Private doors open in Milwaukee, Chicago

Almost underneath Interstates 43/94, one mile west of Milwaukee’s trendy Third Ward retail/nightlife district, illuminating work happens daily.

Inside an 1890s building of red brick, Brass Light Gallery manufactures light fixtures by the hundreds and ships them throughout the world. When I visit, fixtures for a Hong Kong Disneyland expansion are among the orders being filled.

Work begins with raw materials that are sawed, sheared, molded, soldered and made to order. Domestic customers range from Harvard University to Horicon Bank. What the company makes here, it sells here. You won’t find Brass Light products sold at another lighting store or online source.

Company founder Stephen Kaniewski, in business since 1974, is a Milwaukee native who also has a passion for historic building preservation. He is a lifelong student of art and architectural history, and his business is not only about sending from-scratch lanterns, sconces and ceiling pendants far away.

What he gathers are expensive, obsolete and tired-looking chandeliers, holophanes, lamps and more. They likely are missing parts, lacking luster and awaiting TLC in Milwaukee to regain their beauty and function. Think of it as a radiant salvage yard.

Brass Light scavengers travel thousands of miles – throughout North America and Europe – to find these items and get them to the gallery. The “vintage originals” and rare antiques in this vast collection – which occupies much of two buildings that total 156,000 square feet – is the largest known anywhere.

“High-volume orders to one-of-a-kind art restorations – we do both types of work,” says Margaret Howland, director of marketing.

The site of operations – manufacturing to showroom sales – adds architectural complexity and significance. Behind the brick façade is an interior of cream city brick and knotless virgin timber. Adjoining it is a 1950s building of reinforced concrete.

Touring the guts of Brass Light Gallery is one of 100 possibilities during the Sept. 24-25 Doors Open Milwaukee, a first-time event that provides simultaneous access to sites of architectural, historic, cultural or commercial interest.

Consider the little-known St. Joan of Arc Chapel, on the Marquette University campus. Guides will explain how the early 15th century structure came to Milwaukee after falling into disrepair in France.

Many of the Doors Open sites already are open to the public, but for this weekend admission fees are waived. The Milwaukee Public Museum Planetarium and Milwaukee County Historical Center are examples.

Other locations are of public buildings – such as the Milwaukee County Courthouse and Aurora Sinai Medical Center – but guides will lead tours to explain historical and architectural significance.

Access to still other places – such as the University Club of Milwaukee and the Bradley Center locker rooms – are restricted during other times of year.

For a list of sites open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. during Doors Open Milwaukee: www.doorsopenmilwaukee.org. Some tours require registration.

The event is organized by the nonprofit Historic Milwaukee Inc., which pursues historic preservation and aims to increase awareness of local history and architecture.

The showroom at Brass Light Gallery, 1101 West St. Paul Ave., Milwaukee, is always open to visitors. For more: www.brasslight.com, 800-243-9595. For more about the company’s vintage lighting work, consult www.vintagebrasslight.com.

Milwaukee is not the only city with an open-door approach to autumn. The Chicago Architecture Foundation presents Open House Chicago at 100 locations Oct. 15-16. Organizers compare it to getting a backstage pass to places only accessible by invitation, but the list also includes churches and public buildings.

The event allows free and behind-the-scenes views of architecturally significant and environmentally sustainable structures downtown and in the Bronzeville, Garfield Park/Homan Square, Little Village, Rogers Park/West Ridge neighborhoods.

Some stops are apartments, such as the 1927 Park Gables’ indoor pool and the Del Prado, a popular place for visiting baseball teams to sleep. Downtown, access points include the 1925 Gothic-designed Tribune Tower and the acoustically pleasant Poetry Foundation.

For more: www.openhousechicago.org. Most sites are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors can park near one site, then board a free shuttle to other stops in a neighborhood.

“Roads Traveled” columns are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.