On two overly brief occasions this past year, I visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Even with barely enough time to scratch the surface of this most interesting city, I encountered too many things of visual interest for a single post. Therefore, this post will focus on the urban layout of downtown Milwaukee and then look at some revealing examples of its architecture. A second post will show some of the art I encountered in my walks: both public art and some selections from its museums.
The first thing that struck me is that Milwaukee is very much a river city, even if “river city” is not among its several nicknames.
Three rivers feed into Milwaukee on their descent into Lake Michigan, which forms its eastern border. The smallest of the rivers, the Kinnickinnic, flows north into the Menomonee River, but further south and so not visible on the map (see the 5th illustration below). The Menomonee River, entering Milwaukee from the west, is longer by an order of three and, from early on, powered much of the industry of the Milwaukee River Basin. The Milwaukee River, also a source of power and early trade, flows in from the north; it is longer than the Menomonee, again, by about an order of three.
I took these first three photographs from a single spot while standing on the eastern edge of E. Chicago Street. The first looks due west to where the Menomonee feeds into the Milwaukee; the second looks northwest up the Milwaukee; the third looks due north and best captures the intimate proximity of city to river. I took the fourth photograph later, and, if my bearings are right, it looks east down the Menomonee towards downtown Milwaukee with the Milwaukee River in the distance.
This map shows how the Milwaukee River cuts an irregular path in its southern course through the city. It also shows irregularities or directional breaks in several streets from one bank to the other, as the river divides the city into east and west sections. Main downtown streets, like State Street, Kilbourn Avenue, Wells Street and Wisconsin Avenue don’t connect in a straight line as they cross the river. This is because Milwaukee was settled in the early 19th century by separate groups, two of which in particular competed for control. The east side (Juneautown) was founded by Solomon Juneau in 1818; the west side (Kilbourntown) was founded by Byron Kilbourn in 1834. Neither could agree as to how and where bridges would be built to connect the towns until after a so-called mid-19th-century Bridge War was settled.
These resulting street irregularities left Milwaukee with an unusually picturesque riverfront that has only been enhanced in the past century as the downtown population grew and river-hugging industry moved further out. The older industrial waterfront made way to newer commercial buildings, apartments, and pedestrian-friendly riverwalks on either bank of the Milwaukee River, followed soon after by an expansion of leisure activities on the river itself.
The opening up of the downtown waterfront to pedestrians, and the water to such recreational activities as canoeing, paddle-boarding and kayaking (as seen in the above photograph), had to wait, however, until the later 20th-century. The Milwaukee River, described by a visitor in 1881 as a “currentless and yellowish murky stream with…an odor combined of effluvia of a hundred sewers,” continued to be stagnant, discolored and polluted into the 1960s.
But a Water Pollution Abatement Project (begun in 1979) and a Deep Tunnel system built to hold millions of gallons of water until it could be treated (opened in 1993) would transform Milwaukee into a “global leader in managing water.”
My next blog post will return to this waterfront to show two particularly interesting and unusual visual enhancements on the Riverwalk as well as some examples of public art and museum displays. As I earlier stated, this post concentrates on the architecture that gives Milwaukee its special character.
Downtown: West Side
These two photographs of downtown Milwaukee, taken from both banks of the river, reveal some of those irregularities that resulted from the separate settlements of the earlier nineteenth-century. In the upper photograph, as we cross the Wells Street bridge and look west into Kilbourntown, we note how the main façade of the Germania Building (1896 by Herman Schnetzky) angles off to our right rather than greeting us head-on.
In the lower photograph, as we look east across the river into Juneautown, we note the prominence of the edges of these buildings, not their flat, frontal elevations. We also note that these buildings are larger and more densely packed, offering a more “urban” composition of larger-scaled buildings, and giving evidence that most of the major office buildings are to be found on the east side of downtown Milwaukee.
These two photographs, in contrast, show that many–but not all–of the buildings of Kilbourntown are of a more modest scale.
One exception to that change of scale on the west side is seen on West Wisconsin Avenue, which, along with East Wisconsin Avenue, became the heart of the city in the twentieth-century. Wisconsin Avenue, east and west, served as a retail center, an entertainment center, and the gathering place for such public celebrations as the end of WWII and the 1957 World series win by the Milwaukee Braves.
A century earlier, however, West Wisconsin Avenue had been a wild rice marsh and part of a Powatomi village. Kilbourntown would name it Spring Street in 1835. Then, in 1876, it was renamed Grand Avenue. Only in 1926 did it become West Wisconsin Avenue, joining what had always been Wisconsin Street in Juneautown on the east.
These two photographs, looking west to the Warner Theater marquee and east to the Riverside Theater marquee, also capture a fading glory of the Avenue; at one time, West Wisconsin Avenue would have been lit up at night by not only those large vertical signs of the Warner and the Riverside, but also by the signs of six other theaters, now gone. The Warner, by the way, is no longer the movie palace designed in 1931 by Rapp and Rapp; it now is the home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Downtown: East Side
We pass back into downtown Milwaukee’s east side via Wells Street, where the camera lens stacks three significant buildings, cheek-by-jowl. Closest is the Wells Power Plant (Oneida Street Station), which once generated electricity for a streetcar system but now houses two theater companies [architect Herman Esser, 1898-1900]. Next is the Pabst Theater, the “Grande Olde Lady” of the city’s theaters [architect Otto Strack, 1894-1895]. Towering above these in the background is the Milwaukee City Hall [architect Henry C. Koch, 1895].
Milwaukee City Hall was built on ground that had served as the central market square of Juneautown and, with its 354-foot high tower rising over its arched entrance, it would become the symbol of the city for a century. Indeed, Milwaukee boasts that it was the “tallest inhabited building in the world” for its first four years. I’m not sure which building took over that title in 1899, but by 1901 another City Hall–Philadelphia’s–made that issue moot with its 548-foot high tower.
What comes clear with City Hall and so many other buildings in downtown Milwaukee is the importance placed on elegant and expressive architectural design by those who commissioned its major buildings. Also clear is how beneficial it was to be located so close to Chicago, America’s center for new architectural design. It’s hard not to see Koch’s tower in terms of Louis Sullivan’s famous article of 1896 [Lippincott’s Magazine] in which he demanded that a tall office building be “lofty….every inch of it tall….every inch a proud and soaring thing.”
Whether the round arches of Romanesque Revival architecture and the Flemish gables eight stories above on City Hall, or the Greek Revival Ionic and Corinthian columns seen here on the Gimbels and Northwestern Life buildings, elegance and expressive power dominate. There is nothing reticent about the buildings of downtown Milwaukee. They are confident; they are bold. They also are the products–in these two cases–of Chicago architects: Daniel Burnham and Holabird & Root.
Besides the generous scale of these downtown buildings, I also was struck by the large scale of their main entrances: those heavy, round arches of City Hall, the Gigantic (Ionic) Order of the back end of the Gimbels Building, the complex entablature supported on doubled columns of the Chamber of Commerce.
These large-scaled entrances not only characterize the late nineteenth century buildings of downtown Milwaukee but carry into the next century, as exemplified by the Postmodern Faison Building of 1987.
Two Hotels and Other Downtown Architecture
Only in 2011 did the Loyalty Building become a Hilton hotel. It began as the insurance headquarters of Northwestern Mutual and continued to function as an office building for over a century. Solon Spencer Beman, another Chicago architect, gave it an elegance–inside and out–suitable even for what would later become a high-end hotel.
In contrast, the Pfister Hotel began as a hotel for businessman Guido Pfister and boasted electricity throughout the building as well as individual thermostatic controls in every room. The first workable incandescent bulbs used to light a building date from ca. 1879-1881 England. In America, Thomas Edison designed several successful lightbulb filaments by 1880, but the lighting of buildings only expanded rapidly in 1893 when Edison’t lamp patent expired. The most spectacular display of electric lighting in this year was not the Pfister Hotel (of course) but that of the entire Chicago World’s Fair of that year, thanks to Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse.
The fact that the Pfister still operates as a hotel is quite amazing. Even more so is that it owns a large collection of Victorian art, consisting of ca. 70 paintings, some sculptures (those Pikemen) as well as contemporary art from an artist-in-residence program.
Spoiler alert: I stayed in two, different hotels, also conveniently located and quite nice. Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward have quite a few fine hotels, though not of the same level of historical architectural interest as the Pfister and the Hilton Garden Inn.
Another spoiler alert: Milwaukee’s buildings (and elsewhere, such as Chicago’s) are build on wooden pilings that will last centuries as long as they stay wet. But, through the excessive draining of water tables (the most likely culprit), those piles dry and are subjected to pile rot. In the words of local writer, Michael Horne, “downtown Milwaukee is sinking.” This is a problem that not only affects the architecture of certain cities. It is a problem that affects the globe on which we live. As the Washington Post and many other sources have recently noted, “humans have used enough ground water to shift Earth’s tilt.”
Of the many breweries for which Milwaukee was known, the Blatz Brewery covered over three blocks of the north edge of downtown. By 1875, Blatz bottled and shipped its beer nationally; it won the top prize at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition; it was the only beer on tap at the German restaurants of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893; and it even produced a “near beer” in 1917 called Brewette Temperance Beer, but Prohibition began to take its toll. Blatz was purchased by Pabst in 1959 and closed the following year.
Blatz’s remaining buildings have now been converted to studio space, office space, academic buildings and condominiums. The light-colored brick seen in the above photograph is made from local Menomonee River Valley clay. Its high levels of lime and sulfur turn a cream-yellow on firing and give Milwaukee one of its nicknames: Cream City.
This Romanesque Revival house is located at 1120 North Broadway, directly across the street from the Stock House, pictured above. It housed the offices of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company; now it serves as the Alumni Partnership center of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Had I more time to venture farther west from city center, I would have liked to see two other residential scale buildings. One, the Pabst Mansion of 1892, a grand three-story residence of Flemish Renaissance design. The other, a set six small modern homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for working people in 1915, known today as the Burnham Block.
Also on North Broadway, not far from the Blatz Brewery Office are these two handsome buildings which share one entrance: Gymnasium on the left and Classrooms on the right. Offering classes through twelfth-grade, this provided Milwaukee’s German citizens with a system of education known as Turnverein (or Turners) that included an emphasis on gymnastics.
These two ornate late nineteenth century buildings on East Michigan Street share that sense of scale, and with it, that confidence which characterizes the downtown architecture of Milwaukee’s east. However, their overly ornate eclecticism detracts somewhat from the elegance of their neighbors which were designed by Chicago architects. Both these buildings were built for the same patron, Alexander Mitchell, by the local architect, E. Townsend Mix.
The Mitchell Building began as an office building for Mitchell’s Insurance Company and Bank. One might argue that its style is Second Empire French, because of its Mansard roof dormers seen on the west side and that convex Mansard roof capping the main entry tower on the north side. But it boasts so much more: triangular, segmental and broken pediments; banded columns and pilasters; caryatid figures; ashlar and rusticated stonework–a stonemason’s wet dream!
The same flamboyant design sensibility can be seen in the Mackie Building, in which granite, limestone and sandstone trim enable a myriad of eclectic architectural details, in particular on its central entrance tower. Although it no longer serves as the Chamber of Commerce, its three-story grain exchange trading room, seen directly above, survives from when Milwaukee was the world’s largest wheat trading market. It operated as a grain exchange from 1880-1935.
Directly west of City Hall is the Pabst Theater, described as the fourth-oldest continuously operating theater in the United States. Its eclecticism reveals a simpler mix of Gothic Revival pointed arches running across the left and central bays, while Classical Revival pilasters and a triangular pediment define the closer, right bay.
Possibly among the most elegant nineteenth-century designs in downtown belongs to this five-story, pre-fabricated building. It is called the Iron Block because its exterior frame of corner pilasters, engaged columns, and simple cornice with central pediment consists of iron panels cast in New York City and shipped to Milwaukee by boat. The architect, George H. Johnson, was the chief designer for Daniel D. Badger’s Architectural Iron Works in New York. James B. Martin had it built and it originally accommodated a bank along with several stores and offices.
Another bit of Classical elegance with its engaged Ionic columns started as a bank–the Second Ward Savings Bank–and now serves the local Historical Society.
These two buildings are located at the edges of downtown’s East Side: the Oneida Street Station right at the edge of the Milwaukee River; the Button Block at the South edge, just before one enters into the Third Ward. One industrial, the other commercial, both adhere to the eclecticism of their time, albeit simplified and reduced, as if they represented the waning ripples of the bolder designs emanating from the downtown center.
These five Romanesque arches–defining the central entrance loggia for what began as a complex Courthouse, Post Office and Federal Office Building–are, in my estimation, one of the more beautiful examples of late-nineteenth-century urban design. In the manner of H. H. Richardson (with a little Louis Sullivan thrown in), the properly-studied proportions of the various historical styles have here yielded to inventions such as these stubby, tripled columns and the nature-inspired, organic, design of the spandrel reliefs.
The Quadracci Pavilion
Were we to follow West Wisconsin Avenue east from Kilbourntown (where we saw the marquees of the Warner and Riverside Theaters), cross the river into Juneautown, and then continue east towards Lake Michigan, we would arrive here: a pedestrian bridge that guides us into what seems a piece of abstract sculpture rather than architecture. Welcome to the Quadracci Pavilion.
The Quadracci Pavilion, designed by the Spanish architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava, is essentially a vast, glass-enclosed reception hall. The hall is crowned by an enormous, movable Brise-Soleil. It features two, large wings, each consisting of 36 tubular steel fins. Supporting the fins are two spines which rotate to open or close the wings.
The wings open daily, but can automatically close (in under four minutes) when winds exceed 23 mph. They represent Calatrava’s response to the city’s request for a strong architectural statement in an exciting, yet functional building.
Our eastern journey culminates as we mount the steps to what can either be called the stage or the chancel of Windhover Hall. From here, we look out upon Lake Michigan. Here we see only the base of its ninety-foot-high glass roof, shaped like the prow of a ship. Its viewing windows just below invite us to engage the Lake directly. Santiago Calatrava describes his design as responding to “the culture of the lake: the sailboats, the weather, the sense of motion and change.”
A view like this might also bring back such literary memories as Alphonse de Neuville’s 1870 engraving of Captain Nemo’s observation window from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Standing here, it would take very little for us to imagine being in some sort of mythical ocean vessel.
These two gallerias lead to the earlier museum building in which the permanent collection is displayed. They also flank a space dedicated to changing exhibitions as well as the museum store. Their design continues the nautical, boat-like imagery of Windhover Hall, suggesting the structural arches (albeit upside-down) of the interior hull of a boat. I would imagine that those pin joints, where each rib meets the side wall, enable the structure to adjust for any irregular wind- or snow-loading.
The Historic Third Ward
This is a remnant of what once was a Saloon and Boarding House owned by the Pabst Brewing Company. It can symbolize this area, just south of Juneautown’s downtown, an area that housed a changing ethnic population (first Irish, then Italian) and served as a center for factories and warehouses. Beer and Milwaukee are nearly synonymous to many, and although the more than thirty Milwaukee breweries that emerged by the mid-nineteenth-century were mostly located north of downtown, the very first brewery was an 1840 Third Ward establishment–the Milwaukee Brewery (Lake Brewery).
After an 1892 fire destroyed sixteen blocks and over 440 buildings in the Third Ward, architects rolled up their sleeves and designed its new commercial structures over the following three decades. This gave the Third Ward a more unified design look. The National Register of Historic Places recognized this by creating The Historic Third Ward District in 1984, which it called Milwaukee’s “oldest center of commerce and warehousing.” This was followed by new investment in residential units, contributing to what has become an inordinately lively neighborhood of restaurants, hotels, art galleries, local businesses, office buildings, and specialty stores.
A simple elegance characterizes most of these later-nineteenth to early-twentieth century buildings in the Third Ward. This building, in particular, stands out because of its compositional similarity to one of the great Chicago commercial buildings of the period, H. H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store of 1885.
Wellauer & Hoffman Co. were a wholesale grocery and coffee roasting firm established in 1876. As of the late-twentieth century, it and its neighbors were turned into luxury apartments and condominiums.
A little more complex in composition, but still adhering to and respecting the flatness of the urban block, the Cawker Estate Building first served as the home for the Landauer Company, a dry goods wholesaler.
Another building with resemblances to H. H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store is the Goll & Frank Company, renamed the Renaissance Building in 2003. Originally designed for a wholesale dry goods and notions firm, it now serves several graphic and interior design firms, photographers, and other service businesses.
This simplified Gothic Revival design, evident mainly in the pointed arches that define its windows, is one building to survive the 1892 conflagration and one of the oldest buildings in the Third Ward. Note, also, that it is made of Cream City Brick. Jewett & Sherman were producers and sellers of coffee and spices.
Sculptural embellishments on the Baumbach Building and the Friend & Marks Co. Building appear to me as more evidence of the influence of Chicago architecture, in this case the ornamental flourishes to be found in the buildings of Louis Sullivan.
I conclude my look at the architecture of Milwaukee with the Milwaukee Public Market, because it functions as a major urban hub. Situated at the north-west edge of the Third Ward (bounded by Water Street, I-794, Broadway and East St. Paul Street), the Market serves as a gathering place for the residents of the Ward, of Juneautown and of Kilbourntown. Although small in scale, it has quickly become the third largest visitor destination in Milwaukee behind the Milwaukee Brewers and the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.