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Brick by brick
Noted Milwaukee architects shaped the city we call home


November 23, 2008

Milwaukee City Hall

We may work in them, play in them, worship in them and, if we’re lucky, maybe even live in them. But who designed the signature structures that give Milwaukee its architectural identity?

Robert Greenstreet, dean of the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning and the city’s director of planning and design; H. Russell Zimmermann, author and architectural historian; and John Gurda, author and local history scholar, share the back story on the brains behind the brick and mortar:

Henry C. Koch (1841-1910)
Flemish Renaissance, Romanesque, Neoclassical
Milwaukee City Hall, 1895, 200 E. Wells St.

Even as it undergoes a $70 million renovation, Milwaukee City Hall stands as a towering icon of the city itself. Greenstreet, Gurda and Zimmermann are unanimous: It is the most important structure in Milwaukee.

"It’s one of those spectacular buildings where the architect was given a terrible site," Greenstreet says, but Henry C. Koch turned a triangular sliver of swamp into an architectural triumph.

Born in Germany, Koch came to Milwaukee with his family as a child. His works are among the city’s most revered downtown landmarks, from the majestic Gesu Church on the Marquette University campus to Turner Hall. City Hall is his masterpiece.

Zimmermann says there are other Flemish Renaissance and Neoclassical buildings around the world, "but nothing compares to Milwaukee City Hall for uniqueness."

"It’s such a powerful, appropriate image for government," Greenstreet says, "solid, rooted in the ground." And, he adds, it features the best atrium in the city.

Gurda says Koch’s City Hall is a "deep bow" to Milwaukee’s predominant ethnic group at the turn of the 19th century, the Germans. Although the architecture is described as Flemish, he notes, it is actually German.

"If we had a nuclear holocaust and we had to save one building, that would be the one," Zimmermann says. "It’s an eyeball-popper."

Other notable buildings by Koch: Calvary Presbyterian Church, 935 W. Wisconsin Ave., 1870; Turner Hall, 1034 N. 4th St., 1883; The Pfister hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., 1893; Roman Catholic Church of the Gesu, 145 W. Wisconsin Ave., 1893; and Wells Building, 324 E. Wisconsin Ave., 1901.

Basilica of St. Josaphat

Erhard Brielmaier (1841-1917) 
Basilica of St. Josaphat, 1901 601 W. Lincoln Ave.

The largest church in the city, and a "monumental expression of how much the church meant to parishioners," says Gurda, was built with the pennies and labor of Milwaukee’s South Side Polish immigrants.

With its grand copper dome presiding over a neighborhood of modest Polish flats, the Basilica of St. Josaphat was designed by one of the most prominent church architects of his time, German immigrant Erhard Brielmaier.

All did not go according to Brielmaier’s original plan. The legend, Gurda says, is that the Rev. Wilhelm Grutza, who commissioned Brielmaier for the project, went to Chicago looking for a bargain on bricks. When he learned that Chicago’s Federal Building was being razed, he bought 200,000 tons of stone and other materials from that structure for the new church.

"A brick and terra cotta building became a stone building," Gurda says. "Brielmaier was a master of working with materials at hand."

A brass U.S. Treasury seal, identical to the seal on the dollar bill, is on the doorknob to the church, Gurda says, a clue to its recycled origins.

"I can’t imagine, first of all, the nerve of Father Grutza to propose this thing," Zimmermann says. "And the mind-bending problem of 40 trainloads (of materials). What a nightmare, but they did it. And it turned out to be one of the most spectacular buildings in the city."

Other notable buildings by Brielmaier: Calvary Cemetery Chapel, North 55th Street and West Blue Mound Road, 1899, and St. George Syrian Catholic Church, 1617 W. State St., 1917

Alexander Mitchell Mansion

Edward Townsend Mix (1831-1890) French Second Empire
Alexander Mitchell Mansion (Wisconsin Club), 1873 900 W. Wisconsin Ave.

An alliance between one of Milwaukee’s most prominent businessmen, Alexander Mitchell, and architect Edward Townsend Mix, produced some of the city’s most admired landmarks.

Mitchell’s grand home on 9th and Wisconsin, now known as the Wisconsin Club, started out as modest brick residence in 1848. But after Mitchell built his fortune in banking, the Milwaukee Road railroad and insurance, he commissioned Mix to transform the home into an elegant, European-inspired mansion, complete with an impressive ballroom and distinctive gazebo.

The aesthetic partnership continued in 1876 with the Mitchell Building, still a striking monument to Mitchell’s wealth with its gilded griffons guarding the entrance, elaborate stone carvings of figures and cherubs and Mitchell’s name inscribed over the door.

Mix, born in New Haven, Conn., came to Milwaukee after studying architecture in New York and practicing in Chicago. He is known for designing public buildings that feature ornate embellishment, but he built many churches and private homes as well. He served as state architect for Wisconsin from 1864 to 1867.

Other notable buildings by Mix: Matthew Keenan Townhouse, 777 N. Jefferson St., 1860; All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, 800 E. Juneau Ave., 1867; National Soldier’s Home at Wood, 1869; Robert Patrick Fitzgerald House, 1119 N. Marshall St., 1875; Mitchell Building, 207 E. Michigan St., 1876; Grain Exchange Building (Mackie Building), 225 E. Michigan St., 1879; and Milwaukee Athletic Club, 706 N. Jefferson St., 1883.

Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion

Ferry & Clas

George Bowman Ferry
(1851-1918) Flemish Renaissance Revival, Beaux Arts, Gothic
Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion, 18922000 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Reflecting the opulent tastes of one of Milwaukee’s most famous beer barons, George Bowman Ferry designed a 37-room mansion for Capt. Frederick Pabst and his wife, Maria, which was considered the "jewel" in a string of imposing homes on the city’s most prestigious avenue during its heyday. The mansion’s domed conservatory, designed by Ferry in the Beaux Arts style, was originally a showcase for Pabst products at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ferry moved to Milwaukee in 1881 and became senior partner in the firm Ferry & Clas, joining forces with Alfred Charles Clas.

Although the Pabst Mansion is one of the firm’s most recognizable accomplishments, Zimmermann is more impressed with the Ferry & Clas 1906 design for the home of Gustav G. Pabst, eldest son of the captain, at 2230 N. Terrace Ave. That mansion, with its four-columned entrance, limestone façade and bronze grille work, "is a magnificent house," Zimmermann says.

But Ferry’s crowning achievement, Zimmermann says, is the St. John the Evangelist Cathedral tower, 802 N. Jackson St. The tower was built in 1892 to replace a wooden "onion" dome that once topped the cathedral’s clock, he notes, but was destroyed by a fire. Not only is Ferry’s tower beautiful to everyone in the community, Zimmermann says, it also earned praise from Gothicist Ralph Adams Cram — an Eastern establishment architect who designed churches throughout the country. Cram described Ferry’s work on the cathedral as the finest church tower west of the Adirondacks.

Other notable buildings by Ferry & Clas: Woman’s Club of Wisconsin Clubhouse, 813 E. Kilbourn Ave., 1887; First Unitarian Church, 1009 E. Ogden Ave., 1892; Milwaukee Central Public Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave., 1897; Northern Trust Bank, 526 E. Wisconsin Ave, 1906; Cudahy Tower, 925 E. Wells St., 1909; and Milwaukee Theater (Auditorium), 500 W. Kilbourn Ave., 1909.

Wisconsin Gas Co. building

Eschweiler & Eschweiler
Alexander Chadbourne

English Renaissance, Exotic, Art Deco, Moderne
Wisconsin Gas Co. Building, 1930 626 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Eschweiler & Eschweiler, a three-generation architectural firm, produced one of the state’s most prominent examples of the classic Art Deco style, the Wisconsin Gas Co. building. Zimmermann says the 1930 structure is one of the two best remaining Eschweiler designs, and notes that the building’s famous "flame," which uses color to predict changes in the weather, was added later.

Zimmermann points to the Milwaukee Downer College buildings on the UW-Milwaukee campus as another Eschweiler classic. The three red pressed-brick buildings on the corner of East Hartford and North Downer avenues date to 1905 and were built by the firm’s founder, Alexander Chadbourne Eschweiler.

Alexander Eschweiler is also credited with designing the exotic pagoda gas stations for the Wadham Oil Co. The tiny stations, which once numbered about 100, feature a red stamped metal roof in the shape of an Asian pagoda. They were a marketing device for the company, evoking the romance and adventure of auto travel in the early 20th century. A restored station stands at the corner of South 76th Street and West National Avenue in West Allis and another, now a jewelry store, at N60 W5050 Portland Road in Cedarburg.

Other notable buildings by Eschweiler & Eschweiler: James K. Isley House, 1037 N. Astor St., 1897; Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Ave., 1909; Wisconsin Telephone Building, 722 N. Broadway, 1930; Hotel Metro, 411 E. Mason St., 1937; Milwaukee School of Engineering Student Life and Campus Center, 1025 N. Broadway, 1946; and Milwaukee Arena, 420 W. Kilbourn Ave., 1950.

Frederick C. Bogk House

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) 
Prairie School, Modern
Frederick C. Bogk House, 19162420 N. Terrace Ave.

Born in Richland Center, Wis., Frank Lloyd Wright’s storied 70-year career and development of his "prairie school" of architecture — a philosophy of embracing nature and experimenting with space, form and environment — prompted the American Institute of Architects to call him the "greatest American architect of all time."

Evidence of Wright’s innovative style can be found throughout the Milwaukee area, including one of his last commissions, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa. Gurda notes that the church was completed after Wright’s death, with many of its interior details finished by his associates.

The circular concrete building with its distinctive blue dome reminds Zimmermann of a flying saucer, but it’s one of Gurda’s favorite Wright landmarks.

"The building itself is interesting, but what’s more interesting is the relationship between the church and the ethnic group that was the smallest and most impoverished of the European groups that settled here," Gurda says. "They decided to build a new home and they hired Frank Lloyd Wright."

Zimmermann points to a much earlier Wright design as evidence of the architect’s genius — the Frederick C. Bogk house, 2420 N. Terrace Ave., built in 1916. It features buff brick, concrete and the architect’s signature leaded glass.

"That was from (Wright’s) Japanese period," Zimmermann says. "That’s his masterpiece in Milwaukee. The Bogk house has been lovingly cared for — it’s in mint condition."

Some of the architect’s experiments in affordable, prefabricated housing can be found in the area as well.

Wright’s most admired, and most controversial works, are found throughout the world, including Fallingwater, a residential masterwork in western Pennsylvania, and the spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Other notable Wisconsin buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright: Taliesen, Wright’s home, Highways 23 and C, Spring Green, 1911-1959 (constantly revised until Wright’s death); Arthur L. Richards prefab houses, 2700 block of West Burnham St., 1916; Wingspread, 33 E. Four Mile Road, Racine, 1938; S.C. Johnson & Son Administration Center, 1525 Howe St., Racine, 1939; Albert Adelman House, 7111 N. Barnett Lane, Fox Point, 1948; and Joseph Mollica House, 1001 W. Jonathan Lane, Bayside, 1956. 

This story ran in the August 2008 issue of: