The Seaway Inn is remembered as a popular gay bar. According to one contributor (Keith/ CCK), it was "a very cozy little bar and rather good restaurant on the corner of Jefferson and Wells, right across from the Pfister Hotel with a parking lot growing around it later on. The little bar was in the front corner in a separate room from the restaurant which made it very cozy, especially on a winter evening. It had a 'Friends' kind of feeling about it where conversations would stop when anyone stepped in and someone would usually (call your name) and motion you over to one of maybe only 20 stools in the place. It was woody and smokey, something we didn't mind in those days. The lights and the smell was just right."
A short article in the August 1972 issue of 'GPU News' says the Seaway Inn was forced to close in July 1972 (not 1971 as shown in the historical panel to right and below)). It reports that it relocated to two new sites: the restaurant to 173 S. 2nd as Seaway Restaurant (formerly the Knight Owl Restaurant), and the bar to 196 S. 2nd. as 'The New Seaway' known as Jamie's (formerly the Castaways South).
(The following history of the Seaway Inn was written by Michail Takach, for an historical panel (see image to right) created by this project in 2019. The panel is on loan to the 'This Is It' bar in downtown Milwaukee.)
With carved flagstone exteriors, hand-hewn timber ceilings, knotty pine paneled walls, barnwood plank floors, a hand-carved oak bar, and a forever-roaring fireplace, the tiny little stone cottage at Jefferson and Mason was quite a sight to see.
For over twenty years, the cottage operated as Wisconsin's first vegetarian restaurant. The Ambrosia House, founded by Henry Lightfoot Bush (1878-1932,) was the talk of the town when it opened in 1938.
Inspired by Rockefeller's work in Colonial Williamsburg, Bush hired local architects Grassold & Johnson to create a simple Early American pub. He also recruited his nieces, Caroline and Julia Sweeney, to travel the country, find the best vegetarian recipes possible, and curate a compelling (and meatless) menu for Milwaukee's fine diners. With esteemed East Town neighbors, including the Pfister Hotel, Watts Tea Shop, the Layton Gallery of Art, and T.A. Chapman's, the Ambrosia House became the place for ladies who lunch.
Scandal erupted when the sisters exited the business in 1956.
"For the first time in 18 years, meat dishes will be served at the Ambrosia House," read the Milwaukee Journal on March 7, 1956. The new owner's gimmick didn't work, and the Ambrosia House closed forever.
In 1959, Otto Schuler bought the business and renamed it the Seaway Inn to honor the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway became one of Milwaukee's most popular gay bars of its era, especially after The Columns (featuring shirtless gladiators, flaming volcano bowls and exotic music) opened across the street at the Pfister Hotel in 1960.
As a History Project contributor remembered, "the Seaway was a cozy spot. Conversations stopped and heads turned whenever someone stepped in. There were maybe 20 stools in the place and usually a roaring, crackling fire. It was dark, woody and smoky, but the smell was unforgettable."
Otto Schuler went all out for the Seaway's "Christmas in July" parties, which were as famous as they were infamous. People attending downtown 4th of July fireworks and parades would stop by for their one-and-only annual visit.
"You would hang out at the Seaway just long enough for a barstool to open up at This is It," commented a History Project contributor. "And you'd always wind up back at the Seaway for an Irish coffee by the fire before heading home."
Most people assumed the Seaway was an irreplaceable historic landmark. Since the building only dated back to 1938, it had no historic preservation protections.
In December 1969, the Seaway and 36 other businesses were targeted for demolition. "The whole nature of East Town is threatened by tearing down one of its most interesting blocks," said Robert Aronin, association president. All of the Seaway's neighbors were razed one by one, leaving behind a lonely stone cottage. After one last "Christmas in July" party, the Seaway closed in 1971 and was demolished in 1972.
In compensation, Otto Schuler received a city-owned restaurant property at 173 S. 2nd St. He reopened The Seaway Inn at that location, and then opened New Jamie's Bar at 196 S. 2nd St. as a tribute to local performer Jamie Gays. However, Otto Schuler died suddenly in November 1973 at age 49, and both Seaways closed soon afterwards.
Michail Takach wrote an article for OnMilwaukee published August 31 2016, outlining the full history of building. The article, entitled "Milwaukee's first vegetarian restaurant", is focused on The Ambrosia House (1938-1956)-- which was in 1959 to become the Seaway Inn.
In that article, he relates that "For a while, two very different Seaway Inns operated in Milwaukee. Imagine the hijinks that ensued when patrons accidentally visited the other Seaway Inn of the 1960s (525 S. Water St.) that served as the official headquarters for the Outlaws motorcycle club. That bar, deemed 'filthy' and 'obscene' by City of Milwaukee officials, lost its license in 1966, putting an end to any confusion."
Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!
I think the owner, Otto Schuller, had always wanted to make a name for himself as one on Milwaukee "great" restaurateurs but never quite got there. I remember in the late 60's he had a wonderful little place between the Nitebeat and the Rooster on South 2nd St where everyone used to gather for breakfast following a night of dancing and drinking at the Castaways across the street. That was fun. Then as the years passed he had the Seaway Inn on Jefferson Street. Folks used to say, "Guys went to the Seaway to wait for someone to die at This Is It and open a bar stool". I was still at UWM, still well below 21, when I discovered the place. It was convenient to hop off the bus on the way home, visit the bar during Happy Hour, the busiest time, and then continue home. The crowd was older and very friendly and welcoming (especially to a guy under 21 and not horrible looking). Soon The Seaway became a regular spot for me and I loved it. Of all the bars in Milwaukee, Otto's Seaway will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Credits: contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Seaway and Riviera research by Michail Takach.
Last updated: May-2023.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.