Who Remembers Milwaukee’s ‘Tourist Tower’?

Before Calatrava, a space needle sought to define the city.

It was supposed to put Milwaukee on the map. The “Tourist Tower,” a monument standing nearly 1,000 feet tall, was to attract up to a million people to Downtown each year. But it became one of the biggest flops in city history.

The original plan, designed by architect Robert E. Rasche and unveiled in 1964, called for a slender central core connected to seven rings – a setup that looked either futuristic or like a stack of empty spools. Each level would host a variety of permanent exhibits, including a working dairy farm, a trout fishing stream, and a theme restaurant that mimicked the then-seductive experience of eating on a commercial airliner. For a site, the city sold Rasche the Downtown half-block bordered by Broadway, and Milwaukee and Wells streets (now home to a parking garage) at a steep discount, hoping to build on the success of Seattle’s Space Needle, built in 1962.

But Rasche’s proposal was as controversial as it was bold. One critic said the tower looked like a “dinosaur’s spinal column,” while others pushed to build the tower west of the Milwaukee River, where it would be closer to hotels and shopping. By 1965, Rasche had redesigned the structure, adding a huge saltwater pool at ground level, featuring a pilot whale, along with a jungle-themed terrarium and a glitzy new name: Milwaukee’s Diamond Tower.

In June 1966, the project finally broke ground, as Rasche laid a partial foundation. But the majestic spire still lacked a final design. Even with the site half-prepared, Rasche continued to look for an alternate one across the river, as past critics had recommended, and the project devolved into a legal battle over the original lot. As funding sources drifted away, Milwaukee’s “hole in the ground” lingered as a reminder of what might have been, as the deed to the land sat frozen in escrow.

Rasche kept floating plans for a site across the river, never quitting until he died in 1979, not long after crews filled the hole on Wells. That dirt now rests under the Park Bank parking garage.

‘Tall and Gorgeous’ appears in the March 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the March issue on newsstands beginning Feb. 29.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.