Welcome to Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward

From its early beginnings to today's community, enhanced by its historic ambiance and significant architecture, the Historic Third Ward has experienced a renaissance as a revitalized mixed-use neighborhood.  Here you will find the highest concentration of art galleries in Milwaukee, award-winning restaurants, unique specialty stores, architects, advertising agencies, graphic designers, artists, the Milwaukee Public Market, the Broadway Theatre Center, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design as well as condominiums, office buildings, and industrial space.

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.

General Information

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.

Physical Setting

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.

History

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.

Following the Great Depression and World War II, the trucking industry boom and the growth of suburbs contributed to the decline of warehouse operations and light industry. Then in the 1960s, highway construction displaced the close-knit Italian Third Ward community. Milwaukee's first architectural landmark was named in 1967, the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Catholic Church. Later that same year, the church was demolished for freeway construction.

During the late 1970s, business owners joined together to successfully combat a proposed "red light" district in the neighborhood. Their dedication and spirit helped renew interest in the district's potential commercial viability and entrepreneurs began to renovate dilapidated buildings. This began to attract residents and new types of businesses. The Historic Third Ward Association (HTWA) was formed.

In 1984, the National Register of Historic Places accepted 70 buildings spanning approximately 10 square blocks as "The Historic Third Ward District." Along with the designation came economic development and promotional efforts by the Historic Third Ward Association, attracting attention to the area. Local government, private investors, and historic preservationists all helped bring about the ongoing progress of the district.

The HTWA made an effort to stop the City from removing the Buffalo Street Bridge and unfortunately lost the battle. Losing the bridge eliminated a valuable access point to the neighborhood. Because of its geographical location, the Ward is somewhat isolated from downtown; however, it has helped to maintain a unique atmosphere within the district.

In 1991, the City passed an ordinance which created an Architectural Review Board within the BID boundaries. The board reviews and regulates the construction and exterior of buildings and land used in the Historic Third Ward and BID, prior to the issuance of permits by the City's department of building inspection. The Board offers advice using the design guidelines, which were adopted by the Common Council. This ordinance is intended to protect and preserve the unique characteristics found within the Historic Third Ward and BID districts.

A $3.4 million streetscapes project was completed in 1992 which consisted of the construction of Catalano Square, two mid-block parks on Broadway, 285 pedestrian light poles, two identifying arches (at a cost of $70,000 each) and other touches you will see throughout the Ward.

The first Historic Third Ward parking structure was completed in 1994. The 500-car structure has first floor retail space and cost $5.5 million. Early in 2000, a second structure was opened with room for 436 cars and 1,700 square feet of retail space; it cost $5.8 million.

Land Use Trends

The Historic Third Ward rapidly changed from a mixed-use industrial/warehouse district to a residential/commercial neighborhood.

Fueling the change was the strength of the economy in the early 21st century, a resurgent interest in downtown living, and a number of calculated strategic support and planning initiatives aimed at encouraging development. These initiatives include the two BID-owned parking structures, an extension of the Riverwalk south into the Ward, support for the creation of a year-round Market, improved access to Lake Michigan and improved transportation links.

To date, there has been over $50 million of public investment. This in turn has generated over $205 million in private investment. Over the last 25 years, property values climbed from $1 to $40 per square foot for unimproved buildings, rental rates for commercial space have gone from $1.50 to as high as $28 per square foot and the assessed value of the Ward increased from $40 million to $450 million.

BID Projects

The BID (Business Improvement District No. 2) has been involved in a number of projects aimed at encouraging existing and future Third Ward development. The projects were supported through a combination of creative financial structuring and contributions from the public and private sectors.

  • Streetscapes: Further enhancements have been made such as coordinating garbage cans, flower containers, hanging flower baskets, a logoed banner program, snow removal, power washing and grass cutting.
  • Parking Structures: The BID accepted the task of coordinating parking and transportation issues. Rates at the neighborhood's parking structures are kept at the high end of the market to prevent erosion of private property rental rates. 
  • Riverwalk: A $10 million Historic Third Ward extension of the Riverwalk, which included repairs to private dockwalls, was completed in 2004. The City of Milwaukee invested $6.5 million, with the remainder coming form a mixture of private, State and federal funds.
  • Public Market: A feasibility study began in 1997 to build a year-round indoor public market in the Third Ward. It would provide an important bridge to the downtown, bring in an additional million visitors, provide a fresh market amenity to downtown residents and act as a year-round regional draw to tourists and suburban residents. The year-round indoor market opened in October 2005 and is now the third largest visitor destination in Milwaukee - behind the Milwaukee Brewers and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

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