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Expect The Unexpected: Unique Wisconsin Wedding Venues

Megan McCarty Jordan Dechambre

When it comes to wedding venues, Wisconsin has something to suit every taste. From rustic barns to historic warehouses, city-chic museums, majestic theaters and everything in between, the area offers a panoply of options.

“Couples are looking for unique ceremony and reception venues so they can offer an unexpected experience to their guests,” says David Caruso, owner of Dynamic Events in Milwaukee. “These types of venues allow couples to showcase their personalities by using the venue as the perfect complement to their style.”

A Day at the Circus
A good imagination is a terrible thing to waste, which is why Anna Aderton turned to hers to find a unique wedding reception spot.

“One day I was imagining myself driving through the streets of Baraboo, and I came to Circus World Museum,” she says. “It was the perfect venue for incorporating my love of performing, history, art and whimsy.”

She and husband Dan brought that imagination to life when, after their wedding ceremony at Baraboo Emanuel United Methodist Church, the couple was scooped up by Al Ringling’s antique horse-drawn carriage and delivered to their reception at the Circus World Museum, in perfect circus style.

Guests were greeted with Rural Route 1 Popcorn, which Anna’s great-grandfather founded. The reception hall, which typically houses a portion of the museum’s collection of more than 200 antique wagons and vehicles, boasts plenty of natural light, high ceilings and a large antique banner. The couple chose to keep one exquisite antique circus wagon in the room and used it as a space to give speeches.

Artist Liz Schlender designed the space for the reception, which included vintage tablecloths and linens, a candy bar with unique apothecary jars and labels, linen pennants, and paper mustaches and lips on sticks, all adding to the whimsy of the event.

“I love that our guests were able to walk around the entirety of the Circus World Museum, take in the sights, ride the antique carousel and go to the face-painting artist,” says Anna. She also sings the praises of Circus World Museum executive director Steve Freese: “He shows so much love for Circus World and obviously enjoys sharing it with others. He was helpful, informative and a great communicator during their busy summer months. There haven’t been a lot of weddings [there], so Steve offered suggestions and advice that was very welcome.”

A Work of Art
While churches can provide a stunning backdrop for a wedding ceremony, brides and grooms looking to go off the beaten path often opt for one of Wisconsin’s magnificent museums. The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art offer stunning views and chic interiors, but are by no means the only ones. Consider, for example, the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh.

“The Paine Gardens have incredible architecture and beauty—and were pretty unique,” says Shaena Kulinski, who married husband Joe at the historic museum in September 2011. The couple later carried the museum garden’s botanical theme into their reception at the Electric Lounge, where pops of orange and green were peppered throughout the space.

Paine event manager Michelle Rector says the museum’s Ceremony Garden, laid out in four interconnected circles, is specifically designed for outdoor events. A garden arbor serves as the focal point for the ceremony, which can welcome up to 200 guests.

In 2013, a dramatic conservatory will provide year-round event space for wedding ceremonies and receptions. Designed in the style of an English garden conservatory, the striking space will feature a white interior with tall windows and a large skylight.

“The Paine is revered as one of America’s castles,” says Rector. “Spring welcomes more than 9,000 blooming tulips, magnolia trees and wildflowers, and in summer the grounds are alive with annuals, roses and vines. The display gardens are designed to feel like galleries, with changing presentations of color and variety. The historic mansion [offers] period interiors, a gallery with changing art exhibitions and a location for smaller, more intimate events.”

Unique touches are common at weddings at the Paine. “Nods to vintage glamour have been a theme that we’ve enjoyed seeing in the past few years—birdcage veils, vintage-inspired dresses, vintage cars and other touches look particularly fitting at our historic property,” says Rector. Specialized ceremony music has also been popular, from string quartets and harps to bagpipes and steel drum bands. “The variety of live music offerings really has been a nice way for couples to make the day their own.”

The museum itself is well-versed in wedding planning, as Rector and her event staff work with brides and grooms to ensure smooth facilitation of their event needs. “We help direct guests to the event location, work with vendors to ensure proper setup and countless other tasks so the bride, groom and wedding party just need to show up, relax and smile for the big day,” she says.

Life’s a Stage
Amy Johnson, owner of award-winning videography service One Fine Day Productions, has spent nearly a decade shooting weddings. So when it came time for her to say “I do” to her fiancée Pete, she wanted something special that fit both their personalities. 

Enter Trimborn Farm in Greendale and Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee. “Both venues have so much character and charm—I knew once we added our décor, they would be even more beautiful,” she says.

The couple was married in August 2011 at Trimborn Farm, which was sprinkled with plenty of personal touches. “My father made a set of vintage double doors that I could walk through, even though it was an outdoor ceremony,” says Amy. “We also had a vintage truck parked near the entrance of the ceremony, which served as a great prop for photos.”

But the reception at Turner Hall Ballroom is where the couple really brought their artistic vision to life—with a little help from event planner David Caruso of Dynamic Events and Turner Hall Ballroom event coordinator Ann Birkinbine.

Turner Hall was constructed in 1882 and has more than 7,000 square feet of space, including a large ballroom and balcony that can be used for wedding ceremonies, cocktail hours and receptions. “The majority of our weddings consist of 150 to 300 guests; however, we have held dinner events in the ballroom with seating for 400,” says Birkinbine. “One end of the room is flanked by a large stage, perfect for entertainment.”

Amy placed a long head-table in the center of the room, with the guest tables surrounding it—an ideal choice for easy conversation. Near the cake table, the couple displayed Amy’s grandmother’s wedding dress on a vintage dress form, along with a photo of her grandparents on their wedding day. To add to the entertainment factor, an electric violinist serenaded the guests at dinner. And on the ballroom stage, guests found vintage sofas and chandeliers, a dessert bar staffed with two chefs making crepes and a photo booth.  

“My favorite part of the day was the reception—specifically the dinner,” says Amy. “It was so beautiful and the electric violinist really added to the ambiance. We also chose to add uplighting throughout the venue, which highlighted the architectural features of Turner Hall. I felt like I was in a dream.”

And, according to Birkinbine, if you can dream it, Turner Hall can bring it to life: “The great thing about Turner Hall is there is no ‘norm’ for weddings held in the space,” she says. “Each wedding is catered specifically to the couples’ vision.”

Brewing Up Memories
Just one night out for a traditional fish fry at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, and Amanda and Andy Brzakala were hooked.

“From the moment we saw the interior space, we fell in love with it and the way it looked,” says Amanda. “The atmosphere was warm and upbeat.”

The couple heard about the venue from a wedding planner, who suggested the local brewery for its large hall, wonderful staff, reasonable prices and great food.

In October 2011, after a traditional wedding ceremony at Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church, the couple held their laid-back reception at the brewery’s Palm Garden reception space—a perfect match for two lovebirds who grew up in Brew City. “Andy has always had a love and appreciation for various beers, so the five different kinds we chose to serve at the reception really made the night memorable for us and our guests.”

When it came to wedding preparations, the Palm Garden event coordinator made all the difference. “We had concerns; their regular Friday-night fish fry and daily brewery tours left us no availability to set up ahead of time,” says Amanda. “But on the day of the wedding, the staff was efficient and timely. Everything was finished, the centerpieces were perfect and candles were lit by the time guests arrived for cocktail hour.”

The venue boasts an industrial-type beer garden, warmed with Cream City brick and beautiful Tiffany glass light fixtures, says Amanda. Because of this warm ambiance, nearly no decoration was needed.

“We have such a large, open space, and are right on the river,” says Trista Ylonen, assistant banquet manager at The Lakefront Palm Garden. “Even our lighting has a long history, dating back to the former Plankinton Hotel from the World War I era.”

Amanda and Andy wanted to host an event that was “semi-formal but classy.” Their October reception allowed for subtle touches of autumn, with clear glass pumpkin centerpieces and burgundy fall leaves. The couple also hired a bagpipe player for the ceremony recessional and receiving line, while the Lakefront Brewery in-house polka band, the Brewhaus Polka Kings, rocked the cocktail hour. “It was really nice to have them play as our guests came into the hall,” says Amanda, “to set the mood for the kind of environment we wanted to have.”

A Theatrical Interpretation
It’s easy to wax poetic about the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh. Visually stunning and deeply rooted in Wisconsin history, the space is a young couple’s wedding-day dream, just one block from the Fox River. “There is no other building like the Grand Opera House to host a wedding ceremony or reception,” says Jeff Potts, development and community relations manager.

Built in 1883, the Victorian Grand Opera House is the oldest operating theater building in Wisconsin, and is known for its architectural beauty and intimate atmosphere.  

The main theater can hold up to 650 guests, while the second floor Grand Lounge is a full-service hospitality center able to accommodate groups up to 140 people (standing room) or 75 people for a sit-down dinner. Feeling dramatic? Dinner reception options are also available onstage.

“Couples often showcase a video display on the stage’s main screen as the wedding party or guests enter the theater,” says Potts.

With the opulent nature of the theater, it’s no surprise couples have chosen a variety of themes for the venue; a full traditional Native American ceremony and a Hollywood theme complete with searchlights and a red carpet are just two examples of how creative brides and grooms have transformed the theater.

“With full multimedia capabilities, services are limited only by the imagination of the wedding planner in terms of theatrical elements and added touches to make the ceremony memorable,” says Potts.

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