When we took over At Random in 2018, we took great care to restore the interior. Our main goal was to preserve the feeling of the space while making sure the systems were modernized so we could assure that At Random is around for many generations to come.
The facade was always supposed to be Phase II of our restoration. While there is a charm to the aluminum siding, it was starting to fail, causing some major leaks and rot, all of which could not be ignored. We contracted with a local restoration company that we knew would understand the complexities of working with a historic building that houses a much loved vintage cocktail lounge and, in March 2020, we signed a contract to have them begin the restoration.
Well, as you know, March 17th 2020 was the day our world stopped. COVID hit the States and we closed for an indefinite period of time. All of a sudden, the exterior restoration didn't seem as important. We took the funds we had set aside for the exterior and we used them to build a patio where we could safely serve our customers and keep our staff employed.
It was a great move! The Ice Cream Social patio was a hit and our winter event, The Magic Forest, has become a holiday tradition. Plus, it saved jobs and it saved our business while giving people a break from the stress of a global pandemic.
However, when it was all said and done, we were still left with an aging facade that had some serious problems that were only getting worse. Water was leaking behind the siding, birds were nesting in the side of the building., and a piece of siding flew off in a wind storm. Wood was rotting and the siding was looking more dented and dingy than ever.
In Spring 2023 we decided it was once again time to call our contractors and begin work - they blew the dust off our contract and got to business. In February 2023 they started tearing off the siding, revealing a beautiful facade that had been covered sine the 1930s. They even found some graffiti that hadn't been seen for almost 100 years.
We are excited to restore the facade while paying honor to the Mid Century cocktail lounge that has been housed in the building since 1964. Again, our goal is simple, make sure that At Random is brought up to standards so it is around for generations to come.. We hope you will follow along and let us know what you think!
Current Project Status:
We are currently waiting for three things.
1. Our architect is drawing figuring out how we should approach the corner of the building.
2. We are working with the State to gain access to historic tax credits.
3. We are making color and design decisions.
Unfortunately, since we are accessing historic tax credits, we need to stop all work until our plan is approved. This should happen by mid-April.
Where we Started
Pictured is the corner of Russell and Delaware in MIlwaukee that people have known for years. It has a charm and, best of all, it houses one of the coolest cocktail lounges in the country.
This style of small commercial building is pretty common in the older areas of Milwaukee. And, the alterations that have been performed over the years are also fairly common - I like to think that there was a very rich aluminum siding salesman somewhere in MIlwaukee.
The building you see was built in 1893 as an addition to the the 'cottage' immediately to the west. This cottage, built in 1888 was a typical style of worker's housing that popped up around the Bay View steel mill, located a few blocks to the East. The corner building, once built, almost always housed a tavern, but also functioned as a drug store for a few years.
In the 1930s the building was covered with asphalt siding that was intended to look like brick. This was a very popular substitute siding back in the day and many many structures were covered with the stuff. It was useful for insulation and it covered to wood siding so it didn't have to be painted on a regular basis. Then, sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, the building was again "updated", this time with aluminum siding.
Sometime during the renovations, the windows were reduced in size, two doors were eliminated, and 4 windows were filled in. What resulted was an aluminum-clad box, devoid of any detail or massing found on the original structure.
We are approaching this project like we approach all of our projects. We are letting the building lead us to the next steps. Every building tells a story, you just have to give it a chance to speak.
Our first steps were obvious, we'd have to remove the two layers of substitute siding to get to the original clapboard. Why? There was no way to easily fix the aluminum siding, plus we knew we had to fix the water leaks and rot that are plaguing the exterior of the building.
It was exciting to see the first layers of aluminum come off the side of the building to reveal the depression-era siding hiding below. And we started seeing some of the elements that had long been hiding underneath. What is that, a door?
Exposing the Clapboard
After a lot of soggy asphalt siding came off the building, we started to see a glimpse of what the structure originally looked like. The siding was in pretty good shape given that it had been covered for so many years. There is hardly any paint on the original structure, which will be good for our next steps of this restoration
We started seeing the original placement and size of the windows, as well as evidence of doors and windows that had been covered or moved over the years.
Seeing the original placement of the window also helps us imagine what the interior looked like when it was first built. The placement of the original bar and tavern wall would have made the interior much smaller than it is today.
One of the most exciting things we found under the siding was some graffiti from the 1930s. There were a lot of doodles on the side of the building. A cowboy and Native American, as well as some sort of WWI war plane.
Maybe they were drawn by a school child waiting for the streetcar back when the tracks turned a corner from Russell to Delaware. We would love to know more about the artist who drew these - they would probably be well over 100 years old at this point.
What's your favorite?
A Vintage Advertisement
As we removed the siding, we were hoping to find a ghost sign or mural, but unfortunately we weren't so lucky. We did find this tin Raleigh Cigarette sign that had been covered for over 90 years. We removed it and safely stored it away for a future use.
As we removed the layers of substitute siding, we thought back to a photo that was given to Ron Zeller (the founder of At Random) showing the original clapboard exterior. Was this beautiful facade hiding under the layers of aluminum and asphalt? We hope so!
Mid Century Details
One thing that became very apparent is how much the adornments of the exterior contribute to it's mid-century feel. Milwaukee is not a city that was built in the 1950s, but a lot of the most famous buildings and businesses got their start in the mid-century.
The owners of At Random did what a lot of businesses did, they dressed up an aging Victorian commercial building with mid century jewelry. Awnings, signs, bullet lighting and Z Brick were used to give a feeling of modernity to the stucture.