Six Buildings That Say “Milwaukee”

Every city has its signature buildings. The U.S. Capitol, the Empire State Building and St. Louis’ Gateway Arch come easily to mind. But a building doesn’t have to be famous to speak for its hometown. More often, in fact, it’s the local landmarks—the structures little-known outside their regions—that most eloquently express the essence of a community. Milwaukee, a city that takes preservation seriously, has scores of iconic structures, but these half-dozen truly stand out.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion
In 1957, Milwaukee County dedicated its War Memorial Center on the downtown lakefront. Designed by Finnish-American master Eero Saarinen, it became the signature building of the city’s modern period. Nearly 50 years later, the Milwaukee Art Museum—the War Memorial Center’s anchor tenant—completed a breathtaking addition to the original structure. Designed by Spanish luminary Santiago Calatrava, it has become the signature building of Milwaukee’s new millennium.

“The Calatrava,” as it’s known locally, is a kinetic sculpture as well as an art gallery. The wings of the sunscreen open and close at regular intervals, adding a “sense of motion and change,” in Calatrava’s words, to Milwaukee’s lakefront.

Since its dedication in 2001, the Calatrava has been variously compared to a cathedral, a ship, a wave and a bird. All the metaphors work, but the structure is also a potent symbol of the community that built it. In a time of rapid change and abundant challenges, the Calatrava is an unmistakable statement of civic self-confidence.
700 N. Art Museum Dr.

City Hall
There’s nothing like it anywhere else in America. Milwaukee’s City Hall is an eight-story wedge of brown brick embellished with terra-cotta trim and capped by a bell tower that soars 350 feet above the heart of downtown. Inside is an atrium that rises the full height of the building, giving the structure an airiness that nicely complements its size.

As imposing as it is physically, City Hall makes an even more emphatic cultural statement. When the building was completed in 1895, Milwaukee was the nation’s most German city. Designed by German-born architect Henry C. Koch, working under a German-born mayor (also named Koch), City Hall has stepped gables and ornate towers much like those in any Teutonic capital. Today, the building pays permanent homage to the city’s formative ethnic tradition, and local residents wouldn’t have it any other way. How beloved is City Hall? In a time of tight municipal budgets, Milwaukee recently spent $76 million on a top-to-bottom restoration.
200 E. Wells St.

St. Josaphat’s Basilica
Milwaukee’s largest church towers high above the city’s smallest homes. The wonder is that the same people are responsible for both—Polish immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and covered the South Side with simple frame cottages. Their spiritual home was from a different dimension altogether. In 1896, the blue-collar families of St. Josaphat’s began to raise a faithful replica of St. Peter’s in Rome, with the same cross-shaped floor plan and soaring central dome. When the church was dedicated in 1901, the only building in America with a larger dome was the U.S. Capitol.

Hoping to conserve cash, St. Josaphat’s used materials salvaged from the Chicago post office for its new parish home. Even with second-hand stone, the project was so expensive (at least $10 million in today’s currency) that it took until 1928 to complete the interior. One year later, Pope Pius XI named St. Josaphat’s a basilica—the equivalent of all-star status in the Catholic Church. Restored to its original glory in recent years, the Basilica is the closest thing Wisconsin has to a genuine European cathedral.
601 W. Lincoln Ave.

Mitchell Building
With its six-story entrance, downtown Milwaukee’s Mitchell Building anchors one of the finest ensembles of Victorian commercial architecture in America. It was the creation of Alexander Mitchell, a canny Scotsman who arrived in 1839 and quickly became a power in banking, insurance, railroads and the grain trade. By the time he died in 1887, Mitchell was the wealthiest man in Wisconsin. In 1876, the tycoon erected this landmark to bring his far-flung business interests together under a single roof. As much carved as constructed, the Mitchell Building captures the exuberance of its period; the exterior is a silent symphony of griffins and garlands, lions and cherubs, and a sorority’s worth of heroic female figures. One of Mitchell’s contemporaries, James Buck, pronounced the building “a monument of what the genius of man can accomplish, when unlimited means are at his command.” 207 E. Michigan St.

Turner Hall
Once the cultural center of German Milwaukee, Turner Hall’s founders were the famed Forty-Eighters, a group of decidedly liberal refugees who had fled a failed revolt against the German monarchy in 1848. They established a Milwaukee arm of the Turner movement in 1853 and built this elaborate clubhouse of local Cream City brick in 1882. Committed to “a sound mind in a sound body,” they used the hall for turning—the German term for gymnastics. Turner Hall also provided a forum for discussions that helped launch Milwaukee’s remarkably successful Socialist movement. But the Turner movement was not all parallel bars and politics. The upstairs ballroom was used for entertainment of all kinds, and the beer always flowed freely.

Amazingly, Turner Hall’s gym is still used for gymnastics, the restaurant still serves schnitzels and lager, and the ballroom is a funky, fully functional, live-music venue. There’s even a small museum of Turner memorabilia on the second floor. Few ethnic landmarks in Milwaukee or anywhere else have retained such fidelity to their original missions.
1034 N. Fourth St.

Allen-Bradley Clock Tower
Sometimes sheer monumentality is enough to put a building on the map. There’s nothing remotely modest about the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, which houses the largest four-faced clock on earth. Each face measures 40 feet across, the minute hands are 20 feet long, and the four motors weigh 12 tons apiece. When the lights are turned on at night, the colossal clock is visible nearly halfway across Lake Michigan.

The Allen-Bradley clock is also a symbol of Milwaukee’s historic industrial might. In 1901, a high-school dropout and inveterate tinkerer named Lynde Bradley developed a better general motor controller. His creation spawned one of the largest industrial controls businesses in the world. When investor Allen- Bradley built a million-square-foot addition in 1962, the company decided to cap it with this truly memorable timepiece.

Rockwell International, an industrial conglomerate at the time and now a controls business, bought the firm in 1985 and moved its headquarters here from California, but Allen-Bradley is still Rockwell Automation’s flagship brand—and still the customary local name for the clock tower. Originally nicknamed the “Polish moon,” the clock is now sometimes referred to as the “Mexican moon,” reflecting decades of ethnic change in the surrounding neighborhood.
1201 S. Second St.