Ballroom Enhancing

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

The Turner Ballroom in Turner Hall, built in 1882 and located at 1034 N. 4th St. in downtown Milwaukee, is set to re-open for events in October after being closed for almost a year for phase two of a multi-phase restoration project. In aggregate, the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust raised $2.3 million to cover the costs of phases one and two.

The improvements to the ballroom include an elevator, men’s and women’s restrooms, a storage area, a warming kitchen for catering and a performers’ green room with showers and a washroom, said Rose Marie Barber, executive director of the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust, the nonprofit organization that is raising funds for the restoration of the ballroom.

"Within the next three or four years, we hope to get to the point where the project is just about completed," Barber said. "It will be quite the place."

The project is labeled as a multi-phase project because the amount of money raised determines the next phase, said David Uihlein, president of Uihlein Wilson Architects, which is doing the designs for the restoration work

Uihlein also serves as a member of the Milwaukee Turners and as a board member of the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust.

"The ballroom looks the same, only different," Uihlein said. "Looks have everything about diversity and access and the fact that this place is for everyone. It is not a fancy ballroom. It is a place where anyone can come and feel totally at home."

There was a fire in the Turner Ballroom on Christmas Eve in 1933 that mainly damaged the stage area. From then on, the ballroom was damaged and used mostly for storage, Barber said.

"The fire in the ballroom was not bad," Barber said. "No one really knows what happened, but some think there was a short in an old Christmas tree. In fact, most of the damage was in the ground floor gym because the water warped the floor in the gymnasium."

The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust began holding events in the ballroom again in 2000 when Thom Miller of Beauty, a hair and beauty salon in Milwaukee, held a photo shoot there in exchange for fundraising for the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust, Barber said.

"We put windows in and started using it," Barber said.

The Turners brought the ballroom up to code and have been hosting various organizations and private functions there ever since.

Turner Hall is owned by the Milwaukee Turners. The Turners lease the Historic Turner Restaurant space and the parking lot to restaurant owner R.C. Schmidt and the ballroom to the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust.

The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust is responsible for renovations to the ballroom and for the operation of the venue.

"We expect performances, exhibitions, lectures, a variety of different things including art literature, music, drama, maybe some film," Uihlein said. "(The ballroom) is a venue that is designed to be totally flexible for all manners of performing, visual arts and literature."

The restoration of the ballroom is being done in part so that it can operate as a venue, but the restoration is also important to the Turner mission, Uihlein said.

"Turner Hall has always been the center of cultural activity, particularly progressive cultural activity," Uihlein said. "Because the ballroom has no fixed seating and likely has the capacity for 1,200 or more (people), we have the opportunity to do a variety of things. We are positioning ourselves to be much more than a music venue. The cultural and architectural attributes of Turner Hall are unique in Milwaukee, and I mean unique. We never see a venue in Milwaukee that has a large gym, a restaurant and a two-story ballroom in one building."

The events held at the Turner Ballroom are also unique. Since 2000, the Turner Ballroom has seen the likes of fencing exhibitions, theater performances, pep rallies for Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball teams, jive and jitterbug classes, its annual Halloween Party, weddings, art shows and banquets.

The Milwaukee Turners hold the 4th Street Forums in the ballroom, which are panel discussions on social and political issues affecting the Milwaukee area.

The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust also holds the Cream City Sessions in the ballroom, where local musicians come for jam sessions every Sunday evening.

All of these events will start up again in November when the ballroom officially re-opens, Uihlein said. One of the first events will be a performance by Milwaukee-based Wild Space Dance Co., he said. 

The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust is always looking for grants to help with the restoration and has received all of its funding so far through grants and donations, Barber said.

There will be four or five phases to the restoration project, Barber and Uihlein said. The fourth phase will make the ballroom more presentable, and the fifth phase will be for decorations.

 "One idea that was floated around was to not make the ballroom all glitzy like the pillar that Conrad Schmidt uses for its logo, but to show the different stages that the ballroom went through," Barber said. "At one point, it was painted orange, at another it was beige and there is an original mural on the ceiling where a cherub and a sheep are still visible."

So far, the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust has uncovered original frescoes in the ceiling and believes the ballroom was repainted around the 1920s, Uihlein said.

"In effect, it is an archeological treasure," he said. "And now we have our own interventions from 2004 and 2006. We have completely redone and redeveloped new men’s and women’s rooms and added elevators, a performer dressing room and a catering room. We have a lot of things going."

The ballroom will not be redecorated until phase four or five because of all of the updating that needs to be done and modern amenities that need to be implemented, Uihlein said.

"The building inspector said it would be cheaper to tear down the whole building than to renovate it because there are things that always come up," Barber said. "We opened a wall and found a pipe that had been cut off years ago and was left inside the wall. We had to decide if we were going to fix it or take it out because we don’t want to have to go into the wall again."

Currently, the state of the ballroom, with some walls featuring peeled back paint, the frescoes on the ceiling partially visible and the blackened wood surrounding the stage, is very appealing to artists as a venue, Uihlein and Barber said.

"It is a little bit of a blank canvas where people can create their own art with a neutral backdrop," Uihlein said. "No one has to worry that they are going to ruin it or make it dirty. It is a blank canvas for artists and all kinds of people to make their own art within."

The Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust charges a nominal fee to rent the ballroom for an event, Barber said.

 "It is amazing what can be done," Barber said.

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