Tuesday, October 22, 2013

This week in 1913 - "Welcome AA Champions"

And now we have it. We have reached the end of our 1913 chronicles. For this final installment, I'd like to reflect on the city itself, and one way in which Milwaukee honored her champion Brewers.

This week in 1913, Mayor Gerhard Adolph Bading ordered that a tribute to the victorious club be raised on the facade of City Hall, high over downtown.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had this to say:
Manager Harry Clark's Brewers, pennant winners of the American association, this week took precedence over the Wisconsin Medical society, as they also ranked ahead of about everything else in Milwaukee.

Monday morning Secretary Claude Ellis said to Mayor Bading:

"The Wisconsin Medical Society will meet here this week. Shall I order the welcome sign for the organization?"

The mayor gave Ellis a withering look.

"I should say not," he said, with more withering looks. "Don't you follow the events of the day? Don't you know that the Brewers have won the pennant in the American association? See to it that a welcome sign for them blazes forth every night this week."

"But will not a big association like the Wisconsin Medical society feel rather offended because of the slight," protested Ellis.

"You put up the champions sign," said the mayor. "I'll vouch for the medical society. All the members I know are rattling good baseball fans, and they'll appreciate the sign as much as anybody."

So the "champions" sign stll is blazing on the city hall.
Although the welcome sign was taken down decades ago, readers of a certain age will remember the days when messages like that one shone forth from the city hall. One was even immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne & Shirley, beginning in January 1976:

I always presumed that the sign was a much later addition to City Hall's Flemish Renaissance Revival style-facade, perhaps an artifact of the 1950s—it seems appropriate for a time of civic expansion—but it dates back much farther than that. The message system was added in 1906, a little over a decade after the building itself was completed. It was originally installed by then-City Electrician David McKeith, who designed a catwalk built into the back of the sign, allowing city workers to change the letters without requiring any tools which may have been dropped on the street below.

From those early days, the letters proclaimed a series of rotating greetings, from a simple "WELCOME":

To more timely messages, such as this one welcoming the troops home from World War One:

Or this one from the Second World War, encouraging Milwaukeeans to "ENLIST IN THE FAMOUS U.S. MARINES":

Each letter was forty-two inches in height, made of wood painted white to stand out against the building's terra cotta exterior.

The letters were lit with fifteen individual twenty-five watt lamps as seen in this photo from 1947, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Graham Bell:

The letters were retired by Mayor John O. Norquist and the Historic Preservation Commission in 1988. Citing the increased costs of maintenance (although I can't help but think that aesthetics played a part in the decision), McKeith's framework was dismantled. The letters are now on display at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Those illumunated wooden letters shone forth messages across the Milwaukee skyline for eighty-two years, including a note of congratulations to the first pennant-winning Brewer squad.

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