John Updike, an HWTN artist and the Downer Avenue popcorn wagon walked into a bar…

Actually, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike, the historic Downer Avenue popcorn wagon and a Water Tower neighborhood artist didn’t walk into a bar.

But the three were connected in a different way — they all played roles in a well known 1965 children’s book, “A Child’s Calendar.”

The text of the book was written by Updike, who wrote “Rabbit, Run,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and many other acclaimed works. The original illustrator of the book was Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who lived for many years in a charming early 1900’s Georgian Revival clapboard home at 3228 N. Marietta Ave., here in the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood. And Burkert’s lovely drawing of the historic Downer Avenue popcorn wagon graced a page of “A Child’s Calendar.”

Wagon 6





















Burkert was also the original illustrator of “James and the Giant Peach” and won a Caldecott Honor in 1973 for “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

In “A Child’s Calendar,” her drawing of the Downer popcorn wagon illustrates Updike’s poem about the month of May. Updike began the poem: “Now children may, go out of doors, without their coats, to candy stores.”

Popcorn book

Nancy Ekholm Burker headshot














The historic popcorn wagon was a fixture on the corner of Downer Avenue E. Bellview Place from 1916 to 2007, when it was removed by a developer to make way for a new parking structure. According to a city history written before its removal:

“Milwaukee’s oldest popcorn wagon has reputedly stood at this site since 1916 and it might be one of the oldest, working popcorn wagons in America. Made of wood and metal, it is reminiscent of a small, nineteenth century peddler’s wagon. The interior still retains some of its original, steam-powered popcorn-making equipment although the apparatus is now powered by electricity. Research has not yet revealed just how old the wagon really is, but according to local folklore and the recollections of some East Side residents who have since passed away, the wagon has been standing there and in continuous use since about 1916. Originally the wagon was portable and could roll about, but many years ago it became a permanent part of the district when it was embedded into a poured concrete foundation….Several popcorn wagons of similar design dotted the city’s major thoroughfares before and after World War II but today all of the other historic wagons have vanished.”

popcornwagonWagon corner







In 2008, the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission issued a Certificate of Appropriateness for the new parking structure to be built on the site. Under the terms of the certificate, the developer was allowed to remove the historic wagon but was supposed to preserve it and return it to the Downer area. Despite the requirement, the wagon’s current whereabouts and condition are uncertain.

The last article we’ve seen on the wagon’s fate suggested at the time that it might be for sale.

When we wrote about the wagon on our Facebook page in a February 2013 photo quiz, several contributed their memories and impressions:

  • “As Joni Mitchell once sang – They have paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
  • “I think of Mrs. M’s –– and the popcorn with coconut oil, the candy wristwatches, among other delights –– every time I wait on that corner for the light to change.”
  • “A great loss.”
  • “Sigh.”
  • “At least in the mid to late 90s when I ran that popcorn wagon with a friend, there were no remains of steam powered popcorn making equipment.”
  • “Where is it now?”
  • “Little candies on white paper strips across from the Downer theater!!”


More concerns raised about proposed changes to Milwaukee’s effective preservation ordinance

Opposition is growing from across the community to proposed harmful changes to Milwaukee’s successful historic preservation law.

Many see the proposed changes as largely weakening protections and share concerns about the non-inclusive process used to develop the proposal and the speedy approval being sought for the plan. (You can view the full video of the hearing this week at which Historic Preservation Commission members, residents and business leaders detailed numerous problems with the proposal.)

A well-reasoned Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, noting that “there’s not a lot that’s broken in Milwaukee’s process,” this week called on the city to delay any votes and instead hold a series of public forums to determine what changes are needed. We agree.

Whitney Gould, the paper’s retired urban affairs writer and current City Plan Commission, wrote a detailed letter to the city saying she feared the proposal could “gut historic preservation in Milwaukee” and create “a setback for economic development” The full email is worth reading.

Also, a large group of associations (including HWTN), businesses and individuals sent a joint letter to the city asking that the flawed proposal be given a thorough review and changed as needed before being vote on.

Reacting to concerns raised at the public hearing this week, Ald. Terry Witkowski, the rewrite’s author, has signalled he’ll pull the plan from the fast track. The plan was just shared with preservationist in the last week or two and had already been scheduled for a committee vote this coming week.

We’re hopeful that this flawed plan will be scrapped. We support a truly inclusive process to review the existing preservation ordinance and recommend any needed changes so we improve, not diminish, preservation efforts in the city.

By the way, be sure to check out an interesting interview with former Ald. Sandra Hoeh, who sponsored the city’s original preservation ordinance, about the proposed rewrite and the history of preservation in Milwaukee.

Important hearing held today on future of preservation

Advocates of historic preservation including members of HWTN attended a critical Milwaukee City Hall hearing today (that was covered by the Journal Sentinel) about a proposed ordinance that many believe will greatly weaken our effective and balanced historic preservation laws.

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission criticized the proposals at the hearing, as did a number of residents and business people who spoke. Preservationists including HWTN have made their concerns about the proposal public and are asking that Common Council action on the proposal be delayed to allow for more discussions and reviews. The proposal was only very recently introduced, but it is already scheduled for a committee vote in early April.

A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article lays out the benefits of historic preservation in our community and how the proposed ordinance changes would create barriers to saving historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation even wrote a letter to city officials yesterday raising several grave concerns about the proposed ordinance, saying one of the proposed changes would “seriously compromise Milwaukee’s preservation program.”

The preservation community has only recently seen the proposal and is still in the process of reviewing it. HWTN is in the process of reviewing the ordinance. The current draft proposed ordinance and an analysis by city legislative staff are now available.

We’ll be posting more info from today’s hearing and on this important issue in the near future.

HWTN joins civic leaders to preserve historic preservation

Milwaukee’s highly successful historic preservation ordinances are now under review by Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council following the debate over whether to preserve or demolish historically designated buildings for a proposed Marriott hotel on E. Wisconsin Avenue.

Historic Water Tower Neighborhood recently signed a letter with an impressive list of civic leaders to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett outlining the benefits of maintaining Milwaukee’s current ordinance.

The old Milwaukee Road railroad depot in Downtown, a victim of the wrecking ball in 1965

The old Milwaukee Road railroad depot in Downtown, a victim of the wrecking ball in 1965

Mayor Barrett has initiated a review of the current ordinances. In a newsletter, he posed a series of questions about how the city’s longstanding historic preservation ordinance and processes work. In their letter, the preservationists respond and express concern that any review of the preservation ordinance, like a review of any zoning, should be transparent, thorough and include significant input from the community.

Questions the mayor asked in the newsletter include:

  • “Should the ordinance allow the HPC to consider economic hardship in its decision-making? This is a common provision in many historic preservation ordinances in other cities.”
  • “Do we have enough input from property owners in the historic designation process? Some cities, for example, consider designating a local historic district only if the majority of property owners petition for its creation.”
  • “Should owners of designated properties be able to petition the Common Council for exemption to historic regulations if their projects clearly conflict with the rules?”
  • “Does the Milwaukee ordinance ensure customer-friendly historic preservation processes?”
Another significant historic landmark, the Layton Art Gallery, demolished in 1958

Another significant historic landmark, the Layton Art Gallery, demolished in 1958

Ald. Terry Witkowski is also proposing that the Common Council look at the rules and procedures that the Historic Preservation Commission uses, and he says such a review “could even lead to the abolishment and recreation of the body.”

HWTN strongly supports the current ordinance. Our group helped pass city legislation in the 1970s to pass the current law after a series of historically significant buildings were demolished, as also noted in another of many articles.

The letter to Mayor Barrett notes that preservation provides jobs, encourages heritage tourism, offers business recruitment potential, increases property values and improves the environment. The writers support a review of ordinances with the goal not of making preservation more difficult, but only to “help make historic preservation an even more effective driver of economic development.”

The letter signers include several HWTN members, including James T. Barry III, Kristin Bergstrom, Robert and Barbara Elsner, Sally R. Peltz, Julie Penman, Jim Shields and Charlie Trainer. Other prominent civil leaders who signed include John Gurda, Michael W. Hatch, Tom Kubala, Greg Marcus and Bill Orenstein.

The HWTN neighborhood is home to hundreds of well preserved historic structures — preserved in part because of city ordinances we worked to create. The preservation makes the East Side and other areas true Wisconsin treasures.

Milwaukee's historic preservation ordinance, backed by resident opposition, convinced the owner of this landmark to drop announced demolition plans

Milwaukee's historic preservation ordinance, backed by resident opposition, convinced the owner of this landmark to drop announced demolition plans

What can you do to preserve preservation in Milwaukee? Please send an email today to Mayor Barrett today and ask him to appoint a task force that includes stakeholders to review the ordinance. The more open the process and the more stakeholders involved the better. The goal: To ensure that historic preservation becomes a true engine for positive economic development and protects Milwaukee’s historic gems and unique neighborhoods.