In the middle of the ground floor of the enormous Brass Light Gallery complex there is a large, mostly empty room. Its bare walls are made of pressure-cleaned cream city brick. The front of the room, which looks out on St. Paul Avenue, has been sectioned off by mirrors in ornate wooden frames. An extravagant cut crystal chandelier, along with a variety of other lighting fixtures, is reflected in the mirrors. So are the massive horizontal steel and concrete forms of the Marquette Interchange outside.
The partially complete room is symbolic of the enterprise that surrounds it: A showcase for its products, a model of business acumen, a distinctive place within its downtown Milwaukee context, and replete with the energy of visionary potential. Stephen Kaniewski, the owner of Brass Light, tells me that this room eventually will replace the current second floor showrooms. The one thing it lacks, he says, is a view into the manufacturing section of the operation. Final renovation will include some kind of window or glass doors to correct that, he assures me proudly, because it is the manufacturing end of the business that distinguishes the Brass Light Gallery: “We make our products right here. We’re ‘made in the USA’.”
This is no idle, self-promoting boast in the current economic climate. During a period characterized by businesses moving offshore, when manufacturing jobs in the U.S. plunged from 19 million to 12 million, the Brass Light Gallery has not only remained in Milwaukee, it has continually expanded. In fact, Kaniewski started the company—which specializes in custom-designed brass fixtures—from scratch 40 years ago and it has been growing ever since.
Kaniewski fondly remembers the moment when, at 16 years old, he first went into a “fabulous movie palace” (the Warner Theater) and saw its “gorgeous Art Deco lobby, with beautiful French Rococo chandeliers.” He witnessed someone buffing old brass fixtures, restoring them. “He turned this tarnished piece of brass into a beautiful architectural element,” Kaniewski says. “That was it: I was hooked.”
Kaniewski began the business in a basement on Milwaukee’s south side. In 1978 he “moved to 5th and National when everyone was moving out to the suburbs.” By way of explanation he adds, “I’ve always loved the central city with its unique architectural character.” Since that time as the company grew he has twice more moved to neighborhoods that “had seen better days,” as he puts it. The move to the Menomonee Valley in 2006 in the shadow of the High Rise Bridge was, if anything, the most challenging. He purchased two vintage buildings, built circa 1898 and 1953, that had been abandoned and boarded up. The Marquette Interchange project was already underway; the freeway literally was being torn down all around him. St. Paul Avenue was closed for a year.
|Owner Stephen Kaniewski on the factory floor
But where others saw liabilities Kaniewski saw opportunities. It took two years to complete the move to the St. Paul location and six years later, with manufacturing in full swing, large sections of the 1898 building are still being renovated. Kaniewski envisions renting the excess space to compatible businesses, such as cottage industries that might include metalworking and glass. The St. Paul Avenue corridor is undergoing its own renovation as a light manufacturing and retail outlet district. Kaniewski, sensitive to his surroundings, considers the Brass Light Gallery “a gateway to the Menomonee Valley” on St. Paul Avenue.
This vision, which clearly encompasses the big picture, is complemented by attention to detail as well as aesthetics. Whether it is a meticulously polished nickel-plated brass fixture, a scrupulously restored antique, or the narrow strip of earth between the buildings and the street saved for flowers during sidewalk reconstruction, Kaniewski is resolute. He maintains matter-of-factly that it’s a “no-brainer” to take care of things, to make them presentable. It is an attitude that extends from the products that he sells to the property he owns.
It is no wonder the Brass Light Gallery attracts customers from around the country. In a time when most industries compete with formulaic business plans, Kaniewski takes a more personal, non-formula stance. The success and growth that have followed benefit not only the company but also the community. In fact, Kaniewski’s faith in his new location bodes well for the still redeveloping Menomonee Valley. Call him prescient, perhaps: each of the neighborhoods where Brass Light previously was located has seen revitalization and unequivocal economic growth.
This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.