German-ethnic Milwaukeeans of the late nineteenth century liked to think of their city as the “Deutsch Athens,” a vibrant and sophisticated capital of German American culture. Few people did more to make the reputation a reality than beer baron Captain Frederick Pabst. In 1890 Pabst bought the old Nunnemacher opera house, across from City Hall, and made it a leading performance house for German-language drama and music. When it burned in 1895, Pabst had Pabst Brewing Company architect Strack design its replacement. Grandly proportioned, luxuriously ornamented, boasting top-notch stage facilities, excellent acoustics, and the latest in fireproof technology, Pabst’s theater opened in November that same year. Dedication ceremonies included a march composed for the occasion and the American debut of a German-language comedy, imported from the Berlin theater circuit. The Pabst is one of the few survivors from the golden age of German-language theater in America, and it is Milwaukee’s sole surviving nineteenth-century opera house. Its orange brick, terra-cotta ornament, and decorative ironwork are among the theater’s finest embellishments. They include a decorative cast-iron bust of a woman in the balcony, Pabst monograms, and gilded urns and lyres crowning the parapet.
Inside, a magnificent neo-Baroque concert hall is renowned for its perfect acoustics. A monumental proscenium arch is encrusted with a gilded plasterwork arch and a grille overlaid with intertwined grapevines, griffins, and oak leaf clusters. Extensive restoration work in 1976 included re-creation of its east elevation, followed by a lobby addition in 1989.