A Change in Scenery

The Fortress Building will receive a $52.7 million facelift, but in the process, artists will be displaced. A Q&A with those who have called it home.

Reports have surfaced saying the Fortress Building, an underground clove for artists and their working studios, will be converted into 176 apartments by 2019.

In May 2014, I met with Kirk Thomsen, production manager of Quasimondo theater group, for a tour of the Fortress. The artist’s love and appreciation for the place was obvious. The creative space and cheap rent ($.50 to $.75 per square foot) has been a welcome mat to nearly 60 artists who reside or work in the building.

I met again with Thomsen and this time, his friend, Michael Pettit – a current Fortress resident and owner of Ontic Mask and Puppet Design Company – to hear how the next chapter in the building’s long history could impact Milwaukee’s art scene.

Kirk, last May you said, “Having [the Fortress Building] available is how we keep the arts alive in Milwaukee.” How could this development impact Milwaukee’s artistic community?

Kirk Thomsen: As much as I love [Milwaukee], we like to create art. And if the city makes it that difficult to do it, then we’re just banging our heads against the wall. Hopefully calmer heads prevail and an actual community is created so we can foster art here and watch it grow. But if not, I’m not sure many of us are too inclined to stay, to be honest.

Were there any indications to tenants this property could be turned into apartments?

Michael Pettit: No, but I’ve been feeling it in the air for six months. They’re not hiring as many maintenance people as they used to. What’s their plan? What are they doing? Then you look at what’s happening in the rest of the neighborhood, and you put two and two together.

How would you describe the building’s current condition?

MP: Everything that’s wrong with the building gives it character. [The building’s condition] doesn’t bother anybody because it has character and layers of history. That’s going to be wiped away. It will be turned into something that’s clean and new and fresh that nobody who is making less than six figures will be able to afford or step foot in.

How do you look at the decision to turn the complex into apartments?

KT: The market has reached its potential and now [the owner] is going to take advantage of it. I don’t find that difficult to understand. That’s reality. They have been generous. I don’t look at it as a villainous type of situation.

MP: It’s not their fault they need to make money and stay profitable to keep the building standing and actually restore it, but where are things like [camaraderie among artists] going to happen in the future? It’s getting harder to find.

What would you rather see happen to the Fortress?

MP: It would be a better use, I think, to renovate it but not to the point of high-end apartments but more functional use for small business and light manufacturing space. You would have more of the things that are going on there now, but on a more professional level. Instead of selling out to the rental market and condo area that is taking over the beer line district right now.

What has this building meant to the city’s artistic community?

MP: I’ve had a creative space there for 20 years. There many people with a very deep love for the space. Everybody who works there, has a studio there or been to a kickass show there has been touched by the feeling of that place – its atmosphere and unique character. It’s going to be a loss for a lot of people.

Does the space fuel your creativity?

MP: It does. One of my favorite things about the space is in the center courtyard. There’s a little spot in the wall that juts out. There was a little bastard maple that was growing in a niche of the brick. It clung, and its roots grew beneath the bricks. It had to lean out to get enough light. Even this tiny little tree would give a gift in fall and turn colors. And that tree got cut down. [Building managers] plastered over that section of the wall. But the next year, it grew five different stalks. It found a way to flourish. I would always look out at that tree and think the story of that tree is my story. That’s what it’s like to be an artist in this town.

The sad ending is after the little tree grew five more stalks the next year, they completely cut it down and dug out the roots and cemented over it, so it would never come back again. And that story is the central metaphor I identify with that space. Sure, all of the wild goings on and unbridled creativity going on may have maintained the lack of integrity of the building. But it had life. It had character. And that’s going to be paved over.

Days ago, tenants received a memo in response to media reports on the new development. What did it say?

MP: The memo came in response to the tenants’ reaction to the article in the Journal, trying to explain what the real situation was and stop people from panicking. It had a numbered list. 1. We have not signed with a developer. 2. We don’t have a timeline for development, and 3. We’re not going to do the development all at once and kick everybody out, but we’re going to progressively remodel and then when the time comes that people need to relocated, we’re going to present you with workable options.

Do you believe they will?

MP: I’m sure they will, but it depends on what [the owners] think of as an affordable, viable option.

Would you consider leaving Milwaukee to continue your art work?

MP: I would. I would think about South Minneapolis or Detroit. Especially Detroit.

Why Detroit?

MP: Because there are plenty of low-rent, creative spaces opening up after the post-industrial phase in the life of the city. It will take another 20-30 years before [Detroit’s] economy recovers and those spaces get taken away. The next frontier for this type of lifestyle at the Fortress is Detroit.

What should the city take away from this?

KT: Artists will be displaced without somewhere like the Fortress. Without a welcoming (and affordable) community like this, artists cannot offer the city their art.

MP: Is the city really thinking about where are you going to go to find these artists that are so dedicated, they will put up with shabby conditions? They’re going to scrape together every dollar they have to afford a cheap studio space because they want to create. If a space to do that doesn’t exist, then where are you going to find that in the city?



Aimee has a degree in journalism from Oklahoma State University and joined Milwaukee Magazine as an editorial assistant and event manager in the frosty month of January, 2014.