As the 20th century began, Milwaukee was a hub of industry and innovation. However, only a handful of Milwaukee companies from that era remain, and of them, how many still operate from the same plant? One of the few local firms to remain rooted in its original location, Harley-Davidson, Inc., is also the only industrial company that draws tourists to Milwaukee from around the world.
Recently, a trove of documents surfaced from 1910-1920—the period when the landmark facility on Juneau Avenue was completed and took the form it has today. “Building a Milwaukee Icon: Harley-Davidson’s Juneau Avenue Factory,” an exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum, displays a carefully chosen sample from that cache of drawings and photographs. “We got a call from the Harley-Davidson Archives, saying, ‘We’ve found loads of architectural drawings. Maybe you should take a look at them,’” says Jim Fricke, curatorial director at the Harley-Davidson Museum. “Our eyes got big. We couldn’t believe what we found!”
Discovered in the archives were nearly 2,000 well-preserved architect’s plans for the Juneau Avenue campus. Many bear the imprimatur of A.J. Eschweiler, the prominent Milwaukee architect behind such familiar structures as the Wisconsin Gas Company building and UW-Milwaukee’s Downer Avenue “Quad.” For “Building a Milwaukee Icon,” the museum picked 14 blueprints and plans and juxtaposed them with 22 photographs, blown up and mounted in the Archives Bridge connecting the main museum with its Archives Visiting Area.
The floor and ground plans, hand-drawn and lettered, have a utilitarian beauty and help explain the unusual configuration of some of the plant’s buildings, constructed diagonally to run alongside a railroad line. The letterings illuminate social attitudes of their time: There is a “Girl’s Restroom” but a “Men’s Toilet;” the infirmary is called the “Sick Room.”
For most visitors, the photographs will provide a more vivid illustration of an industrial compound that grew organically, spreading vertically as well as horizontally. The assembly line on the ground floor worked as the upper stories were being raised. “The company grew exponentially. From producing 1,000 motorcycles in 1909, Harley-Davidson jumped to 27,000 by 1920,” says Paul James, director of motorcycle product planning.
The photographs show horse-drawn carts bearing building materials to the site of a motor vehicle factory. The familiar framework of the Harley-Davidson plant is visible above the first floor, but black holes occupy spaces later filled by brick and glass. Because of the slow shutter speed of the cameras, workmen in motion on the construction site look like blurry ghosts. Remarkably, the neighborhood surrounding Harley-Davidson looks little changed from a century ago.
One photo shows the construction of a glass-walled photography studio, resembling early movie studios from the silent era for its high wall of sunlight-admitting glass. One of the promotional photographs taken there shows Harley-Davidson’s clientele in early years: a man in cloth cap, suitcoat and tie with his cloche-capped sweetheart in a sidecar with Edwardian upholstery and plenty of room for a picnic basket.
“Our photography resources are so rich,” Fricke says, explaining that the construction of the Harley-Davidson plant was “lovingly documented each month” in a magazine distributed around the country at company dealerships.
Eschweiler designed buildings to last, and the masons and ironworkers who executed his plans built with permanence in mind. While motorcycles are no longer assembled on Juneau Avenue, a century later, the sturdy buildings have been repurposed. James points to a structure on the grounds plan labelled “Oil House.” Today, it houses the crew designing Harley-Davidson’s latest breakthrough, an electric bicycle.
Building a Milwaukee Icon: Harley-Davidson’s Juneau Avenue Factory runs through Sept. 6, 2020, at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St.