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Life and Death of the Sydney Hih

Sydney HihMy whole creative life has and always will be built on doors left ajar. And I don’t even mean this figuratively! A couple years back I attended a Milwaukee Admirals hockey game in downtown Milwaukee. I parked several blocks away from the Bradley Center where said minor league affiliate of the NHL Nashville Predators play. On my way to the arena I walked past the old, abandoned Sydney Hih building—its facade and doors once painted with giant blocks of bright colors like a psychedelic patchwork quilt, it now stands stark white…an ironic ghost of its former glory. I snooped around the corner and noticed a door left ajar. I poked my head inside, and a wealth of memories flooded back to me.

You see, for me and a host of other musicians and artists in Milwaukee, this building once thrived in Bohemian splendor: a famous club sat in the basement with four floors of artist residences, shops and studios above. Decades ago, The Unicorn bar hosted performances by various acclaimed bands before they rounded the corner into fame and fortune: Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Garbage and Smashing Pumpkins, to name just a handful—the latter two I was lucky enough to see myself. I remember the Smashing Pumpkins show specifically because they played one of my favorite Thin Lizzy songs, “Dancing in the Moonlight.” This glorified dungeon of a room was Milwaukee’s underground magnet for the ’90s music scene—in my opinion, the last golden age of ‘Alternative’ music: provocative, original, raw. That music, so intimate in that space, left an impression every patron carries with them to this day.

During my most memorable visit to the Unicorn, 15+ years ago, I saw Catherine (with former bass player D’Arcy Wretzky of Smashing Pumpkins on vocals) headline with openers and local band The Lovelies, who absolutely killed it, I’ll never forget! The swirl of the evening was punctuated by a conversation with The Lovelies’ drummer—who attended the same art school I hoped to attend in the Fall—along with a peculiar introduction by way of a deliberately spilled pitcher of Old Style. No, this wasn’t my hair-brained scheme, but that of the attractive girl next to me. Turned out that watching raucous live music with a cute girl while drenched in cheap beer was as perfect as it got back then. And it marked one of my final excursions inside the Sydney Hih building, legally anyway!

Even after the distraction of a good hockey game, I couldn’t shake those memories of the Unicorn and the halls of Sydney Hih. So a few days later I decided to make a return—this time in the stealth cloak of midnight and with my camera and my shooting partner. It was a particularly dreary and brisk winter night. My friend and I crept inside the building with utmost caution. Often times we shoot in rural, predominantly uninhabited areas, so this time we had our wits about us for “who’s” rather than simply “what’s.” We climbed the dusty stairs, which lead to the former rental area for businesses and artists who had once taken up residence here.

Bearing in mind that I’ve seen my fair share of decay having explored Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana and East St. Louis, Illinois, I was actually quite surprised at how clean, clear and in-tact most of the building still remained. Aside from, of course, the art and graffiti that coated most of the walls of the 4-5 floors we visited; this was a home for artists after all! As I traversed the epic labyrinth of rooms and corridors, I saw no severe signs of leaks or deterioration within the structure—nothing that couldn’t be fixed with some new drywall and a fresh coat of paint! If you wanted to cover up history, this is. I once practiced with a metal band in a studio within this building, and while I didn’t see our band name scrawled on the wall, discovering the still visible signatures of bands and artists unleashed a cascade of memories. Days gone by. I kept wandering.


Sydney Hih

After further examination—to be absolutely positive we were alone (squatters can be nervous folks when you wander into their ‘home’ in the dead of night)—we agreed that the place was truly all ours to explore. More importantly, we had saved the best for last. A trip down another set of stairs lead us to the dungeon itself, the historical Unicorn. With our normally blinding flashlights running low on battery power we had to make it quick. My friend jumped behind the bar and had me convinced he had pulled out a beer from the bar fridge below! I cursed him, having left my water bottle on the fourth floor. My torch finally lost power and my friend’s flickered in final warning. “One last thing and I’ll be satisfied!” I barked at his flashlight. I climbed to the stage and could feel my ’90s music icons gathered into one powerful soul as I stood where they once stood.

Hours passed far too easily inside Sydney Hih, but we were forced to call it around 3:30am. We carefully made our way back out to the street, ensuring not to damage one single thing inside or out of the building. If anything, our ‘trespassing’ simply uncovered a piece of the past as our trip inspired me to research the building’s history. Sydney Hih goes back further than my youth as a musician and artist. It goes back further than the youth of the ’70s counter-culture. Milwaukee history proclaims that this structure—built in 1876—was actually the first brick commercial building in the city. But apparently legends don’t matter. As of March 2012, the city of Milwaukee plans to demolish Sydney Hih because they deemed it a calamity. No, it isn’t doing anyone any harm, but apparently it’s an eyesore…so get rid of it, they say. Have these people traveled through the truly blighted areas of our city? People live in far worse structures than the Sydney Hih! Why is everyone so quick to bulldoze Milwaukee’s historical architecture right into landfills? Sydney Hih’s purchase and destruction will cost $1.1 million. This obviously doesn’t include the mega-millions involved in rebuilding something new in that spot. Why not use that demo money to polish up the charisma of Sydney Hih—the Old World Charm upon which Milwaukee claims to pride itself? These questionable preservation efforts will keep me exploring our fine city. If I must enter on my own terms to show people what lies beyond the so-called crippled walls, so be it! I do this because I truly care about history.

Across the street from where Sydney Hih sits out its final days like a prisoner on death row, another “cutting-edge” architectural monstrosity of concrete, glass and metal slowly creeps into Milwaukee’s skyline. Even the name of this new condo mocks its neighbor across the street. The sad tale plays out like a broken record. Ornate stone and brick marvels of the past continue to get cast into the garbage to pave the way for the modern age of glass. Is it bitter irony that the glass serves as a mirrored reflection of the crumbling age it displaces? Or is it an unmistakable and constant reminder to all of us that Milwaukee’s history is worth fighting for?

And check out this great blog post for more info about life and times at Sydney Hih.

Sydney Hih

Sydney Hih 1977

Sydney Hih 1977

Sydney Hih

Image found here uncredited

An internet search for Syndey Hih will bring up a handful of photographs from its heyday. The following are particularly striking. Note the old Park East freeway spur that ran along the back of the building (demolished in 2002).[clear] 1977 Photo with Elevated Freeway: Jeffrey M. Dean (via the WI Architectural and History Inventory), pulled from Stephanie Allewalt’s article “Catalysts Turned Stalemates,” Mar. 4, 2012

Read more about our last night in Sydney Hih’s famous Unicorn club….

Showing 27 comments
  • dianalaurence@wi.rr.com
    Reply

    Wow, do those old pics take me back to my childhood! I thought that place was AMAZING in the early 70s. Totally a trip. Your new shots are wonderful. It’s such a shame this place can’t be saved! The Brady Street of that era, Milwaukee’s Haight-Ashbury, is long gone, and now all we’ll have of its soulmate property, Sidney Hih, is photos…

    • Reply

      that smaller confluence of buildings carry so many memories! I really wish it could of had a second life! I am disappointed in the city of Milwaukee (who own the building). Almost as much as sitting in on the “historical preservation” and seeing (possible) people who let this gem slide into a landfill.

  • Reply

    Thank-you for the great memories that you that you reawakened in my mind…the Unicorn, dinner for $4.95 at Siam, and several friends studios from the 70’s and 80’s! Walking past in the cold of winter from the Norman apts. on my way to get more Empress Rose paint at National Hardware…Thanks!

    • Reply

      you’re very welcome…what a great memory! do you happen to have any pictures from that time? I will gladly post them.

      • onokinegrindz@hotmail.com
        Reply

        sorry no pics …they all went up in flames with the Norman.

  • jrmybrbr13@gmail.com
    Reply

    Did you take any pics while in the unicorn? I’d like to see those.

    • Reply

      unfortunately I was preoccupied and did not take any while down there…still have some time though. I will let you know if I get some.

  • Adam1172@yahoo.com
    Reply

    How did you get inside? I assume all the doors are locked.

    • Reply

      It was some time ago and at the time not all the doors were locked…you would be surprised at the open doors in and around the city.

  • erik@erikljungphoto.com
    Reply

    Hey, can whoever wrote this article contact me? erik@erikljungphoto.com
    Thanks!

  • Anonymous
    Reply

    […] Life and Death of Milwaukee's Sydney Hih – Fading Nostalgia […]

  • mcmullen.robert@gmail.com
    Reply

    I think this place should become a youth hostel! Whoever owns it should think about the possibilities. A quick place for food, laundry, ect. for the hostelers coming through. It would be a great idea, and good for business.

    • Reply

      Great idea! It certainly could be put back to use with a little TLC! It’s strange to think youth hostels are extremely rare in the US, but anywhere else you can find them fairly easy!

  • Anonymous
    Reply

    […] of Sydney Hih, visit Razed in Milwaukee. Or follow two shooters as they take a look inside at Fading Nostalgia. […]

  • pattykd11@yahoo.com
    Reply

    My Gramma owned The Harp from 1965 to 1982. I went to the Sydney Hih building as a kid every Saturday for many years – the candy store, the glass blowing shop, Betty’s Beads – all wonderful places. I think Betty’s was the last to go. I remember back in the mid 70’s, the March of Dimes had their haunted house in the basement of the building. It was the best one ever! I wish they’d bring this place back as it was. Sad.

    • Reply

      WOW, what great recollection! The basement was sure prime for a haunted house. I too wish it would return to it’s former glory!

  • rbublitz@wi.rr.com
    Reply

    This is a good article… I enjoyed it.
    While I was not part of your generation, I always wondered what Sydney Hih was all about. To me, it was a mystery. So, it drew my interest to take some exterior photographs from time to time. In August of 2009, there was an art event in downtown Milwaukee that included Sydney Hih. I took some interior photographs on part of the first floor that was open to the public.

    You can look on my blog here to see them.

    Richard

    • Reply

      Thanks! I did notice your recent 2009 shots. Love them! Some of those have been painted over so it’s really cool you got them when you did. We are doing a follow up to this blog on the Unicorn (w/new images)! Check back in a week or so! Thanks again!

  • Misskimweiss@gmail.com
    Reply

    So interesting! I walk past this building every week and have always been drawn to it, but i never knew its story. Michael filled me in on some of his own Sydney Hih memories. Thanks for writing this.

  • Reply

    Yep:
    Was Frankenstein’s monster at that haunted house. One night was
    All I could muster.

    I remember swinging to Babes In Toyland and The Mono Men.

  • Anonymous
    Reply

    […] pictures were taken by Fading Nostalgia on a trip through Sydney HiH in March of 2012. More pictures and a nice post on that […]

  • Suzyrichardson12345@gmail.com
    Reply

    Good old days working at the unicorn living at the Norman great being part of history,don’t forget my grandmas bar Irene j’s

  • Anonymous
    Reply

    […] of Sydney Hih, visit Razed in Milwaukee. Or follow two shooters as they take a look inside at Fading Nostalgia. […]

  • megatonblonde@aol.com
    Reply

    Being from the south side with a budget of zero, I was on the wrong side of the east side thing but I liked this place. Played pool with a very tipsy Ace Frehley there, had a drunk guy with some sort of axe to grind (never found out why) swing wildly over my head, I dunno, just random weird memories but it had a lot of atmosphere. Sometimes I feel like this town waged all out war on rock & the powers that be defeated us.

  • mikaymusic@gmail.com
    Reply

    So long ago. In 1988 I briefly lived near the corner of 7th and Juneau. I was more than a little homesick for Point beer in a Pointless Milwaukee. I don’t recall how I found out about the Unicorn — probably a band I wanted to see was playing there — but fell in love with the place the moment I discovered that they carried Point beer. "Gus" ran the place then. Saw a lot of bands, but mostly went there to drink Point and people-watch.

    What a great place it was.

    I was in there one night, it wasn’t at all crowded, just a few patrons kicking back some drinks when a tall, lanky guy in a trenchcoat casually walked around with a can of spraypaint and a stencil of a bat cut into a manila folder. He spray painted random bats on the white walls. Gus was oblivious to it. I said, "Hey Gus, that guy’s painting bats on the wall!" Gus looked up, shrugged, went back to what he was doing. The bats were there as long as i went to the place…

    • fglass04@gmail.com
      Reply

      What a great memory Mike! I was fortunate to visit more frequently in the late 80’s early 90’s. I remember seeing the band Catherine Wheel and with about the same crowd size (minimal) I had a good portion of Old Style, from a pitcher no less, dumped upon my back (if you didn’t read it yet, more of the story here: https://www.fadingnostalgia.com/blog/exploration-stories/last-night-at-the-unicorn). I don’t remember the bat guy…but there were a lot of places to nestle in quietly. Thank you for sharing this amazing recollection. Hope life treats you well and more great Point beer adventures are forthcoming!

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