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Pabst Theater Group unveils detailed plans for East Side venue

Pabst Theater Group unveiled the name and other details of its new East Side venue opening early next year.
Brett Krzykowski
Pabst Theater Group unveiled the name and other details of its new East Side venue opening early next year.

For almost six months, we’ve known that the Pabst Theater Group (PTG) will open a new East Side venue to replace The Back Room @ Colectivo. Now we know a whole lot more about the project, including what it will look like inside and out, a timetable for the renovation and its name.

Introducing: Vivarium.

On a drizzly Wednesday morning, the PTG delivered a raft of updates at the location of the new eco-forward venue, about a block and a half north of Brady Street on Farewell Avenue. In addition to the name and logo, it revealed renderings that show an inviting entryway with a bike parklet flanked by planters and more greenery in the canopy.

The bright and open interior will have an equally leafy presence; eight large skylights; and walls of cream city brick, wood from 100-year-old Northern Wisconsin trees and even moss. That inside space is capped at 450 people, an increase from The Back Room’s 300-person capacity.

"Vivarium will be a continuation of The Back Room’s efforts, working to compliment an already thriving small venue ecosystem that includes Cactus Club, Shank Hall, Linneman’s, X-Ray Arcade, the Cooperage (and others),” PTG president and CEO Gary Witt said in a release.

“It will be a living, breathing space,” he continued, “filled with plants and creative energy — encapsulating the vibrancy of Milwaukee’s East Side.”

While not shown in the designs, the group also noted the digital ordering system that will allow patrons to order food from the building’s other tenants — currently Domino’s Pizza, Ethiopian Cottage Restaurant and Chop Stix Chinese Food — and have it delivered.

“We love the fact the restaurants are there,” Witt said at Wednesday’s unveiling. “Wherever we go with whatever we do, we’re additive to the community around us. When we do a show at the Riverside, restaurants around us, everything around us is filled. I hope that we’re very much additive to this neighborhood, this community.”

Gary Witt on Vivarium, Pabst Theater Group's newest venue

That integration with the existing neighbors jives with details PTG told us back in May, when it agreed to purchase the building at 1818 N. Farwell Ave. At the time, Witt mentioned The Back Room’s role “to bring more smaller bands into the market and offer them a space that nurtured their growth potential.” He expounded on that Wednesday in comments focused on the elements of the project that concert-goers won’t see.

“We’ve grown from doing 38 shows a year to doing over 800 shows for a reason,” Witt said. “I think that people choosing to come here is partially because of the fact that they love the backstage experience. So our commitment to a smaller venue like this is that we understand who the artist is and what their needs are.”

Some of them are the little touches that can make a big difference to the grind of being on the road: comfortable beds, full bathrooms with showers, a laundry facility and an enclosed loading environment. Bringing those amenities to fruition are the Kubala Washatko Architects (TKWA) and construction company J.H. Findorff & Sons, the latter of which got to work in earnest this week to ensure the East Side isn’t down a concert venue for too long.

Walking through Vivarium on Wednesday, it was clear the initial construction efforts are focused in the back-of-house area. Ceilings and bathrooms had already been ripped out, and workers kept busy throughout the event — a necessity considering the timeline. District 3 Alderman Jonathan Brostoff mentioned next February in his remarks on stage, and Witt firmly seconded that target opening in our later interview.

TWKA's Chris Socha and Findorff's Matt Schroeder on Vivarium's design and construction

“It’s a challenge, but it’s something we enjoy working on,” Findorff senior project manager Matt Schroeder said. “The cool thing about construction is you get basically a new job every three months, six months, whatever it is. Each of those kind of resets and brings you a whole new set of challenges. With this, it’s the schedule and the added layer of things we just have to continue to balance to make the schedule work.

“February is the stated goal, and we’ve been pulling a lot of levers and pushing a lot of buttons.”

That’s a gap of between six and 10 weeks from Vivarium’s first show and The Back Room’s last, which is indie dance/electronic trio Bitchin Bajas on Dec. 15 — at least for now. Posed the question of whether the mid-December performance will be The Back Room finale, Witt would only say, “Possibly.”

You can listen to our interviews with Witt, Schroeder and Socha using the players on this page and watch for project updates here on the Radio Milwaukee website.