Milwaukee’s Architectural Beauty

From a Milwaukee Sentinel article on May 29, 1921:


Builders Have Demonstrated That Practicability Is no Bar to Aesthetics.

By Ruth Robert.

As a man is known by the company he keeps so is a city judged by the architecture of its public buildings. No one thing in the makeup of a community goes so far in determining whether it shall be listed among the beautiful places of the world or condemned as a dumping ground of smoke stacks and brick walls.

Architecture, it has been said, is the “mother of the arts.” If that is so then Milwaukee can justly be named one of her offspring — a City Beautiful — for here may be found scores of examples of good architecture which have earned fame, for the city and the architects who created them.

Milwaukee architects have not confined themselves to beaten paths. Examples of classical works vie with Gothic spires and early English, while noteworthy structures in Italian and French Renaissance and strictly modern ideas abound.

Architecture has not yet become a subject of popular interest, nevertheless, it offers itself as a fascinating pursuit not only to the professional but to the layman. Much might be found in the buildings of this city which would be of more than passing interest to the general public if they could readily discriminate between examples which architecturally are correct and those others which are, to say the least, commonplace. Unfortunately, however, in the study of architecture by the layman, the range of interest usually is limited and a truly critical faculty checked by either a lack of appreciation for the beautiful or the absence of a proper education.

Following the development of architecture through the years, one will detect a new element grafted on to the old, a new treatment or combination of old forms and styles dependent on the needs and fancies of the ever changing period. It is not the intention here to wander off into a history of architecture, but to introduce properly the reason for selecting a few of the many examples of good architecture in Milwaukee.

One of the most familiar buildings is the public library and museum to which Milwaukee may well point with pride. The design is Italian Renaissance, the Corinthian order being used. A noteworthy feature of the design is the perfectly balanced treatment of the front and the emphasis given to the main entrance by means of the free standing columns above with the second story walls recessed in the form of a loggia. There is a feeling of solidity in the rusticated first story which provided support for the lighter appearing superstructure, exemplifying the greatest element of architecture – Truth. An examination of the enrichment, details, etc., will reveal the architect’s painstaking study of the ornamentation. The Dome has been kept low in order to harmonize with the whole design of the front where the horizontal effect appears to dominate.

The Northwestern National Fire Insurance company’s building on the corner of Jackson and Wisconsin streets is one of the best examples of modern French Renaissance in the city. The design is reminiscent of that used for the Grand Palais of the Exposition Universelle, Paris. The arrangement of the columns in pairs is successful and mention might be made of the beautiful iron railings in front of the first story windows. Clean cut mouldings with heavy shadow lines add to the boldness of the design.

The Marshall & Ilsley bank, on East Water street, is a truthful adaptation of the Grecian Ionic style, employing much of the order of the Erechtheion at Athens. The large scale and the severity of the front seems to bespeak dignity, while the refinement of Grecian details is to be seen in the delicacy of the mouldings.

The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance building is an imposing classical design based on the Corinthian order, the scale of the order demanding an individual setting such as this building possesses. It would seem many architects agree that the corner pilasters should have been doubled or that the facades would be improved by heavier treatment of the corners. Apart from this and the somewhat ponderous attic portion above the main cornice, the design is excellent. Note may be made of the green terra cotta panels used on the front emphasizing the colonnade.

St. John’s cathedral, one of the older churches in the city, in character of design is expressive of the purpose for which the building is intended. The tower, rebuilt many years after the main body of the church, has been made the predominating feature of the entire design. The tower may be considered one of the real gems of architecture in the city. The beautiful outline and proportion and the delicate and refined motive employed in its design stamp it as a lasting example of the best in Renaissance architecture. The feeling is Italian with a semblance of some of the methods used by Wren in his London city churches. It suggests a Romanesque influence.

St. James’ church, Grand avenue, also of the old school, is of early English Gothic design, well proportioned with a well detailed main entrance. There is charm in the general outline of the front, and the tower is capped with a well bundled Broach spire.

Church of the Redeemer, Nineteenth street and Grand avenue, is one of the newer churches in the city. Though the building may appear severe to the layman, it shows what may be accomplished in the judicial use of comparatively inexpensive materials, the whole design depends entirely upon the correct disposition of simple masses and the use of plain surfaces devoid of unnecessary ornament. Vertical lines predominate, and the facade builds up gradually to a high peaked gable. The great arch of the front window, limited by buttress-like pylons, still further emphasizes the vertical lines of the front. The architect relied entirely on quiet dignity and simplicity rather than the overdressed ornamental design which many architects seem to imagine is synonymous with good church architecture.

The residence of Archbishop Messmer, 2000 Grand avenue, one of the older residences, is a fine example of German Renaissance (Hanseatic school). The front is well balanced, with fanciful gables providing an interesting outline. The main porch is beautifully detailed, elaborated consistently with this style. The private chapel to the east, though of a slightly different feeling, is good, excellent in detail and cleverly designed.

The Grant Fitch residence, 55 Prospect avenue, is one of the best domestic examples of colonial architecture to be seen here. It has an aura of aristocratic dignity, a very well proportioned portico and expresses a sympathetic handling of refined details.

The Gallun residence, 108 Prospect avenue, is a good example of English domestic architecture of the Tudor period. The plan of the house permits of an interesting arrangement of the elevation. The beautiful colors of the stonework and the ruggedness of the graded slate roof adds to the charm of its appearance. Leaded glass set in metal casements further enhances the English feeling of the design. It seems that a house of this magnitude would show off to better advantage on a larger piece of property than that on which it stands.

The University club has a good colonial facade except for the fact that the unfortunate location of the entrance destroys an otherwise pleasing, symmetrical and well balanced arrangement. Ionic columns have been used for the entrance which in itself is quite good, spoiled only by its location to one side of the main axis. Interest is added to the front by the balcony at the second story level.

In closing, a word might be said of the Gargoyle restaurant as it appeared before its present remodeling. It was then a beautiful example of the use of English domestic architecture as applied to small commercial buildings.

Though small, it attracted the eye because of its unique design, charming and quaint with such features as its grotesques, and exceptionally good oriel bay window. Its irregular treatment served only to emphasize the picturesque quality.

Monday Bergh Statue

Today due to time constraints we will have a Monday without a mystery! Instead here is a view of City Hall back when the Bergh statue stood in front. Enjoy!

Monday Milwaukee Mystery

Start your week off right by trying to guess which building the gargoyle sits atop. The clues for this little guy is a church right on the edge of downtown. Other clues can be found in the picture if you are a good detective!

Piecing Together The Past

Last year I was browsing the Library of Congress website doing research on some of their photographic collections of Milwaukee material. I was already familiar with the work of John Vachon, a Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer who had spent some time in Milwaukee in September 1939 and was browsing his work. Some of the catalogued pictures had no descriptions but obviously were from the same date as other pictures from Milwaukee. This one in particular intrigued me because it was a Milwaukee-style building but I did not recognize it at all.

It stayed in the back of mind for months but it was a building that was long lost or from somewhere else. Today while looking through some images I have scanned from other sources I came across this picture and recognized it almost immediately. It was the mystery building right in the heart of downtown! I still have yet to piece together the history of the lost building but now I have an address which is a start.

Sometime in the 1960s it was torn down to make way for this nondescript parking structure.


Should Aldermen Be Paid? – 1882

Interesting thoughts on pay for aldermen, from the Daily Republican-Sentinel of December 19, 1882. I wonder how this discussion would go today.

Dennis Pajot

The Council went into committee of the whole, with Ald. Dixon in the chair, to consider the question of salaries for aldermen, to take effect January 1.

Ald. Dodge moved to refer the whole matter to a special committee of five, who would present it to the Legislature to have the compensation fixed as thought best, not to exceed $500. Ald. Barth moved to make the remuneration $1000 per annum, $500 not being enough for good men. Ald. Stemper said he drew up the bill to secure salaries with the best intentions in the world. The members of the Council get no thanks for anything, but were always ridiculed and blamed. Ald. Stirn favored the passage of the bill to take effect in the year 2000. Ald. Hinsey said the offices were accepted with the knowledge that there was no recompense, and it was belittling the position to go to voting salaries. It did not agree with the aid to reduce taxes. Ald. Wood thought the aldermen were abused for everything, and should be paid, yet he could hardly vote for it. Ald. Barth referred to the modesty of the Council in not wishing to vote themselves pay, and moved no present member receive emolument, but in future $1,000 per annum be paid. Ald. Chase said to take such a step would lower the standing of the Council, as it would be filled, if there was a salary attached, by men with no other wish than to get the money. Ald. Stemper said he did not know when he was elected how much work there was attached, or he would not have accepted. The gentleman spoke at some length very warmly in support of his bill, jingling the change in his pockets meanwhile, as though it was the fat “roll” of a year’s wages at his figure. Ald. Stirn said if the aldermen were paid, the school commissioners should be, and wanted to know if that was done, where for God’s sake would the city go to? Ald Swan said Ald. Chase had hit the nail on the head. If aldermen became salaried officers caucuses would be packed, and elections would be made to carry out schemes. Ald. Fritz put it that his time was worth money, and he wanted pay for his services. Ald. Knoernschild said he had worked all he cared to for glory, and he wanted money. He would recommend, however, that the first year of service there be no compensation, but for the next two of the term of office there be paid $1000. The committee adjourned to report progress.

Ald. Dodge

Monday Milwaukee Mystery

Today’s mystery takes us back downtown to a well known landmark building. “Historic”, you might say. The small cherub is a common theme in the Monday Mystery series and on Milwaukee buildings but this one is a little different than most we have had in the past. Who can be the first to guess where this guy is?

Monday Milwaukee Mystery

I am almost at that point where I have exhausted the interesting faces on downtown buildings so it is time to start moving to other areas of the city. Hopefully some of you may be able to more easily identify these buildings!

This near south-side building in the Fifth ward was built in 1899 as the picture shows with this fancy stone scrollwork above the entrance. This design does not have a face but it is distinctive enough that some of you may have noticed it. This is on a major thoroughfare and an extra clue will be the last few symbols in this paragraph. Where is this building located ??????

Monday Milwaukee Mystery

Today’s mystery figure/face is on a well known east side building (not east side of downtown). This picture depicts a coal miner which had significance for the original owner of the building. Who can be the first to guess the building and where it is located??

Monday Milwaukee Mystery

The stag head shown below sits above the entrance to a popular East Town restaurant. Who will be the first to guess where this mystery face is located?

Milwaukee’s Lake Front Airport

Next time you travel over the Hoan Bridge, look around and imagine what might have been if some ideas had been carried through about 80 years ago. This editorial is from the Milwaukee Journal of August 27, 1930. Remember, Maitland field was about where the summerfest grounds are now, and of course, the Illinois Steel Co. site was south of this.

“A.R. Taliaferro, chief of the airport division of the United States department of commerce, tells Milwaukeeans something about Maitland field. It is too small, he says, for general airport use; it probably is not the proper field ultimately to be a main airport and certainly not the proper field to be a joint water-rail-air terminal. Mr. Taliaferro makes no final declaration. His considered opinion will be submitted later. But these seem to be his impressions.

They are in line with what some others have said, with what many Milwaukeeans have thought. Probably the right place for a lake front airport is on the Illinois Street Co. site and on new land that can be made there.

This site also is wanted by the harbor commission. That commission cannot show immediate need for the big tract of land. In fact, it is doubtful whether the purchase of the area would be justified merely for harbor purposes. What the harbor will become—how much shipping will make use of it—remains to be seen.

However, if both ships and airplanes can use this site, and if rail terminals upon it also can be arranged, then the purchase decidedly is worth considering.

Milwaukee should have a lake front terminal airport. It should use Maitland field temporarily; perhaps it will always be of use as a lakefront landing place. But we should not allow any group of enthusiasts to induce the expenditure of much money on that field or gradually to edge in permanent improvements that never will be adequate for real terminal purposes in any event.

Maitland field presents more than the problem of size. The question is whether Milwaukee wants to develop another transportation terminal dangerously near that part of its lake short already dedicated to recreational use, especially by those who cannot afford cottages on inland lakes; or whether the water-rail-air terminal should be developed on another part of the shore, better formed, or larger landing area, more suitable and nearly as convenient to the downtown district.

Maitland field should be used in the meantime, of course; but it should not be developed on any large scale when something better is in prospect—at least not unless the purchase of the Illinois Steel Co. site is found to be impracticable”.

MPL Photo of Maitland Field

MPL Photo of Maitland Field

Dennis Pajot