My 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.
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.
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