Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Milwaukee’s oldest center of commerce and warehousing, Historic Third Ward has a long and interesting history.
Located just three blocks south of downtown Milwaukee, the Historic Third Ward as earned the reputation of being “Milwaukee’s Arts and Fashion District.” Historically, it’s 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. 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.
Over the next 36 years construction continued and because of this relatively short span of development, the buildings exhibit an interesting continuity that unifies the neighborhood.
During this period of reconstruction, Italian immigrants replaced the Irish, who had moved to a new area of the city after the fire. The Italians became active in the warehouse businesses, establishing the grocery commission houses that come to be known as Commission Row.
In 1915, there were some 45 Italian groceries, 29 Italian saloons, two spaghetti factories and an Italian bank in the Ward. Once again 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. During the 1960s, highway construction displaced the close-knit Italian Third Ward community.
In the late 1970s, business owners joined forces 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 renovating the dilapidated buildings.
This, in turn, attracted residents and new types of businesses. Today the Third Ward is home to more 400 businesses and has earned the distinction among the retail and professional service community as Milwaukee’s showcase mixed-use district.
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), the Off-Broadway Theatre, and the Broadway Theatre Center, which houses the world-renowned Skylight Opera 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 premier quarterly art event Gallery Night and Day, which attracts over 5,000 people four times a year to our neighborhood.
The Historic Third Ward also includes the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, Summerfest and weekly ethnic festivals which bring in more than two million people to the area each year.
The Italian Community Center, located one block from the Summerfest grounds, brings in more than 500,000 visitors.
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.
With a long and well-documented history of change, disaster and perseverance, Historic Third Ward remains a jewel among Milwaukee’s neighborhoods and epitomizes Milwaukee’s rich cultural heritage, determination to reinvent itself and survival against all odds.