Saturday, August 05, 2006

Milwaukee Mid-Century: 2 on North Avenue

Continuing the string of Mid-Century Mod buildings I've been posting on my other blog...
Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee The blue brick building, Milwaukee

These two are very symptomatic of the inattention paid to Mid-Century Modernism in this day and age. Five years ago when I moved here I wouldn't have given either one a second glance. Now I look and see unique, creative designs, beautiful details, delightful colors and materials. They're quiet and unobtrusive until you look closer... well, as unobstrusive as a blue building can be, anyway.

The Continental Savings Bank features a grand corner entrance that wonderfully acknowledges its location on a major East Side intersection with a wall of rough rounded stones, which curves away to provide a mini-plaza space. Something once stood in front of the entry -- a fountain, perhaps, or a bench and flagpole. Sharp details include the hyper-stylized door pulls, the glazed brick logo on the west side of the building, the limestone cornerstone, and the triple mullions at the windows.

Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee

A block to the east stands a building sheathed with a distinctive blue brick; it was until recently the Prospect Medical Clinic. The blue brick building lacks the grand statements of the bank, but the unusual brick and the offset window patterns on the east and west walls make it noteworthy. Silver racing stripes form decorative patterns on several of the first floor windows and doors.

Blue brick Blue brick with door

With the clinic's closure (perhaps due to the consolidation of Columbia St. Mary's across the street), a sign has appeared on the building advertising the land as being available for redevelopment. With a long-vacant gas station right next door and a parking lot behind, there is a strong chance the building's future is in doubt. Developers are no doubt salivating over the prospect of combining all three parcels and replacing them with a single large building in this lucrative location.

Big cities don't need big roads.

Milwaukee loves its big streets.

The little downtown street where I sometimes park runs for only 3 blocks, ending at the Performing Arts Center on one end and the new McKinley Avenue on the other. Yet it's wide enough for parking on both sides and at least 3 lanes of traffic. Why's it gotta be so huge?

McKinley Avenue is an egregious offender in this regard -- and doubley so because of its origins. It sprang up to replace the demolished Park East Freeway, a reduntant, dead-end highway that was blissfully removed in 2002. Milwaukee's then-mayor John Norquist saw the grand urban opportunity presented by freeing up a 16-acre chunk of land right next to downtown, and after some years of effort was able to get taken out. The plan is to turn this land into a continuation of downtown's urban, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Why, then, the first step was to run in a freeway-width "avenue" is somewhat baffling. When it meets Water Street -- Milwaukee's biggest bar district -- it is 6 lanes wide. Cars fresh off the highways, reacting naturally to the preponderance of space, come roaring in from the west at fifty or more miles per hour. Woe betide the pedestrian who must cross this vast gulf of concrete. You better run fast!

Let me reiterate a fact in that last paragraph: drivers will set their own speed not based on posted speed limits, but on how fast they feel they can safely drive. Build a wider road, and you will get faster traffic. Line a road with parallel parking and a bike lane, and you will get slower traffic.

Another oddly wide street is the short stretch of North Avenue between the reservoir and the river, just west of the East Side. For some reason, after a lengthy run as a mostly 1-lane road runnning through a dense residential area, the road widens to two lanes just west of Humbolt. Then it widens still further as it runs down the hill and across the river:

Drivers, of course, go roaring down the hill at near-freeway speeds.... only to abruptly hit the breaks after crossing the river, where the road (back down to one lane) is narrowed by a traffic-calming island, forcing drivers to slow down to more pedestrian friendly speeds as they enter North Ave's busy bar district.

Why they didn't just make a left turn lane at Humbolt and keep the road at one lane with parking is beyond me.