PHOTOS BY KEVIN J. MIYAZAKI, SELECTIONS BY MILWAUKEE MAGAZINE STAFF, ESSAYS BY JOHN GURDA
“THE CALATRAVA,” AS WE’VE COME to know it, is a work of art built to showcase works of art. That duality – a seamless hybrid of container and contained – gives the building enormous aesthetic power. It is, in fact, the most iconic building of Milwaukee’s 21st century to date. If the city were to issue its own postage stamp, the Calatrava would be on it.
It is not just the building’s aesthetics – the tapering ribs of its gallerias, the cathedral-like vault of the Quadracci Pavilion – that make it stand out. The wonder is that this futuristic landmark materialized in a city that few would mistake for daring.
The Milwaukee Art Museum addition was Santiago Calatrava’s first American commission, and he made the most of it, enlarging his own reputation and raising Milwaukee’s profile dramatically.
The chronic cost overruns and daunting technical challenges faded into memory after the building was dedicated in 2001. Milwaukee’s workaday lakefront had been touched with something sublime, and every time the Burke Brise Soleil was unfurled, the city, too, opened its wings toward the open skies of the future.
ROXY PAINE’S SCULPTURE is the most recent landmark on our list, but it certainly shines the brightest. His muscular stainless steel tree rises from the greensward around Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons as if it were sprouting from a silver mine.
And why would Paine create a tree when the nearest real specimen is just 10 yards away?
For the same reason that artists paint landscapes and sculpt the human form: to see familiar objects with fresh eyes. Cleft embodies treeness in its elemental form.
It is the abstract made real, artifice imitating and interpreting nature. But this is not a perfectly symmetrical storybook tree. Like a deposed king, it has lost its crown, opening another layer of questions about human alteration of natural forms.
Cleft came to town as part of the Sculpture Milwaukee showcase in 2019 and was purchased by Northwestern Mutual three years later, ensuring its permanent place in our landscape.
This is one tree that will never need watering or pruning. Now lightning, that’s another matter.
THE MITCHELL PARK DOMES rose in Milwaukee on a high tide of civic pride. Brimming with confidence and cash, the community built several imposing landmarks in the decade or two after World War II, including County Stadium, the War Memorial Center, the Public Museum and the County Zoo.
Officially named Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, the three domes – arid, tropical and show – joined those landmarks in rapid succession between 1964 and 1967, replacing a Victorian crystal palace on the same site and giving Milwaukee a one-of-a-kind zoo for plants.
Their mammarian forms prompted The New York Times to compare the Domes to “a brassiere manufacturer’s model,” but they have become a much-admired example of mid-century modern design. The tropical dome, in particular, offers a welcome respite from the rigors of a Wisconsin winter.
But the Domes are also a showcase for the dangers of deferred maintenance. Falling concrete and cracked glass have spawned a spirited movement to save these horticultural wonders for the next generation and beyond.
THE BASILICA OF
MILWAUKEE’S LARGEST CHURCH is the reincarnation of a post office. That alone makes it a wonder, but the basilica is also Wisconsin’s closest approximation to a genuine European cathedral – St. Peter’s in Rome, to be specific.
The massive church was built in 1901 to house what was probably the state’s largest religious congregation, a community of 12,000 Polish Catholics on Milwaukee’s South Side. Hoping to save money on building materials, St. Josaphat’s pastor purchased the disassembled Chicago post office, a fatally flawed structure built of Ohio sandstone. His architect, Erhard Brielmaier, didn’t flinch, successfully adapting his design to give Milwaukee what is still one of its greenest buildings.
Although it nearly bankrupted the parish, the church was quickly recognized as an ecclesiastical wonder –a status confirmed when Pope Pius XI raised it to the dignity of a basilica in 1929. Now fully restored and open to the public daily, St. Josaphat’s stands as a monument to immigrant faith and a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that has always been a haven for newcomers – Latinos today no less than Poles in the 1800s.
OVERBUILT AND UNDERUSED BUT monumental nonetheless, the Hoan Bridge represents the last gasp of Milwaukee’s freeway era. It was designed as the key link in a six-lane super-road that would have sliced through Juneau Park on the north end and destroyed 535 houses on the South Shore.
Opposition mounted quickly on both sides, but there was no one to object in the middle, on Jones Island, and so Milwaukee County built a bridge to federal highway standards. Completed in 1974 without entrance ramps at either end, it was the famous “bridge to nowhere” for three long years, before it was finally connected to surface streets.
The span was named for Daniel Hoan, Milwaukee’s mayor from 1916 to 1940. Given the Socialist stalwart’s opposition to lakefront development of any kind, it was a questionable choice, but the bridge has weathered a partial collapse, a complete rebuilding, multiple suicides and recurrent controversy to become a Milwaukee icon.
In 2020 it was set aglow with 2,600 LEDs in a programmable rainbow of colors, a project that has enabled Milwaukeeans to see their old bridge in a new light.
MILWAUKEE’S OWN TAJ MAHAL was built on West Wisconsin Avenue in 1928 by the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – the Shriners, for short, a branch of the Masonic fraternal movement known for its annual circuses and its children’s hospitals.
The building’s dominant feature is a colorful onion dome flanked by two smaller domes and a quartet of minarets. The decorative tile work, both inside and out, is some of the boldest and most extensive in Milwaukee.
In contrast to the East Indian mausoleum that inspired its design during a time when the exotic was in vogue, the Tripoli Shrine is known as “the Masonic playground.” Instantly identifiable by their red fezzes, Milwaukee Shriners pilot synchronized go-karts and pedal what is reputedly the world’s longest bicycle in civic parades, all in pursuit of “fellowship and fun.”
Once shrouded in ritual secrecy, the Tripoli Shrine is now open to the public for a variety of events, and has become a popular rental venue for weddings, anniversaries and other social gatherings.
YES, IT’S THE ALLEN-BRADLEY CLOCK TOWER clock tower, and has been since Rockwell took over in 1985, but for thousands of Milwaukeeans, the gargantuan timepiece on Second and Greenfield will forever be identified with the company that built it: Allen-Bradley.
The clock started ticking in 1964, when the industrial controls giant was finishing a 1 million-square-foot addition. Allen-Bradley was a famously paternalistic employer with a penchant for hiring Polish South Siders. Architect Fitzhugh Scott Jr., the tower’s designer, said that it reflected President Harry Bradley’s regard for his employees.
“Harry wanted a clock that Allen-Bradley’s workers could read from their houses,” Scott recalled. “It was designed to be the big beacon on the South Side, in the Polish area of Milwaukee.”
For nearly a half-century, it was the largest four-faced clock in the world – until Saudi Arabia built an even larger model in 2010. Milwaukee was dethroned, but no worries. The landmark hasn’t shrunk an inch, and now we have the largest four-faced clock in the Western Hemisphere.