Milwaukee architects shaped the city we call home
November 23, 2008
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
"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
Edward Townsend Mix (1831-1890) French Second Empire
Alexander Mitchell Mansion (Wisconsin Club), 1873 900 W. Wisconsin
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
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.
Gas Co. building
Eschweiler & Eschweiler
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.
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
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
|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: