Historic Third Ward Association Mission Statement
The Historic Third Ward Association acts as a catalyst to develop the district as an innovative, livable and exciting mixed use neighborhood while preserving its historic and creative character.
The Historic Third Ward (HTW) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Milwaukee's oldest center of commerce and warehousing. It was also the site of Milwaukee’s most devastating fire and its most remarkable rebuilding efforts.
In 1892, "The Great Third Ward Fire" devastated 16 square blocks of Milwaukee's vital, riverfront commerce area. The dollar value of property damage was estimated at $5 million, which is the equivalent of $60 million by today's standards. Reconstruction began almost immediately and within 30 years, the district was rebuilt into the bustling and vital commerce district it had once been. Designed by local well known architects, the neighborhood's buildings have a visual continuity that creates a unique urban expression.
Today the Third Ward is home to over 500 businesses and maintains an unparalleled position within the retail and professional service community as Milwaukee's showcase mixed-use district. The neighborhood's renaissance is anchored by many extraordinary shops, restaurants, art galleries, theatre groups, photographers, advertising agencies and graphic artists.
The Historic Third Ward is a hub for artistic activity and exhibition within Milwaukee and is currently home to more than 20 galleries and art studios, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), and the Broadway Theatre Center - which houses the world-renowned Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. The centerpiece of this complex is a 385-seat 17th Century baroque-style theatre. In 2001, the Historic Third Ward Association began co-sponsoring the Midwest's premier art event, Gallery Night MKE, which attracts over 5,000 people to the neighborhood quarterly.
While 2004 saw an influx of upscale women's boutiques, children's clothing shops and high-end home furnishing businesses, even more retail growth occurred with the opening of the Milwaukee Public Market in 2005. Over two million people visited the Market in 2019.
There has also been a large growth of residential units; starting with just 240 units in 1999. By 2021, more than 1500 condos and apartments dot the neighborhood.
The Historic Third Ward also includes the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, Summerfest and weekly ethnic festivals which bring in over 2,000,000 people to the area yearly. The Italian Community Center, located one block from the Summerfest grounds, brings in over 500,000 visitors by itself.
The HTW provides an exceptional climate in which to house a business and receives strong civic and business support. The Historic Third Ward Association, established in 1976, works with neighborhood residents, businesses, merchants, real estate developers and brokers, community organizations, and civic leaders to foster, promote and encourage business retention, expansion and recruitment in the local area. Over 5,000 employees work in over 500 businesses within the neighborhood.
The Historic Third Ward is located adjacent to downtown Milwaukee and is bound by Clybourn Street to the north, the Milwaukee River to the west and south and Lake Michigan to the east. It is easily accessible from the freeway system, public transportation, the downtown business district and all downtown hotels.
The Third Ward was a relatively flat, swampy area during the early years of Milwaukee. After the land was drained, Irish immigrants settled in the area. Houses covered the east side of the Ward, while factories and warehouses were built along the Milwaukee River. The Ward developed a reputation for colorful fistfights and soon became known as the "Bloody Third."
In 1856, the first railroad linked Milwaukee to the Mississippi River, enabling the wholesalers to supply necessary goods to settlers in the West.
The Ward's Irish settlers suffered two major tragedies. In 1860, the steamboat PS Lady Elgin sank when returning from an excursion to Chicago with over 300 fatalities, many from the Ward. Then, in late afternoon on October 28, 1892, tragedy struck again when a fire broke out in the Water Street Union Oil & Paint Co. Strong 50 mph winds helped spread the fire to adjacent buildings which also burst into flames. The blaze was quickly out of control. Cities as far away as Chicago and Oshkosh sent horse-drawn units by rail to help Milwaukee's fire department fight the flames. When the fire was finally contained around midnight, 440 buildings had been destroyed and 1,900 people - mostly Irish immigrant laborers and their families - were left homeless.
Soon after the 1892 fire, prominent local architects stepped in to design many of the commercial structures. Construction continued over the next three decades. Because of this relatively short span of development, the buildings exhibit an interesting continuity that unifies the neighborhood.
During this era of reconstruction, Italian immigrants replaced the Irish, who had moved to a new area of the city. The Italians became active in the warehouse businesses, establishing the grocery commission houses that came to be known as Commission Row. By 1915, the Ward was home to 45 Italian groceries, 29 Italian saloons, two spaghetti factories and an Italian bank. Grocery warehouses, manufacturers, liquor distributors and dry goods businesses prospered.