House of Harley: a mecca, lively museum

The 80-foot towers look like boom boxes on steroids, monstrous structures of exposed galvanized steel. A sense of supremacy reigns everywhere, even in bathrooms, where automatic hand dryers command attention.

“Feel the power,” little signs say. The blasts of hot air are quick, intense, conspicuous.

This is the house that Harley built in Milwaukee.

Thousands of shiny, 3-inch-wide, stainless steel rivets have been purchased and personalized by motorcycle enthusiasts, then affixed to wide ribbons of curved and weathered steel outdoors.

Many of these three-line messages reflect themes of passion, freedom, defiance. A walkway of engraved bricks would be passé.

This is the attitude that Harley hones.

Among the construction workers who built this Menomonee River Valley campus – three buildings on 20 acres – are “people who ride.” It is the same with the enthusiastic staff, who act like their work is more of a mission than a job.

This is the loyalty that Harley inspires.

The company has created not a museum, but a mecca that will entice the uninitiated as well as H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) members. The $75 million Harley-Davidson Museum opens July 12 at Sixth and Canal streets, near downtown Milwaukee and in a historically industrial part of the city.

“We looked to the shapes and form of factories – so the materials are industrial brick, glass, steel,” says Stacey Schiesl, museum director. The design is simple, functional, tough.

Indoors and out are spots for up to 15,000 people to attend concerts, weddings, business meetings, motorcycle rallies – or just watch the river run. So Harley will make money from space rentals for events as well as museum patronage.

Of the three buildings on the grounds, one is used for exhibits and meetings, one stores the corporation’s archives (documents to motorcycles) and one houses a retail store, restaurant and banquet space.

The outside of this park-like, riverfront development will be accessible to the public for free, 24/7. Thick strips of orange – in a shade that matches the Harley logo – assure riders that they’ve reached a bike-friendly crossroads, Schiesl explains.

“We want it to feel like another neighborhood in the city, another park, a place to just hang out,” she says, making to the celebrated motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D.

Within the 130,000-square-foot museum are insider symbols and talk, like the Two-Up annual museum membership ($90), a reference to motorcyclists who carry a passenger when riding.

The pinnacle membership is the Hill Climber ($500), a reference to racing on rough terrain. A bronze Hill Climber statue on the grounds, donated by the grandson of a Harley founder, “is a nod to our heritage, sense of adventure, achieving despite obstacles,” Schiesl says.

The statue’s rider is frozen in a precarious position, the bike is old and the sense of risk is high.

For decades, Harley has quietly documented its history and accumulated artifacts, vintage accessories to vehicles, posters and photographs. The collection was crowded into storage at the company’s Juneau Avenue headquarters.

“We’ve created a pretty expansive experience,” says Jim Fricke, curatorial director, of the two-story museum that seems both airy and full.

Tours begin with a climb up a flight of industrial steel steps, where galleries start at the beginning. world’s oldest known Harley – dubbed Serial Number One, gets shrine-like treatment. The 1903 bike is perched inside of a glass-enclosed case, embraced by a halo of light.

In the same room are other “firsts,” including the company’s original stock issue and minutes from the first corporate board meeting. Other galleries tell other parts of company history, showcase products and explain their impact on pop culture.

One of four themed galleries – the Engine Room – presents a dissected motorcycle engine as a piece of floating artwork and describes what makes a Harley’s rumble distinctive. Another component shows how engines work, with interactive elements to interest children.

Why make a big deal about the engine? “It is the jewel that we dress the bike around,” Fricke says. Amusing children is a priority because “if you don’t have something for kids to do, adults aren’t happy.”

In the wide hallways between galleries is a parade of motorcycles in chronological order. Many are unrestored, original paint vehicles. About 140 bikes are on display, almost all from Harley’s collection.

Don’t expect a visual overload of text descriptions, but touch-screen kiosks allow visitors to delve deeper into detail about whatever topic is in front of them.

Downstairs, a dramatic, two-story Design Lab explains the work of product development. Bikes of the famous, embellished bikes/accessories, motorcycle movie clips and extraordinary tales about average riders are elsewhere.

At the end, visitors can hop onto one of 10 Harley bikes (model years vary and will change as needed), then pretend to ride through pastoral scenes of Americana, as it rolls over a 20×60-foot video screen.

Artifacts that Harley wanted but didn’t already own were sought through employees and friends of friends. Fricke says eBay also has been a good source, “as long as people don’t know it’s us doing the bidding.”

The corporation celebrates its 105th anniversary during Labor Day weekend. There already is talk about how to change exhibit elements, to prevent the stale feeling that sometimes challenges other types of museums.

The Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St., opened July 12. For more: The manufacturer also offers tours of its Tomahawk factory in Tomahawk (Lincoln County) and power train operation in Milwaukee. For more: 877-883-1450.