One of our goals at the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee is to illuminate the research process, so that readers learn about how historians know what we know.
In honor of Doors Open Milwaukee 2014, we offer this story from one of our Research Assistants, Catherine Jones, who went above and beyond the call of duty in researching the US Bank Center entry:
The StairMaster did not prepare me for this! My legs feel like they’re made of lead, my lungs are burning, and my heart is pounding harder than I knew it could. “12 more floors,” I manage to wheeze in the general vicinity of a friend I somehow convinced to partake in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air stair climb at the U.S. Bank Center. And so we found ourselves, on a Saturday morning and of our own free will, having run up 35 floors of the U.S. Bank Center, with 12 torturous flights to go.* When we staggered to the top a few minutes later we were greeted with a medal, a water bottle, and the best view of Milwaukee either of us had ever seen. We took our time making a slow lap around the observation deck, pointing out where we grew up, where we lived now, and various city landmarks. We stood for a while, just wiping away the windows’ condensation and soaking in the enormity of Lake Michigan from 601 feet above the ground. When the next wave of climbers started to arrive, we crowded into an elevator with a team of local firefighters (who completed the climb in full gear and seemed ready to do it again) and rode, gratefully, down to the lobby.
My trip to the top of the U.S. Bank Center began several months earlier when I was assigned to write an entry about the building for the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Over the course of my research I came across several newspaper articles that mentioned the building’s observation deck. I immediately wanted to see it for myself, so I called the number listed on the building’s official website and asked how I could make that happen. “Unfortunately,” the woman on the other end of the line told me, “the observation deck is no longer open to the public.” I asked a few more questions and found out that it does open twice a year—once for Doors Open Milwaukee, for which I was several months too late, and once for the annual stair climb, for which I had several months to prepare. I signed up for the stair climb shortly thereafter.
It may seem a little absurd to willingly climb 1,000+ stairs (indeed, to pay someone to let you do it) just to gain access to a building, but I was fixated. I split my time at the Encyclopedia between entry writing and image research. Most of the entries I’m assigned are notable buildings around the city. I typically experience a period of deep infatuation with each one over the course of my research. I grow attached to the building; it becomes my favorite in the city; I go out of my way to drive by it on my way home from work. Even though I grew up in Milwaukee, I find myself looking at them as though I’ve never seen them before. For me, the stair climb was a way to see the inner workings of a building I had spent several months researching—I could not turn the opportunity down. Given the chance, I would gladly do the same for every building I’ve researched. As a Milwaukee resident, I’ve spent my whole life seeing these buildings from the street or understanding them only as an abstract part of the Milwaukee skyline. Being allowed inside, to really feel how tall they are and see their architectural styles up close, is something I never knew I was so interested in before working for the Encyclopedia.
My original plan had been to take some photos from the observation deck that could be of potential use for the image research side of my responsibilities. Unfortunately that didn’t pan out. The heat generated by all the sweaty climbers covered the windows in far too much condensation to get any decent aerial shots. Aside from that, those oh-so-controversial signs along the building’s top obstructed much of the view. Having heard so many opinions about these signs over the course of my life (I had a classmate whose mother once wrote the building managers a letter of disapproval, she felt so strongly), it was interesting to find myself standing right behind them now.
This is not, by any means, the usual course my research takes, but I’m glad it did this time. So much of historical research and writing involves whiling away the hours sitting in an archive or at a desk that the climb was a nice change of pace and environment. For me, it’s a prime example of how history is not a static, isolated field of study. It is something the surrounds and involves us. In this particular instance, studying history literally made my heart race. I’ve always understood history as the study of shared experience, and this event made me feel more connected to those around me than any other type of research method I’ve tried yet. I was already finished writing my entry by the time the stair climb came around, so I didn’t learn much from the event that was of use to me there. But it did give me a new perspective of the city and make me feel like a part of it. Perhaps most importantly, it fostered a sense of pride and connection to the Milwaukee community, which is exactly why I was so attracted to the Encyclopedia in the first place.
*The race starts in the basement, so participants run up more than the buildings 42 above-ground stories. This climb occurred on March 22, 2014.