88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Life after shoe business at this giant Milwaukee boot factory

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88Nine Radio Milwaukee
Tour "The Fortress" building Downtown

It’s a familiar Milwaukee story these days.

An old factory or warehouse goes up for sale, a new plan is drawn up, and it is redeveloped into apartments or condos.

We’ve seen it happen all over Downtown, Walker’s Point and along the Milwaukee River.  And no matter what your feelings are on the topic — whether you call it revitalization or gentrification — there’s no denying it’s happening rapidly.

The Fortress, 100 E. Pleasant St. Photo by Bobby Tanzilo.

This edition of Urban Spelunking takes us to a unique location where that same story is playing out again, at a former factory known as “The Fortress.”

No business like shoe business

The building, once home to the F. Mayer Shoe & Boot Co., gets its nickname from its imposing medieval architecture style.  

Five stories of dark brick and pairs of ornate windows lead one’s eye to the top, where a castle-like structure towers over Pleasant St. 

 

And, as its grandeur indicates, the early 1900s was a good time to be in the shoe business.  The factory cranked out 6,000 pieces of footware every day. Demand was so high, in fact, that the site underwent several expansions as the company grew.

Still today, it encompasses several buildings and takes up nearly a complete city block.

Room after room of vacant space.

Decades after the factory’s closing in the 1930s, interestingly, the site slowly transformed into a creative hub.  It was divided up and rented out — ideal for musicians and artists needing a large space to practice their art.  Tenants included prominent Milwaukee musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists, according to OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo.

He joined me in studio to share his experience inside The Fortress, and explains what the future holds for the factory.

Click the player below to listen.

A piano “graveyard.”

To read more about The Fortress, visit OnMilwaukee.com.