill line, to the balustrade at the line of the flat roof, and the balustrade had ornate, finialed urns atop each pedestal which topped the piers and divided the baluster-and-rail line. Pairs of double hung windows occupied each second floor bay, while plate glass windows occupied the shops of the first floor wall, of which there were originally, eight. The eight brass and plate glass doors of the outer ticket lobby were almost on the sidewalk line since the ticket booth was inside the ticket lobby. This lobby was unusual in being done almost entirely in various shades of blue glazed tiles, including all three newels of the grand staircase in the grand lobby! From the center one of the divided staircase, sprouted a wrought iron torchere, which had a number of small, amber bulbs. The basically Spanish theme of the Tower was furthered by the inlaid mosaic tile floor of the lobbies and fabric gonfalons hanging from black iron spears on the walls. The lobby lost some of its glamour back in the 70s when a maintenance man leaned his ladder against the chandelier while relamping, and the fixture crashed to the floor, reportedly killing him. Needless to say, it was never replaced.

Entering the auditorium, one found more of the Spanish flavor in the choice of heraldic ornaments in a variety of hues. The 1,609 seats were of wood padded with black leather, the same on the four aisles of the orchestra floor and the single balcony. In some ways, the Tower’s auditorium was arranged much like the Colonial’s, but there was more money to spend here. While the ceiling was laid out much the same with six bays separated by box beams, here the central dome was ornamented and from its four corners within a frame of box beams, hung four chandeliers. Each one was about 10 feet high, and made up of a central cylinder of amber glass with four smaller cylinders of slightly smaller height being attached by gilded brass bands of a filigree pattern. A bowl-like glass finished the bottom of each cylinder with a tassel finishing the center and lowest one. Like the Colonial, the Tower had ‘pavilions’ built out from the wall, which acted as the doorways to the exits on the splays of the proscenium. Here too, draped archways concealed lights hidden in the ceiling of the ground floor of the ‘pavilion,’ and lights on the floors of the flanking pavilions shining upward upon their draped interiors. What looks like a balconette on the gable face of the pavilion turned out to be a black iron grille to hide the air supply louvers, when seen through a telephoto lens. Where the Colonial used tasseled satin pendants to enrich its plain satin draperies, here the beauty was mostly in the choice of fabrics: a brocade pattern of cloisters and shields reminiscent of medieval Spain done in reds, golds, greens and blues upon a black background. This fabric constituted the main lambrequin on the organ screens, but in this case, the swags of dark burgundy velour were suspended from below the lambrequin, rather than in front of it. The main screen was a scrim cloth embroidered in a giant coat of arms. Below this was a black iron railing backed with dark blue velour, which concealed the three colors of up-lights upon the screen. Below this was the tripartite doorway of a small alcove under the organ pipe chamber that contained furniture against the stucco walls to be enjoyed during intermissions. In this respect, it was much like the ORIENTAL which was to be built a year later.

The stage was not very deep, but then it was designed only for movies, although it did have rigging and dressing rooms. What was noticeable, aside from the console of the three manual, ten rank Barton pipe organ, was the unusual grand drapery along the top of the proscenium arch. Unlike the traditional swags, here was a flat lambrequin of blocks of dark red and dark blue velour trimmed in golden galloons of gimp and pieced-in panels of the brocade seen on the organ screens. Suspended from each of these panels was a 27-inch-long tassel of four molds of dark blue cotton gimp wrapping, below which hung the color blocked fringe done in a pale gold against a cherry red. Most unusual for a neighborhood theatre was the use of an expensive mold fringe done in cherry red cotton wrapping adorned with ruffs in darkest blue. The balcony walls were covered in a golden rayon pattern of willow leaves, and featured a triple set of blind, arched windows done in pebbled glass that shown the glow of the concealed lights behind their draped, swing-out frames. All arches were round topped, except those in the alcoves, which were ogee. And like the Colonial, there was a central mural upon the sounding board above the stage, but this one featured a garden scene of fountain and foliage/flowers.

There was a small orchestra in the pit here in the early years, but with sound movies debuting the next year, such were not used for long. The pipe organ was removed and sold years later. Like most movie palaces, the Tower had no parking, and as White Flight and the advent of TV robbed it of its audience, it had to resort to X-rated films to stay in business. No longer were there the ten ushers in cutaway coats and pill box hats to guide you to gracious seats; it was a time of crass, where few of the lights worked any longer and most of the patrons preferred it that way. By 1975 it was too difficult to even attract that caliber of audience, and the once beautiful theatre closed. It was purchased by the adjacent Doctor’s Hospital, which was bought out by Family Hospital, which tore out all the seats under the balcony to create a cafeteria for the anticipated ‘guests,’ but these did not come in sufficient numbers to this decaying neighborhood, and the hospital failed three years later. Milwaukee county then bought the building and spent a small fortune in taxpayer dollars to convert the now double structure to a community outreach health facility, which it remains to this day, now shorn of its tower, which no doubt leaked rain water prodigiously after decades of no maintenance, and its lights had burned out long ago. They also tore out all fabrics and seats, spray painted the entire auditorium white, created offices in the balcony, and severed all of the original wiring while removing the switchboard so that none of the ornamental lighting could be worked anymore.

Little remains to remind one of the theatre, but then few of the types in this neighborhood will wonder why a number of nearby businesses still contain the now forgotten name, Tower.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 8 comments)

JimRankin on April 13, 2004 at 4:22 pm

Please let me know if you learn anything more about this theatre. Thank You. Jim Rankin =

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on May 8, 2005 at 3:44 pm

The Tower Theatre opened on 1st May 1926. It was equipped with a Barton 3Manual/10Rank theatre pipe organ that was opened by Bernard Cowham.

kstan48 on October 24, 2008 at 9:29 pm

Thank you Jim for the write-up. See the video presentation on the Tower Theater, .

Keith Stanley

LouisRugani on October 27, 2008 at 10:23 pm

Reopening the Tower Theater could ignite the redevelopment of North 27th Street in Milwaukee, but the cost of the project makes it a tough play.

The SOHI District, which represents the area south of Highland Avenue, wants to attract a theater troupe to use the space. But the building has been vacant for more than a decade and will need dramatic improvements before it can be used for rehearsals or other events, said Keith Stanley, SOHI District manager.

“I think the cost is the main issue,” he said, adding, “It could be something that turns the corner for the district.”

The SOHI District is trying to bring new development to 27th Street between Highland and St. Paul avenues through streetscape improvements, police cameras and efforts to attract businesses.

Establishing arts communities is a proven way to bring companies to an area, Stanley said, and there’s room for production space and offices in the building.

“We’ve seen places throughout the country â€" that are in the same position we are in â€" use art as a way to promote commercial revitalization,” he said.

A little more than 10 years ago, Milwaukee County bought the Tower Theater with a cluster of buildings that includes two towers now used for county offices, said Jack Takerian, county director of facility management. The county doesn’t use the space, he said.

“There have been some theater companies that have contacted us over the years, interested in the space,” he said. “But nothing has developed.”

Tower’s previous owner, Family Hospital, ripped out many of the seats to make room for a cafeteria and erected walls for offices, Takerian said. The seats must be replaced and the walls removed before it’s a theater again, he said.

“Their thought process,” he said, “was the theater was an open space for them to do a variety of different things.”

The county never planned to use the space as a theater, Takerian said, but welcomes the SOHI District’s help in trying to find a group to use the space.

“That partnership with SOHI â€" Keith and his group â€" is essential to turning that development around,” he said.

Stanley said his group is just starting to hunt for a theater troupe and doesn’t expect the project to turn over quickly.

“It’s a unique building,” he said. “I would hate to lose it, but you never know how things are going to pan out.”

Firstime on September 24, 2012 at 10:25 pm

I have so many fond memories of the Tower Theater. i have not realized just how luck I personally am to have been a regular patron of the movie theater known as the Tower Fine Arts Theater. I would go to the theater when there was an “adults only” sign at the ticket booth. I was under aged at the time the theater started showing adult movies. It was fun to see if i could convince the ticket seller of my age. From the time I was fourteen to eighteen year old I only was not sold an admission a half dozen times. My weekly visits kept the place open all those years, LOL. The theater was never crowded, i would say only ten people were in the theater on any given night I attended. To bad city leaders let the neighborhood slip into disrepair. I will cherish my memories of the late 1960’s – early 1970’s.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm

On opening night, May 1, 1926, Bernard Cowham played “LET’S GET ACQUAINTED” at the Console of the Golden Voiced Barton Theater Pipe Organ. It was a $50,000, 3/10, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes, shipped from the Barton factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1926. Where is the organ now?

wcampbel on January 11, 2015 at 4:53 pm

I can remember staying at the hospital one time while the Tower was actually a cafeteria. I thought the remodel was sort of tasteful at that time. I did get a chance to peek into the balcony which at that time was used to store equipment. I wondered recently what had happened to the theatre because driving by the building there was no sign of a theater or cafeteria.

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