The Story of the Scraping of Milwaukee’s Sky

Ever wonder who created Milwaukee’s skyline?


For a brief moment in history, Milwaukee boasted a skyscraper taller than any found in Chicago or New York. When the city held a nationwide design contest for its new city hall in 1891, few were surprised when the winning entry was a German Renaissance-inspired edifice drawn up by a German-born architect.

After all, a quarter of Milwaukee’s population were German immigrants, a bigger share than any other American city. (The contest was not without controversy; the first design selected was ultimately rejected amid backlash over its Chicagoan architect.)

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The design of Henry Koch, a local resident who also designed several public schools, opened in 1895 and remains an icon of Milwaukee’s skyline: a heavy stone and brick structure with elaborate terracotta ornamentation, a gabled roofline and an enormous belfry 353 feet above Water Street.

The dizzying heights of its most unique feature – seven stories of floating wrought-iron walkways surrounding an atrium – became notorious during the Great Depression. Seven people died by suicide after jumping to City Hall’s tiled atrium floor, and another suffered a fatal stroke after a jumper landed next to him. Protective netting stretched across the void in 1935 stayed in place for more than 50 years. – Mark Houser

This is an excerpt from MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers and the Business Tycoons Who Built Them by Mark Houser.

Tallest in Milwaukee

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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