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Third Ward's Loss is Wisconsin Art's Gain - Milwaukee Antique Center Closing - Gresl to Focus on Fine Arts

by Michael Timm, from "Riverwest Currents" newspaper, Milwaukee, Vol. 4 Issue 12, December 2005

People of all sorts wander through, ogling potential valuables from baseball cards and Star Wars figurines to vinyl records and bar taps.

Gary John Gresl, 62, knows many of these patrons of the Milwaukee Antique Center at 341 N. Milwaukee St., and greets them all with soft tones and a smile even though Wisconsin’s oldest antique mall is closing the doors for good Dec. 31.

A number of factors have made it unprofitable to continue, including skyrocketing Third Ward rents, the impact of the internet and a deflated antiques market.“For the two of us who own the business, this has not been profitable for a long time. It’s never been a moneymaker,” Gresl says. “The building has been under threat of being sold for many years.”

In the past year, Gresl and his partner, Lee Lycan, learned the building was likely to change hands and began to investigate other more affordable locations, some in Walker’s Point.
“We agreed there was no facility where we could move that would actually work. We said let’s close it up entirely,” says Gresl.

The 43,200 foot building was purchased by Desert Pacific Group, a development firm organized by Craig Stoehr. The building sold for around $1.8 million, Gresl says. Stoehr plans to convert it into condominiums.

Gresl has worked at the Milwaukee Antique Center since 1974 when he started as a dealer. In 1975 he became assistant manager, and by 1977 was part owner.  The Third Ward location was a risk in the 1970s.

“Along St. Paul, there were several warehouses with big burly guys and forklifts, the fruit vendors,” Gresl remembers. “What lady would want to drive down here to buy antiques?”

He also remembers rumors the antique center was a Mafia-owned business.
Gresl sensed the decline in the antiques market beginning a decade ago, following its boom in the 1970s and 80s.

“We at one time had the place jammed full of stuff,” Gresl says. Now he estimates the building houses just 25 percent of what the mall once had. Ninety dealers once occupied three floors. In February 2004, the second floor closed and the number of dealers was cut in half.

But the end of the antique center is not the end for Gresl, who plans to continue creating sculptures that are assemblages of material culture, jutting with meaning.

His passion for antiques mingled with his passion for creating art, and he has been quietly active in the Milwaukee arts scene for years. “It’s the objects that attracted me to the business,” he says.
“Objects evolve. That’s what intrigues me. The fact that they’re viewed by us [in different ways at different times].”

Gresl taps into narratives of forgotten memory with his sometimes monumental sculptures. He compares their effect to opening an old boathouse after it’s been locked for decades and discovering all the interesting things inside, each item with a story.

Board member of Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, Inc., the Co-founder of the Milwaukee Visual Arts Roundtable and the Founder of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, Gresl would like to find work involving the fine arts after reorganizing his life for a few months.

An art show at Carroll College featuring the art of Gresl and his girlfriend, Janet Roberts, wrapped up at the end of November.

His three-dimensional visual art forces viewers to probe and approach it from different angles to complete their experience. He remembers how one piece displayed at the Rahr-West Museum in Manitowoc appealed to children.“I saw little kids come in, and they went up to it like it was the most fascinating thing they ever saw.”

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