In Milwaukee History

A policeman on the watch on East Wisconsin Avenue, December 1961. (PHOTO: Sylvester Pacholski Jr.)

Stunning Pacholski pics offer a snapshot of Milwaukee, December '61

As we kick off 2020, enjoy this look back at "old" Milwaukee!

Finding a cache of vintage Milwaukee photos is always exciting. Consider the images discovered by local history buffs like Adam Levin and Karl Bandow depicting Milwaukee in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s.

In those we can see how Downtown has changed across the decades, offering glimpses not only at familiar landmarks – both altered and sometimes not – but also many alterations over time.

The images taken by Sylvester (Les) Pacholski Jr. are all that and more.

These monochromatic images, taken in December 1961, are street photography at its best: full of life. Workers are working, shoppers are shopping, life in moving forward and Downtown Milwaukee is brimming with activity.

Then, there's the light. Though Pacholski was just 19 when he took these photos as a student at the Layton School of Art, they seem remarkably accomplished to my amateur eyes. The images are alluring and beautiful, even when they show a relatively mundane scene, like construction workers building a skywalk.

"My dad grew up in Milwaukee on the south side and went to Layton School of Art for photography after graduating from high school," says Pacholski's son Luke.

"After graduating he worked at Bucyrus-Erie for a year or two in their photo department, and then when his draft number was up he enlisted in the Navy in 1964, where he ended up working in photo intelligence. After getting out of the Navy he went back to school and got a degree in English.

"He got into insurance after getting together with my mom – my grandfather owned an insurance agency – and never did any professional photography after that, but he continued to enjoy it as a hobby to varying degrees for the rest of his life. I got interested in photography when I was about 13, and I think my interest re-sparked his interest."

Les Pacholski (pictured at left around 1962-63) passed away in 2015 at age 72.

Luke Pacholski had not seen the images until recently and stumbled upon them on the Old Milwaukee group on Facebook, moderated by Levin.

A couple gave Levin a copy of Pacholski's book, "Act One," which they'd said they'd found in their home when they moved in.

"I didn't know Luke when the book was given to me," says Levin. "When I posted the scanned photos, I searched the group for his last name and asked in the post if he was related to the photographer. Then I met him for dinner and gave him the book."

Luke Pacholski was, to say the least, surprised.

"After a few minutes of pondering and shaking my head, I realized that there was no way there was another S. F. Pacholski Jr in Milwaukee in 1961, and certainly not another doing photography."

Luke Pacholski believes the book was made when his father was an art student.

"Exactly how this couple – who still remain a mystery – got the book is unclear. Our best guesses are either my grandparents had a copy and left it behind in one of their houses, or a teacher at Layton had a copy and left it in their house or gave it to a family member."

Luke says he then began a search for the negatives and a thorough dig at his mom's house turned up those, as well as another copy of "Act One."

"I subsequently located all of the negatives used to make the book, and I've been going through them, identifying locations, etc.," he says. "There are some pretty cool details to be seen.

"There were 70 photos in the book, and there are negatives in the set for just over twice that. I have various other negatives of his, although I'm not sure if any more were taken at that time (December 1961) or not."

Thanks to this unnamed couple, to Levin, to Luke and, of course, to Les Pacholski, we have this marvelous snapshot of Milwaukee during the holiday season 57 years ago this month.

In an introduction to the book, the elder Pacholski wrote, "The following study of downtown Milwaukee is not, in any way, meant to be a testimonial to our 'thriving' metropolis. It is rather a pictorial observation – a picture story as seen through one man's eyes."

"When I set out to do this story, I had one purpose in mind – to photograph the City of Milwaukee as I saw it – be it good, bad or indifferent. Whether or not I have succeeded remains to be seen."

Looking east on Wisconsin Avenue at Plankinton, with Pabst Building

North side of Wisconsin Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets

Gabel Newsstand at 3rd and Wisconsin

The Milwaukee River

Gimbels and the Riverside from the Riverwalk

Westbound bus stop on Wisconsin Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets; all these buildings are gone

Looking east on Wisconsin Avenue from 8th Street

Looking north on 5th Street, from near Wisconsin Avenue; all the buildings (except the Arena) and even this street are gone

View from the northeast corner of 4th and Wisconsin; all of this is gone, except the hotel

Stay tuned to OnMilwaukee for another batch of these amazing images.


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