A long-standing enigma on Milwaukee’s landscape, Sydney Hih, is hard to miss. It stands alone as one of few to survive the wake of Park East Freeway. The freeway spur was constructed in the 1960s and removed around 2002 leaving a baron strip of vacant lots north of downtown where Sydney Hih stands alone. Sydney Hih is a collection of four buildings constructed independently of each other. Aside from standing awkwardly at the end of Old World Third Street, the cream brick has been painted and the buildings are lacking elements of their original exterior detail. The crowning four-story building that stands at the northwest corner of Juneau and North Third Street is missing its Italianate cornice leaving the building squat and disproportionate.
Historically, this crowning building at 300 West Juneau is known as the Dr. Nicholas Senn building. Dr. Nicholas Senn, a pioneer surgeon in medical history, purchased the building previously at this site. In 1876, Senn razed the original building at this intersection and commissioned the construction of the four-story Italianate masonry block to house his medical offices and laboratory, space for other tenants, and a hall at the upper level. At the time of its construction, the building was constructed amidst the heart of Kilbourntown near Old World Third Street and along Juneau, a bustling commercial strip ripe with small breweries.
In 1891, George Koch purchased the Senn Building at which point a branch of the Merchants & Exchange Bank opened in the building. The bank was reorganized in 1894 as a state bank and renamed West Side Bank, which eventually acquired the building from Koch’s estate. It was under the bank’s ownership that the exterior was stripped of its ornamental detail in 1956. The West Side Bank vacated the property in 1968 when the area was being cleared for the Park East Freeway spur.
In 1971, Knapp Street Realty Corporation purchased the building. Sydney Eisenberg, president of Knapp Street Realty, renamed the building Sydney Hih. The collection of buildings soon found itself as a center of the counter culture in the early 1970s. It was during this time that the various bays were painted like multi-color checkerboard. The building became a four-story collaborative of what I’ve heard described as psychedelic ventures and an artistic community with art galleries, a record store, craft retail spots, a couple of restaurants, and a rooming house. By 1980 several of the trendy retail shops had moved out, but the building remained a space for artist studios and band practice and a nightclub in the 1990s. Apparently, the subterranean nightclub, Unicorn, boasted bands like Nirvana, Sound Garden, and the Smashing Pumpkins in the onset of their career.
Sydney Hih was put up for sale in 2000. Park East Freeway came down in 2002 and the collection of buildings was incorporated into a couple of redevelopment plans, which have yet to come to fruition. I wrote about one such plan in regard to Gipfel Union Brewery in which Sydney Hih would have been incorporated into a multi-use office-hotel-condo-retail development. The last came in 2008, which proposed that Sydney Hih be demolished and the bricks salvaged for a pathway. The building’s fate has been under debate for almost a decade. As to current plans for the good doctor’s practice turned cultural center, I am unsure, but one can only hope that there’s a reuse for this building with such a storied and colorful history.