Art is offbeat at Sydney HiH
FOLKS exiting the freeway on their way downtown have been known to say, “What’s in that thing?”
“That thing,” with its patchwork of colors making it stand out like a neon billboard, is one of the city’s less conventional landmarks. In its 119 years, it has housed everything from a bank to an adult-video shop. It also survived more than half a dozen fires and a freeway expansion that almost doomed it to razing.
A home and rehearsal spot for Milwaukee’s more off-beat musicians, artists and entrepreneurs is merely the latest incarnation of the Sydney HiH building, the psychedelically painted edifice at 300 W. Juneau Ave.
A mix of shops and restaurants now occupies the ground floor, while the upper levels serve mostly as rehearsal and work studios for musicians and artists. The Unicorn rock club is in the basement.
“We have a good thing going here,” says Damian Strigens, a musician and graphic artist who plays bass with The Frogs. “And I think most of the musicians and artists realize that, so we sort of keep each other in check.”
Another tenant, Donny Nelson, has hung out at Sydney since 1989, renting rehearsal space for his bands. Tiki Bong practices its retro-hip lounge act, and the Exotics pound out their instrumental surf music in a room they’ve dubbed “The Tiki Lounge.”
Low Rents, Little Hassle
“The studios are fairly priced,” said Nelson. “And there isn’t much hassle about noise or keeping late hours since most of the other tenants are also in bands.” Rents begin near $200 for rehearsal spaces.
Appropriately enough, before the Sydney was even built, the lot where it now resides served as a home for the arts. On Sept. 27, 1842, the city’s first professional theater performance took place there, an 18-day run of “The Merchant of Venice.” The current structure was erected to replace a public building in 1876.
The building got its current name in the early ’70s when it was bought by Knapp Street Realty Co., then headed by Sydney Eisenberg. (The origin of “HiH” was tougher to pin down perhaps a play on the words “high” and “hi,” and some claim the building was Milwaukee’s “highest” when it was built.)
The building’s renovation predated the national trend of the early-to-mid ’80s, when vacant or semivacant buildings were restored in urban industrial areas like downtown New York’s TriBeCa district. The space was offered to aspiring artists and entrepreneurs at affordable rents.
On the fringes of a business district, out of earshot of any residence and suited to an artist’s wallet, the Sydney attracted an eclectic bunch. In the basement, the Unicorn became a showcase for national underground rock. Now more than a dozen bands and artists rent space in the upper floors.
A Chance to Grow
Artist and designer Chris Poehlmann, whose furniture and lighting have been sold and exhibited nationally, has set up shop there for six years. He says the Sydney’s lo-fi vibe and cost helped boost his career.
“It afforded me the opportunity to devote myself solely to art,” Poehlmann says. “The daytime light that comes into my studio is great, and that’s important for an artist. I’m doing very well now, and a lot of my good fortune is because I didn’t have to incur huge start-up costs.”
Other tenants include painter Brad VandeVenter, who has gained regional acclaim for his pastel and oil images of Milwaukee architecture; the progressive jazz outfit Milwaukee Creative Music Ensemble; and rockers F.S. Camels, Mother’s Room, Well and Blue Sunshine. L3G Records, a new local record label and store, maintains its office on the second floor.
They’ve all put a mark of distinction on their modest digs. Nelson’s “Tiki Lounge,” for instance, is somewhat plush by Sydney standards: a roomy hangout, strung with plastic fruit lights. There’s a hut bar, Lava lamps and voodoo statues kind of what you’d expect on the set of a David Lynch remake of “Blue Hawaii.”
Strigens rehearses in a room that’s more like a studio apartment than a rehearsal studio, with a loftlike wood ceiling and a practice area partitioned off from a kitchenette. Poster art, thrift-shop furnishings and surreal sculptures lend the appearance of an art student’s digs.
Gus Hosseini, a longtime Sydney HiH business tenant who is also something of an alternative father figure for local musicians, says he wouldn’t be anywhere else.
“I like having my businesses downtown, particularly in the Sydney,” Hosseini says. “It’s more about being friends and partners here rather than cold business relationships. Everyone’s flexible, from the landlord to the bands. They look out for each other.”
Food and Fun
Eclecticism is the key to the Sydney’s funky appeal: The mix of assorted artists and musicians rests on a quirky blend of businesses.
Hosseini owns Gus Mexican Cantina on the first floor and the Unicorn beneath it. The Unicorn, which used to go be The Lost Dutchman’s Mine, endured a fire in the early ’80s one of several blazes that struck the building, most of them in the basement or on the first floor.
Hosseini and his wife Debbie opened the Unicorn in 1984 and the restaurant in ’90. While the Cantina is a popular spot before and after MECCA and Bradley Center events, Hosseini runs the Unicorn mainly to provide a showcase for local underground rockers. He’s content if the club breaks even.
Along with the Cantina, Beck’s Books, Siam restaurant, Chicago’s (a hot dog and sandwich shop) and Betty’s Bead Bank are the Sydney’s other main businesses. There’s also an architectural firm with a gallery on the ground floor.
“I’ve been here 19 years,” says Willie Munson, who owns and runs Betty’s. “A lot of folks come in and say, `I used to come here when I was a kid’ now they’re bringing their kids.”
Munson said he’s never considered moving the shop. He likes being downtown and centrally located among several colleges. Most of his customers are art students.
Tom Beck, who has owned and operated Beck’s Books in the Sydney for nearly 12 years, sells a variety of periodicals at his store but specializes in adult magazines and videos. He has occasionally incurred the public’s wrath over the kind of material he sells. “If you noticed, the sign outside the door doesn’t hint at the kind of material being sold,” Beck said. “I try to keep things low-key.”
Low-key? At the Sydney? Bands to beads, art studios to adult videos, a rock club to a record store the tenants and shops have always been as colorful as the building’s exterior. But somehow these disparate places and personalities seem to gel.
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