Photos by Darren Hauck
The metal leaf sculptures at Pier Wisconsin shimmer like liquid glass as Whitney Gould pulls onto I-794 heading west. Leaving behind the lakefront, she drives into the heart of Downtown, her reporter’s notebook tucked neatly between the front seats. Buildings and church steeples jut upward and construction cranes loom next to a severed stretch of freeway, concrete and cables dangling above the streets below.
“It’s sort of like looking into the ruins of the old city,” she says, surveying the chaos of the Marquette Interchange, the jumbled layers of past and present. “It’s like ancient Rome.”
As urban landscape writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for the past 12 years, this grandmotherly 64-year-old dressed in a floor-length eggplant-purple coat has seen Milwaukee undergo a remarkable transformation and become a city of architectural sophistication. As she drives, she’s alert to its every detail, pointing out the curve of a municipal building’s entryway, the terra cotta on an old video rental store, the visual rhythm of a street’s curbs.
As architects and developers break new ground, remake blocks with infill projects, gut and restore century-old structures, Gould chronicles these changes. As both a reporter and opinion columnist, her views have helped shape the city’s landscape, the decisions of city officials and the design choices of architects. She was among the first and most vocal opponents of the original design for the Pier Wisconsin/Discovery World complex, and a champion of the totally revised structure, with its simpler, more elegant design. The fact that Milwaukee has a full-time architecture critic – and that Gould uses the pulpit so aggressively – sets the city apart nationally.
“I think Whitney probably does more for the image of the city than a lot of the PR that gets pumped out by the convention and visitors bureau,” says former Mayor John Norquist, now president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago.
From her patrician upbringing in Madison and early days as one of the first female reporters at Madison’s Capital Times to her current role at Wisconsin’s largest newspaper,Gould has always been a force to be reckoned with. She’s boldly taken on projects of major local players such as philanthropist Michael Cudahy. She’s also harshly criticized the waterfront condos of architect Peter Renner and the Midwest Airlines Center created by the firm Engberg Anderson. She decried the makeover of Bayshore Town Center, calling it a “fake, old-timey, pseudo city,” and deplores most development in the outer suburbs, calling the mall-filled landscape appalling and the huge “Hummer homes” a waste of space.
Her columns spark irate rants by readers on her voice mail and inbox, while annoyed business leaders regularly give JS Editor Marty Kaiser an earful. Critics say she too narrowly favors modern architecture and harps on a few pet issues without considering the real-world challenges architects face. But nobody denies her impact.
“Whitney has managed through her writing style and insight to really engage the public,” says city planner and UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning Dean Bob Greenstreet. “She has gained the respect and fear of the architectural community.”
And Gould doesn’t apologize for anything. “I am not going to go out and praise some mediocre buildings,” she says. “You can’t be in this business and have a thin skin.”
Yet this strong-willed and fiercely independent woman is disarmingly personable up close, and surprisingly traditional. Always put-together in accessorized outfits, she is highbrow in her tastes, preferring classical music and books to sports and TV, and refuses to own a cell phone. She’s a champion of forward-thinking modern architecture, yet lives in a historic East Side home that she’s meticulously restored. In recent years, she has privately battled a number of health problems, including cancer, with an upbeat spirit, never wavering in her hard-hitting approach to her job. She is talkative and intellectual, friendly and opinionated, seemingly open, yet private in a way that even close friends can’t penetrate.
Three-year-old Gould was playing in the sandbox with a friend, pouring sand in and out of Coke bottles, when her rebellious nature first came out.
“Let’s play opposites,” Gould said to her friend, tiring of the sandbox routine. “Everything someone tells us to do, let’s just do the opposite.” Gould’s mother, who overheard this exchange, would retell the story for decades afterward.
“She claimed that I inherited that from my dad, who was a real contrarian, an iconoclast,” says Gould. “He would take the opposite side of an argument and see how we could respond to it and defend our position to keep us on our toes.”
Her father, Stevens Gould, an engineer, passed away in 1961 when Whitney was still a teenager, and her mother died in 1968, collapsing of a heart attack at age 64. Yet their influence on Whitney was long-lasting. The family dinner table was a place of spirited conversation about everything from politics to the existence of God.
Stevens Gould was a religious free-thinker and libertarian Republican who surrounded himself with friends who were Socialists. Perhaps this exposure to diverse political views opened Whitney to influences by professors like labor economist Jack Barbash while she was in college.
Whitney’s parents both came from Wisconsin lumber baron families, her mother from an Irish Catholic family that started a lumber company near Rhinelander, and her father from an English-Welsh family from Oshkosh. Both parents attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her father became a star on the football team.
As Whitney was growing up, the family lived in Madison’s east-side Orton Park neighborhood, a part of town Capital Times staffer Ron McCrea calls “a classy place to be.” The Georgian Revival house with Prairie School and Arts & Crafts details was an amalgam of styles that had been built by Whitney’s grandfather, lumber baron George Whitney Mason. The home looked out at the small park in front and Lake Monona in back. Gould admits she had an overprivileged childhood.
The Goulds were a prominent right-wing family, so well connected that when 16-year-old Whitney got a speeding ticket, the judge let her off easy because of her family’s standing in the community. Yet the incident offended young Whitney’s sense of justice. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be let off because my family was well-known.”
Whitney’s mother, Elizabeth Gould, was a former English teacher who worked as the art and drama critic for the Wisconsin State Journal and published short stories and essays in the Ladies’ Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post.“A highly literate woman with courtly manners, kind of old-fashioned,” recalls Barbash’s son Louis, whom Whitney dated in college.
Whitney’s parents were politically conservative. They would take her and her sister Penny into the voting booth and let them pull the lever for a straight Republican ticket. Though their mother did have a change of heart during the tumult of the 1960s and ended up voting Democratic, Penny grew up to be a conservative, church-going Episcopalian who now lives in upstate New York. “We’re both very opinionated,” Whitney says of herself and her sister. Yet despite being active in the Young Republicans in high school, Whitney turned out to be the opposite: nonreligious and left-leaning. Today, she laughs at the contrast between her family’s politics and her own. “I guess that’s what education will do for you,” she says.
In high school, Gould was an outspoken debater whose quote in her yearbook says it all: “I didn’t say there weren’t two sides to every story. I just said I wasn’t listening to the other side.” This kind of independent-mindedness was encouraged at Wisconsin High, a small experimental teacher-training high school run by UW-Madison. Gould was involved in more activities than almost any student: debate, yearbook, newspaper, choir, student council, dance, orchestra, drama. The school’s course on architecture and urban planning triggered her first interest in the subject. The teacher, Larry Everard, brought in architects and city planners as guest lecturers and took the students on a 70-mile airplane tour of Madison. The class debated the merits of Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan for what would eventually be the Monona Terrace civic center (which Gould’s parents staunchly opposed), discussed everything from early classic to French mansard architecture, studied slides of the plan for Paris, and learned about issues in suburban shopping centers.
“Whitney was the star of the class,” recalls Everard, now 74. “Even as a kid, she already had this talent that has served her so well.” The following semester, Gould took Everard’s course on Pablo Picasso and 20th century art. “Imagine this in high school!” says Gould of the classes. “It was just eye-opening for me.”
Gould attended college at UW-Madison, writing a humor and satire column called “Solid Gould” for the student paper, The Daily Cardinal, and graduated in 1965 with a double major in art history and German. She went to New York to attend Columbia University’s graduate program in art history, focusing on 15th century Flemish painting, but soon left the program. The epiphany came one day as she sat translating a dry German paper titled “The History of the Paragraph Marker in Early Coptic Manuscripts.” “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” she recalls. “I’ve taken a wrong turn.”
After a year writing ad copy for JC Penney in New York, she wrote then-Editor Miles McMillin of the Capital Times in Madison, “sort of on a whim,” asking for a job. Ironically, it may have been her prominent right-wing family that helped Gould get hired.
“The Capital Times was so liberal, if you brought it into our house, it had to be carried in a plain brown wrapper,” Gould recalls of her youth. “It was just not allowed.” Later, she would learn that one of the reasons McMillin wanted to hire her, an art history major who had never taken a single journalism course, was to put his finger in the eye of Madison’s conservative establishment. But Gould, it turned out, had a strong voice, an independent spirit, and a curiosity that made her a natural at reporting. Though she didn’t know it at the time, she had found her life’s work.
“It was mostly grizzled old guys who were smoking and swearing,” Gould recalls of her early years as a general assignment reporter in the mid-1960s. Despite being a young staffer and one of the paper’s first women, she was never intimidated, colleagues recall. For instance, she sparked the outrage of Mike Wallace when, during the Gene McCarthy presidential campaign in 1968, she referred to “television personality Mike Wallace.” An irate Wallace wrote a letter to McMillin saying, “Tell that Whitney Gould, whoever he is, that I was a journalist when he was in diapers.”
Another legendary story involved Gould’s days as Madison’s first environmental reporter. She covered issues such as the battle to ban the use of DDT pesticides and the debates over nuclear power plants, winning several national reporting awards. Even when she found that her own newspaper company, Madison Newspapers Inc., was responsible for helping pollute Lake Monona, she boldly reported the story, including a self-incriminating quote from the head of MNI saying everyone knows “Lake Monona has been a dead lake for years.”
From her early days at the Capital Times, Editor Elliott Maraniss took her under his wing. “My dad referred to her as his favorite elitist reporter,” recalls David Maraniss, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. (When Elliott Maraniss passed away in 2004, Gould wrote his obituary for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) Gould went on to win a Nieman journalism fellowship to study architecture at Harvard in 1973-74. She later became a Cap Times editorial page writer until, after multiple attempts, she was courted away by editors at The Milwaukee Journal in 1984. She sold the purple, five-gabled 1888 Queen Anne house she had restored and lived in since 1977, and moved 80 miles east.
About her departure, then-Capital Times Editor Dave Zweifel would write, “I’m already missing her habit of hiding my ashtray and asking me a naïve question like, ‘Who’s Robin Yount, anyhow?’” And reporter Ron McCrea would write in Isthmus that Madison was losing a treasure.
“Gould seems motivated by a vision of another era,” McCrea wrote, “a time in which the air and water were pure and the countryside was uncluttered by shopping malls, a time when craft was respected, when architecture showed integrity, when people extended courtesies to each other and independent people spoke their minds. … What will they make of this woman [in Milwaukee]?”
When Gould first came to Milwaukee, it felt like moving to a different country. “At the time, it was much more stodgy,” she recalls. “Madison had this yeasty, intellectual culture while Milwaukee had this staid, conservative business culture.” Yet after Norquist was elected in 1988, she says, “all these things that had been bottled up started moving overnight.”
She worked for more than a decade as an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal,with liberal stands on such hot-button issues as abortion, gun control, gay rights and the death penalty. While her then-editor David Behrendt says her writing was sometimes “a bit too esoteric” – with a few too many “$75 words” – he also calls her “the most talented writer I ever edited.”
The persistence she had displayed as a reporter came in handy on the editorial board. “If she feels sure of her facts, she does not get intimidated,” says Sue Ryon, who wrote for the editorial board with Gould. “She wasn’t afraid of asking very direct questions.”
For instance, in 1986, when Republican Bob Kasten was running for re-election to the Senate, Gould all but floored him during the paper’s obligatory endorsement interview. “Bob, do you have a drinking problem?” she asked pointedly. (He had been picked up for driving the wrong way down a highway, and alcohol was suspected. He would later be convicted of drunk driving.) Flustered, his face turned purple.
“She was just tenacious,” recalls Ryon. “I think the interview ended for him at that point.” Afterward, Ryon said to Gould, “I can’t believe you asked that!” She answered matter-of-factly: “Well, the public should know.”
Gould also cut off public relations flaks if she sensed they were wasting the board’s time. “She emboldened me,” says Ryon. “She does not and did not back down.”
Then came the merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995. Anxious about saving their jobs, staffers were expected to apply for the position they wanted. Members of the editorial page of the Journal recall being told by new Journal Sentinel editorial page editor Keith Spore that they would hew to a conservative approach, as had the old Sentinel.
In Gould’s interview with Spore, he was blunt: “You know we’re not going to endorse Bill Clinton in the next election, right?” she recalls him saying. “I thought it would at least get discussed,” she replied.
(Spore says he does not recall this interaction and denies telling staffers the paper would take a conservative slant: “That had yet to be determined. That’s just all bullshit.” Yet the paper did endorse Republican Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election.)
Gould knew she couldn’t work on a conservative board. “This woman has more integrity than any 10 people I know,” Ryon says.
Instead, Gould applied for and won a new job the paper’s editors decided to create: urban landscape writer.
Gould’s heroes include urbanist writer Jane Jacobs, parks creator Frederick Law Olmsted and German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Jacobs, author of the seminal urban studies book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an advocate of dense, mixed-use neighborhoods. Olmsted had a vision of urban parks as democratic amenities that would help withstand suburbanization and the destruction of our countryside. And Mies van der Rohe championed cool, modernist Bauhaus architecture over architectural conventions of the past.
Gould sees reverberations of all three visionaries today. “What a lot of young architects are trying to do in Milwaukee,” she says, “is get away from seeing everything through the eyes of this old-world architecture, which is very beautiful and deserves to be preserved, but they don’t want to build the same buildings over and over again.”
Her preference for modern design has been widely influential in Milwaukee. “She made us hypersensitive that buildings not be historic knockoffs,” says Norquist. For example, she roundly panned the 1998 Midwest Airlines Center for its “Flemish baggage,” its echoes of City Hall’s period style.
Though a new urbanist in line with many of Gould’s views, Norquist disagrees with her complete dislike of retro architecture.
“A historic knockoff is better than a crappy sprawl building that tries to look like the suburbs,” he says. “[And] it’s not as big of a problem as a failed modernist building.”
Even the Bayshore Town Center, which Gould derided as “Theme Park Retro” with “Old World gestures” that “look pasted on” is a step in the right direction, Norquist argues, calling it an improvement on isolated suburban office parks and malls.
Yet Gould is uncompromising in her aesthetic. “I just can’t stand faux-historical schlock,” she says. “I think it degrades the landscape, it creates a false idea of what cities are all about. It denies the passage of time.”
Architect and developer Peter Renner, who has designed several Third Ward condo buildings that replicate the historic warehouse look, slams Gould as a narrow-minded champion of modernist architecture, a la 1920s Bauhaus and its founder, Walter Gropius.
“She’s got a one-track mind,” he says. “If architecture mimics the architecture that Gropius advocated, it’s good. Anything else is bad.”
Gould has called Renner’s riverfront condos “horrible, faceless buildings that just dominate the waterfront.”
Says Renner: “What she doesn’t like is that we built them to fit into the historic neighborhood.”
It’s true Gould loves contemporary design, but her reviews hardly suggest a blind acolyte of Gropius. “They shouldn’t all be the same,” she says. “You should have a great variety of wonderful modern buildings all over the city.” Gould is also a preservationist who regularly advocates for finding new uses for historic buildings.
Renner is not the only one to have butted heads with Gould.
When she took a stand against the original design of the Pier Wisconsin building, philanthropist Michael Cudahy got so mad he wouldn’t take her calls or would slam down the phone at the sound of her voice. Yet her stance helped embolden the other critics of the design, a huge white swooping structure which seemed to mimic the Calatrava. “Her willingness and boldness to write about it – to frame the issues and get people to talk about it – had a great impact,” says then-city planner Peter Park. The original design was eventually abandoned in favor of a sleeker, scaled-back design by Hammel, Green & Abrahamson architect Jim Shields.
Norquist points to other examples of Gould’s clout: serving as a cheerleader for Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum; calling attention to run-down historic structures that then get renovated (such as the 1920s Modjeska Theater building); helping fight a county proposal to widen Lincoln Memorial Drive in the late 1990s; and championing the revitalization of downtown Waukesha. “She legitimizes and gives power to people in neighborhoods that are trying to do things,” says Norquist.
Yet Gould’s influence has its limits. She has been a tireless advocate for the parks, yet funding has only decreased in recent years.She supported the “Blue Shirt” sculpture proposed for the airport several years ago and got nowhere. Last year, she praised the design of a bamboo park in the Third Ward that was sidetracked by neighborhood opposition. And she continues to rail against suburban sprawl, even as development continues.
Some architects accuse her of playing favorites. “She tends to coddle certain architects,” says one. “For a while you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Jim Shields article or a Johnsen Schmaling article.” Another architect says she favors those trained at UW-Milwaukee’s modernist architecture school. “If you didn’t graduate from UWM, it’s like you can’t even pick up a pencil,” he says.
In her defense, Gould says: “I plead guilty to actively trying to encourage the talents of some younger practitioners. I do think that’s where the future of our cities lies.” But she has praised non-UWM grads, among them John Vetter of Vetter Denk Architecture and Grace La of La Dallman Architects.
Perhaps the pro-UWM impression comes from the fact that she and Greenstreet are so often on the same page. “I agree with her on virtually everything,” admits Greenstreet, who also serves as Milwaukee’s half-time city planner.
And though Shields is grateful for Gould’s positive coverage, he notes the three Honor Awards given in 2007 by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Architects went to Shields’ firm (HGA) and Johnsen Schmaling Architects. “It’s independent confirmation of what she’s talking about,” Shields says. Yet the perception of favoritism is undeniable: People stop Shields on the street and say, “You’re Whitney Gould’s close friend; how is she doing?” despite the fact that he doesn’t know her personally or socialize with her.
As for Gould’s impact on the community at large, Shields says, “You’d be surprised at the degree to which clients – very early on in a project – are very fearful of a bad review [from Gould].” Since they know they’ll get panned for doing a fake traditional building, he says, clients no longer ask for that.
Some architects protest that Gould doesn’t acknowledge that the realities of working with a client may force compromises. “She’s a cheerleader for contemporary design. She wants to bring Milwaukee forward and I applaud her for that,” says architect Michael Brush of Plunkett Raysich Architects. “[Yet] sometimes it just has to be the way she’d rather not have it.”
Greg Uhen, president of Eppstein Uhen Architects, says Gould could broaden her concerns. His firm has gotten mixed reviews from Gould: a thumbs-up for the new Amtrak station design but disapproval for the new Manpower headquarters, which she called bland, suburban and inward-looking. “Everyone knows that Whitney is a modernist, and frankly, I am too, but not at the expense of function,” says Uhen. “Sometimes I wish she would dig deeper into how the buildings function and not just focus on aesthetics.”
Gould admits impatience with innovative ideas or designs getting quashed because of client, budget or neighborhood pressures. “I really want people to have to think twice before they build a bad building.”
Whatever their quibbles over her views, most architects agree Gould plays an important role in the community. “I don’t agree with her all the time, but I respect her,” says architect Harry Van Oudenallen of Arquitectura, Inc. “I appreciate she can be broad, covering politics, urban development issues, investment issues, what buildings can do for cities. It’s not just a one-pony-show approach to architecture.”
Before Gould became architecture critic, there was little discussion about what was good or bad design in town. Today, Gould’s beat puts Milwaukee in an elite club: There are fewer than 50 architecture critics at newspapers across the nation, and most only write about it part time, found a 2001 survey by the National Arts Journalism Program.
“Nationally, Milwaukee is thought of as a city that has a certain architectural sophistication,” says Norquist. “The fact that the Journal Sentinel is willing to have a full-time architecture writer who understands these issues, it helps get that message out.”
And she helps give the newspaper a sense of place, says Kaiser. “So many people in the area grew up here. They care about the urban landscape. I think that’s one reason it connects with readers,” he says. “When you read one of her stories, you get the sense it could only have been written in Milwaukee.”
Work colleagues say she’s an influential presence in the newsroom. “I think [Kaiser] thinks the world of her,” says retired book editor Lois Blinkhorn. “She’ll walk into his office and tell him what she thinks.”
“She cares so much about the paper. She goes to bat for other reporters,” says reporter Meg Kissinger. “She sticks her neck out; she encourages people.”
Will the paper continue its commitment to architectural coverage in this age of declining readership? Gould says she has no immediate plans to retire, and Kaiser ducks a question about whether he would replace her when that happens. “I am going to probably block the door to keep her from leaving,” he says.
Gould’s cat bares her fangs at a first-time visitor to her home. “Sweetie Pie, be nice,” says Gould as she fits the tea cozy over the teapot, which sits next to the plate of gingersnaps and steaming mugs of tea.
In contrast to Sweetie Pie’s guarded demeanor, Gould herself is warm and chatty sitting in the living room of her 1889 Queen Anne Victorian home on the East Side. She has lived here since relocating to Milwaukee in 1984, and has carefully restored it, overseeing every detail from the wooden shutters letting in slanted beams of afternoon sunshine to the dark reddish hue of the walls. The distressed wood coffee table displays neat piles of magazines: The New Yorker, Dwell, even Milwaukee Magazine. The room is accessorized with plants, decorative fruit, framed photos and a rocking chair. With a carved wooden fireplace and built-in cabinets filled with books and CDs, the place has a homey
This is the second home she’s restored. Yet one day, Gould says, she’d like to live in a small, modern, one-story home with lots of glass, wood floors and a nice kitchen.
Beyond her public presence, the private Gould is a bit of an enigma. Friends say she’s an “incorrigible gossip” at work and a clotheshorse who shops so often at Door County’s boutiques that she’s on a first-name basis with several owners. She is an accomplished pianist who loves classical music and can’t stand pop music. (Once, an editor with a sense of humor sent her to cover a Wendy O. Williams punk rock concert, which Gould describes as “the most god-awful experience.”) She’s so uninterested in sports that once at a baseball game, she packed up to leave after the fourth inning, saying “Four quarters and it’s over, right?” She’s someone friends can have long, intellectual conversations with about books, movies and politics – but who seldom reveals any vulnerability.
Louis Barbash, Gould’s college boyfriend, recalls having a very involved discussion about whether they would rather shop in a beautiful but more expensive store or a discount store with the exact same products, sold cheaper, but in a less beautiful environment. Gould would choose to pay the higher prices, he says. “She’s always had a strong sense of aesthetics.”
Despite being able to talk engagingly for hours on end, she keeps part of herself private from even her closest friends. “There is a bit of a shell around her she keeps pretty tight,” says Ryon. She’s never married or had kids, and doesn’t discuss these things. “We’ve never talked about it,” says Kissinger. “It’s almost like the conversation is on a higher level.”
Only once did friend and JS books editor Geeta Sharma-Jensen see Gould close to tears. Gould contracted cancer about eight years ago and appeared to be over it, but had a recurrence several years ago. This time she needed chemotherapy and had to wear a wig.
When she revealed her problem, Sharma-Jensen reached out to her. “I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Oh, Whitney, I am so sorry.’ And just that little tenderness, I saw her lip quiver just a little bit. It was just an instant.”
And then it was over.
Gould’s recent health problems also include back surgery and a broken foot last winter. While she was out recovering, architects all around town noticed the hole left in the newspaper’s coverage and wondered when she would be back at work. Though she returned to her job walking with a cane, she remained as fiercely self-sufficient and committed to her beat as ever.
Today, over cookies and tea, with Sweetie Pie peering out from behind the rocking chair, Gould reflects on her life and work. Though she’s had close and intense relationships with men, marriage wasn’t in the cards, she says. “I’m just too independent.”
Nor does she regret not having had children, Gould says. Instead, she hopes to have a different kind of impact: Through her years of advocating for better buildings, parks and thriving urban neighborhoods, hers may be a legacy of words, reverberating with her singular passion, helping to shape the landscape and physical structures of her adopted city.
Julie Sensat Waldren is a contributing editor toMilwaukee Magazine and can be reached at email@example.com.