Doors Open Milwaukee | 2016 Highlights & Overview 

Sunny weather & a panorama of Milwaukee

September 17-18 Marks Milwaukee, WI’s 6th Annual Doors Open Event

Part I In a Series of 3 Posts About Doors Open & Open House

Another beautiful Milwaukee rooftop!

Milwaukee’s Annual Doors Open is One Unique & Distinguishing Event That Sets Our City Apart from All Others

So, What Exactly is Doors Open?

Doors Open is a city-wide event that’s held in just a few select cities in our United States as of 2016. It’s a celebration of sorts…celebrating our city’s architecture and art, but also our history and heritage, as well as all the things in our built environment that we’ve come either to take for granted or ignore…ignore, because we can’t easily find out anything more.

Built environment is a sort of trendy term we use because we can…after all, there are relatively few cities in the entire United States that have been able to pull off hosting a Doors Open event annually (there are only 7 cities as of 2016.) There are however, many more globally.  Canada is the one country that has added more new cities to the Doors Open ranks than any other.  In fact, there are more Doors Open events in Canada than there are in the rest of the world’s countries combined!   Even Detroit, is literally a couple of minute’s drive away from Canada has yet to garner the resources to pull this off…although maybe they haven’t tried that hard because Windsor, which right across the border does hold their own Doors Open festival every year.

We visited a lot of rooftops in 2013

How Canada happened to become the one and only country hosting more DO events than the rest of the world combined is anyone’s guess.  I suspect it had something to do with the fact that Toronto hosted the first Canadian event ever…in fact the first North American event too, way back in the year 2000!   Toronto did this in part because Ontario, which is the province that Toronto belongs to, was influenced in a big way by London’s earlier success in hosting a very similar kind of program…called Open House.

Actually, London’s event was really called Open London.  Open London and Open House were both born from the inspiration of Victoria Thorton, an aficionado of architecture living in London. It was this 1st event that was instrumental in spreading excitement and enthusiasm around the world for an innovative concept which closed the gap between ‘common man’s’ understanding of the mysterious world of architecture.

Doors Open Milwaukee Logo  OK…So Milwaukee’s Special…But What Exactly Is Doors Open Milwaukee…aka DOMKE?

In a nutshell…Milwaukee’s Doors Open Event provides unique opportunities for people to visit buildings that are never usually open to the public. And it’s free!  It’s one of the most fascinating, city-wide celebrations I’ve ever encountered. Well, me and 25,000 other people that is.  For 2 days over a weekend in September each year, roughly 160 unique buildings, business’s and governmental departments open their doors to welcome anyone who’s interested in seeing how they operate and what their space looks like.  Some of the sites tend to change each year, but some overlap multiple years, which is OK, because 2 days just isn’t long enough to visit 165 sites. In fact, you should spend a little time beforehand perusing your options so that you can make a beeline for those which appear to be most interesting to you each year. In addition to the link above, here’s another one which is a PDF of all Milwaukee’s sites this year.

Sunny weather & a panorama of Milwaukee

A Little History About Doors Open

There are only 9 American cities that consistently host this type of event annually, however that list of cities is continuing to grow despite the monumental effort required to make it happen. You’re probably thinking “wait a minute…you said only 7 cities just a few paragraphs up!” And you’d be right…I did. But that’s because there’s another, very similar event called Open House which also is represented in the U.S. The 2 cities which hold Open House events are New York and Chicago.  And they’re events are even larger than Milwaukees!  But part of that larger size is explained by the fact that Open House events also include private homes, whereas Doors Open events do not. Incidentally, you might be interested to know that both Chicago and New York’s events will be help on the same weekend this year…October 15-16th.

It wasn’t until 2011 that Milwaukee, WI came on board with what perhaps has grown into one of the most successful venues for ‘Doors Open’ in the United States. Milwaukee’s idea was originally spark plugged by a retired public librarian, George Wagner after he visited similar events in Toronto and Denver. That first event was widely successful and included 100 buildings. You can read a great indepth article about the inaugural 2011 event from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal’s archives. In 2016 that number has risen to 165 and over 25,000 people (this was last years attendance record) are expected to attend.

The tour we had about how the city’s drawbridges work was
probably one of my favorite experiences.


Details On This Year’s Event in Milwaukee

This year Doors Open Milwaukee 2016 will be opening their doors to 165 local businesses and buildings. Some of the side events Milwaukee hosts include Doors Open Story Slam a food and entertainment extravaganza with locale story telling and food trucks, Murals in Clark Square which focuses on one unusual neighborhood with a lot of unique locale artisans’ public art on display and Open Archives, a program that allows visitors to examine documents, photographs, rare books and art work in the archive libraries of 7 large public museums.

Advice for Families & Kids      Journal Sentinel's Sept 9th Mews Article 'Doors Open Milwaukee Offers Rare Views of the City'

My kid’s are all grown so I’m relying on other people’s advice here.  Historical Milwaukee has a program just for kids they call Family Passport.  You can download the passport here and kid’s goal is to see as many sites on it as possible. There’s actually another passport they call the Water Passport, it’s a special guide to all of the water focused sites. In 2015 metroparent Milwaukee wrote a family and kid’s guide to DOMKE too.  More recently the Journal Sentinel wrote a news article on September 9th about sites where you can great rare views of the city featuring a beautiful rooftop pool. What kid doesn’t love a rooftop pool?  My last suggestion is to more seriously consider the free tour bus mentioned before, because at their blog they have some great information about where your kids can catch Pokemon during the event.  It sounds like they may be tailoring the route to maximize catching wild Pokemon too!

My husband took this cool reflection shot in 2014

Tips & Tricks

First off it’s good to map out where you want to go and get a brief notion of where and when each site you’re interested in is open.  Most sites are open for the full duration of the events but a select few aren’t.  They may only be open one of the days, or for shorter hours on both days…its up to the site’s owner.  But it’s best to check these details early in the process.  For example, there’s one site my husband and I are really interested in seeing this year called Above View. We understand that they make and will demonstrate aspects of their production process for their exquisite collection of artisan quality ornamental plaster ceiling tiles. That’s a mouthful but we’re super excited to see this place because unique ceilings have always been a ‘thing’ for us!  By visiting Above View’s Building Page at DO Milwaukee we found out a lot more about them…when we should go (Saturday) and what to expect (no photography.)

You’ll want to check out parking information here. So, really, do this OK?  Because it turns out that Brigg’s & Al’s Run will be going on too…and you’ll want to know which streets are closed off for that.  You might even want to consider using Milwaukee Food & City Tours Hop On & Hop Off Sightseeing Bus. This bus is also free and operates both days beginning at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00…no tickets are needed.  But you might not have run across it at the main event sight.  That’s because information is found for this under the ‘Tours‘ submenu.  There’s a lot more information on Milwaukee’s DOMKE site than there appears to be…so if this is your first time going…its a good idea to peruse the site for a little while.

You can get a lot of this same information and bring it with you in digital form (for possible offline viewing) from their PDF brochure and Guide.  The guide is 31 pages long so it’s a great resource!  There was also a free pullout section in last Sunday’s Milwauke Journal Sentinel newspaper.  You can also visit Historic Milwaukee’s Facebook page for really up-to-date news and some cool extras…like a special SnapChat filter!  When I just did that now to grab this link I found that I’d just missed my chance to pickup 2 tickets to a paid tour by a local celebrity…that special tour has been sold out for months but apparently someone had to cancel!  Oh,  I think I forgot to mention that there are also some additional events hosted by Historic Milwaukee that aren’t necessarily free…but that may be free to their members or to volunteers, or are just simply too priceless to be completely free.


If you’d like to learn more about these 2 worldwide programs you can do so using this link to Part II of this series.  If you’d just like more resource information or links you can find those at Part III here.  If you like to see some pretty awful videos that I made the first year I attended Doors Open Milwaukee…here are 2 of them…but they really are terrible so I wouldn’t bother!

My Video About Ring the Bell at the Top of City Hall in Milwaukee 

My Video About Pevnick Design’s Graphical Waterfalls at Doors Open Milwaukee 2013


Ring the Bell Tour at City Hall 2013

Above:  Doors Open 2013 Milwaukee City Hall’s Bell Ringing Tour



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