History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Businesses - Retail Businesses

Telephone House
Location: 2nd & National Ave.


Sept. 1986




The Telephone House was a telephone business owned and run by Jimmy O'Conner. It was located on the north-east corner of 2nd and National (diagonal from the LaCage Aux Folles gay dance bar), and offered interesting designs and specialty telephones in the age before portable or cellular phones.

(Owner Jimmy O'Conner had previously been involved with two popular gay bars, River Queen and Gary's.)

The Telphone House is perhaps best remembered for "the Fire", a huge blaze that destroyed the business, and was the talk of the gay community in September and October of 1986.

According to the contributor to this article, Jeff (Wolf) Waldecker lit the match that burned the Telephone House. He is said to have turned State's Evidence against Jimmy Zingale (who owned the property) to avoid prison, but ended up there himself after a drunk driving arrest revoked his probationary sentence.

(Jeff Waldecker had previously managed the Auctioneer's Inn II restaurant for George Prentice, who at the time of the Telphone House fire owned and operated the wildly successful LaCage Aux Folles gay dance bar, located kitty-corner from the Telephone House. Waldecker, Zingale, and Prentiss were all involved with Circus Circus bar as well (another popular gay dance club at the time).

Local LGBT historian Michail Takach writes:

    Behold the late, great "Telephone House," circa 1979, which started its life as the German American Bank in 1886. As the historic anchor of 2nd and National, the building housed many businesses over the years, including the Walker's Point US Post Office.

    It also housed a notoriously gay-friendly rooming house that, as late as 1965, rented rooms exclusively to single men for $7/week. On September 12, 1965, an appraiser remarked that its "above average architecture" was endangered because of "declining neighborhood conditions" and "inharmonious groups."

    One wonders what great apartments, galleries and restaurants this beauty would have housed today, if not for the five-alarm fire that ended its 100-year lifespan on September 10, 1986.

The building is also written up on the 'Lost Milwaukee' website:

    Lost Milwaukee: the German American Bank Building

    It’s hard to imagine the northeast corner of 2nd & National looking like this.

    The German American Bank Building was the cornerstone of the intersection for almost 100 years before an arsonist burnt it down on September 10, 1986. Although the bank didn’t survive the Great Depression, the building continued to house Fifth Ward businesses and tenants. By the 1970s, its only tenant was a notoriously seedy rooming house that was eventually condemned and closed in 1980.

    An earlier fire on June 13, 1980 had caused moderate damage and injured a homeless man squatting on the property. This time around, the building was unoccupied and vacant, aside from ancient telephone equipment and wiring that melted in the fire. It took 125 firefighters, 15 fire engines and six ladder companies all night to bring the five-alarm blaze under control.

    The German American Bank Building went out in high style, with flame jets shooting 20-30 feet into the sky and a smoke cloud that could be seen for miles. And it’s been a parking lot ever since.


The building, approx. 1979
(courtesy Michail Takach)

Steppin' Out: the fire, Sept. 1986
(see lower right corner of article)
(In Step, vol. 3 no. 18, pg. 10)

The building, approx. 1930-1940;
note the streetcar tracks and overhead wires
(from Lost Milwaukee)

Credits: Original content and organization by Don Schwamb.
Building photo and info by Michail Takach.
Website concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: August-2020.

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