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The Ongoing Battle
Will the War Memorial be saved?

The possible future of the War Memorial building.

Eero Saarinen’s War Memorial building was perfectly sited in 1957. It soared off the bluff, not metaphorically like a bird, and his mirrored concrete boxes floated according to the laws of perception.

Then in 1975, the Milwaukee Art Center put a massive block of faceless concrete underneath, deflating and grounding the War Memorial. Only the east entrance of the first addition to the museum continued Saarinen’s dense rectilinear geometry.

This remnant was then wiped clean to marginally increase gallery space with the Calatrava addition in 2001, and it revealed what we knew all along. The first addition was just a shed. After years of building track homes in the suburbs, the idea and ambition of a great civic building had faded from memory.

Saarinen’s magnificent stairway in the atrium still had the lighter-than-air quality of the original building. Offices still had the lakefront’s best view. But the place was abandoned.

To add insult to injury, inside the gracious entry from Memorial Drive, there was a makeshift array of plastic boxes with toy soldiers, medals and military memorabilia. I remember thinking it was just as well no one was around.

The county never knew what to do with the building part of the equation, which became a memorial for its original goal of honoring the dead “by serving the living.” It was just the “War Memorial,” as we refer to it today. A tomb with a view.

The museum may have killed its host, but the War Memorial was also killing the museum. In the early 1990s, I became curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum at the War Memorial because the museum had no front door or visual identity. Don Turek was head of the War Memorial. Dave Drent was his Tonto. More specifically, Turek was a talking head who told stories that added an ambient soundtrack to the place. It was a relief when he retired, if for no other reason than Drent did all the work.

But nothing changed. Soot sprayed on the art from a climate-control system that didn’t control the climate. The roof leaked, and leaked. We watched the concrete stairways outside crumble.

Museum directors would roll their eyes when reporting on negotiations with the War Memorial. The stasis of the place was terminal. But the county picked up the costs of the utilities and guards, which at the time, was a significant part of the budget.

During Drent’s 40 years at the War Memorial, including 15 as executive director, every new situation was confounded by jury-rigged half-measures that never fixed much. He was a nice guy who would have been a fine caretaker of a fishing lodge. But he was the wrong guy to make a case that Saarinen’s masterpiece was not just another underutilized and failing county facility.

Such neglect had devastating effects. From the museum, take a glance up at the Saarinen today. It looks like a road in need of resurfacing. Preventive maintenance could have avoided all of the patch jobs.

Recently, the county had Eppstein Uhen “modernize” the north service entrance to look and feel like the basement of a mall, while Engberg Anderson’s “renovation” of the large hall turned the signature blond wood paneling to a dark cherry. In Saarinen’s case, that’s like deciding red is not a primary color.

Two iconic works of modern architecture, at the city’s epicenter on the beloved lakefront, share the same fate. But their roles have reversed over time, a welcome and necessary switch. Given their track record, no one would suggest the War Memorial maintain the Calatrava addition. Across the street, a slab of concrete crushed a kid walking into a county parking structure.

The art museum is the only institution with the ability and credibility to save the War Memorial from decades of deferred thought and maintenance.

The museum knows what it’s doing. Calatrava’s modest structure, the length of which is sunken into the ground, elevates the War Memorial and miraculously restores some of its lost stature. The most striking feature of the proposed new design, by Jim Shields of HGA, is a rectangular glass atrium that finishes off the bastardized east entrance and fixes the glaring blind spot of the Calatrava addition that sealed the museum off from the lake. A fine, graduated, silk-screened pattern will create light as the impressionist painters did. A diaphanous cloud in our mind’s eye will levitate the leaden mass of the first addition and make Calatrava’s organic forms and Saarinen’s rationality a coherent whole.

The current public debate over who should run the War Memorial is just a diversion to keep

everyone dancing around the elephant in the room. The museum’s plan will bring the Saarinen building up to MAM standards and the War Memorial back to life. There is no plan B to prevent the War Memorial from dying along with the veterans it was built to honor.

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