My second day began across the canal from the new Harley-Davidson Museum, where I got a hard-hat tour of an intriguing new hotel called the Iron Horse. One hundred years ago, the six-story brick building was a furniture factory. Now it's being transformed into a luxury boutique hotel catering to business travelers and motorcycle enthusiasts.
The hotel was just two months from its scheduled Sept. 1 opening, but that plan wasn't obvious. The entrance was clogged with bulldozers, and the interior was swarming with hard-hatted workers. The Iron Horse's owner, Tim Dixon, 46, was able to show me an almost finished room, though.
As with so many other revitalization projects in Milwaukee, this one has been careful to retain and incorporate much of the building's history. The old wooden pillars that were removed for the remodel are being re-crafted into boot benches that will rest on the slate tile floors of the rooms' entryways. A 1907 sign for the Milwaukee Boiler Co. will mark the entrance to an underground pool called the Boiler Room.
The hotel's motorcycling orientation is subtle. The entire subbasement is designed to house motorcycles, and the furniture in the lounge is leather, but overall the cycle theme, to a non-motorcyclist, is merely elegant. But a biker who looks closely will find purposeful nods, such as the custom iron hooks in the rooms, designed to withstand 60 pounds of wet leather.
BIKER BOOTS? NO BIGGIE
The concept for the Iron Horse is to be stylish for business travelers yet durable for bikers, so a woman like me would feel equally comfortable walking through the lobby in high heels or dirty buckle boots. "My hope is that at my bar on a Saturday afternoon, I've got two guys in full leathers having a pint of beer and talking about their ride, three businesswomen having martinis too early and four grandmas having a late lunch," Dixon said.
My own lunch that day was at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro. Adam Siegel recently won the James Beard Award for best Midwest chef for his work at this lakeside French restaurant, and I wanted to taste the reason.
I got my answer when I ordered the menu des affaires, or special of the day. For $24, I enjoyed a cup of red pepper soup and a few slices of locally raised roasted lamb and finished the whole thing off with a sampling of aromatic, artisanal cheeses, all delicious.
I hardly needed dessert, but I'd been hearing so much from so many people about the Alterra coffee shop, just a few minutes down the road, that I decided to stop in. I'm a coffee fiend, so I was already inclined to check it out, but even I initially wondered what could be so special about a coffee joint.
The coffee is, I found, only part of the appeal. Though the vibe is distinctly organic, with its pesticide-free fare, rain-barrel gutters and recycled outdoor seating, the blond-brick building overlooking the lake was pure Milwaukee. The re-purposed former flushing station was yet another example of the old remade into the new.
Bold new architecture also abounds. A short walk from Alterra are two of the city's most talked-about buildings: Discovery World, an interactive science and technology museum that opened in 2006, and the Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava expansion, opened in 2001.
The art museum is home to more than 20,000 pieces, but its latest architectural addition is worth seeing too. It was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and looks like a sun-bleached bird skeleton, flapping its wings like some sort of kinetic sculpture. Each morning, noon and night, the brise-soleil that shutters the museum's windows flutters to life and draws a crowd.
I was among the spectators when the bird-like structure folded its wings for the night, signaling it was time for me to head uptown for the evening.
A little old world
For my second night in Milwaukee, I switched hotels, exchanging the swanky downtown scene for the County Clare Irish inn and pub in the bohemian Brady Street area. The double-decker homes and tree-lined roads in this northern part of the city already told me I was in a more low-key part of town, but my check-in at the hotel sealed the deal. I was handed a paper bag of chocolate-chip cookies.
It was Friday night. I was in Milwaukee. I wanted to sample some of what's made the city famous, so I ditched my motorcycle and headed out by trolley. In the summer, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, a free trolley roams the city, dropping off and picking up passengers every 20 minutes at major attractions.
There was a stop just two blocks from the County Clare, so I walked over and hopped on, heading for Old World Third Street. Even if I hadn't asked the trolley driver to let me know when we'd arrived, I would have known we were in the German part of town from the half-timbered buildings and signs for Usinger's sausage.