Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bye-bye baby blue

Much as I hated to admit it, I always figured that the blue brick Midcentury building at North and Prospect would be coming down. Sitting adjacent to an empty gas station and its own parking lot, it'd be an easy sacrifice to make, to allow combination of the lots and creation of one large building site.

I was right... and I was wrong.

The blue brick building, Milwaukee

Blue building site

They tore down the blue building, alright -- much to my regret. But in its place is coming... a building of similar mass and footprint. Meanwhile, the gas station lot has got its own building already, a brand-new Bruegger's Bagels.


North & Prospect

Make no mistake, this is definitely an improvement over the vacant gas station (even when it was occupied.) But... I'm a little surprised that something more ambitious didn't arise here.

Meanwhile, the blue building will be replaced by a new branch building for the Educator's Credit Union. Trading out a two-story building for a one-story building? How does that work?

Coming Soon

The new building is purported to be a Prairie Style structure, though it's hard to discern from the rendering shown here. The architect, Racine's Genesis Architecture, does show some beautiful Prairie Style work on their web site, so perhaps it's just down to my crappy photograph of the sign.

But I miss the blue building. It's yet another case of tearing down something not just because it's old, but because it's the wrong kind of old. We need a new old instead, an older old! The style of forty years ago is never new enough, and never old enough. By the time Midcentury Modern has aged enough to be old, valued and historic, by the time we're far enough removed from its time to look back on it with fresh eyes and truly appreciate it... Milwaukee will have torn it all down.

Blue brick

Additionally, if the building absolutely had to go... I really wanted one of those bricks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

90 miles apart

Being in Milwaukee this weekend made me acutely aware of some of the differences between it and Chicago. It's more than just a matter of scale. The difference of size causes different attitudes, different mentalities.

Milwaukee is a city that's still close to the land. It is shaped by topography, sitting atop 80-foot high bluffs that overlook Lake Michigan. It's a small city, small enough that people who essentially live out in the country can take part in its daily life, and people who live in the city have many options for outdoor sports and activities. That connection gives it an often rural attitude. People in Milwaukee come from small towns. They root for the Packers -- it's not just a cliche. They hike and fish and hunt and backpack and camp and canoe on their weekends. That same rural attitude, applied to city living, gives the city an air of smart environmentalism; it also means that Milwaukee sometimes fights against its own nature as a city (just look at the hew and cry over bus funding and rail transit, or the reluctance to convert 794 to a surface parkway, or the fuss over tearing down a useless stretch of highway, or...) Milwaukee is a small niche of the (reluctantly) man-made perched among the vast wilderness of Lake Michigan.

Chicago by contrast has long since conquered nature, which is sequestered away in distant woodlands known collectively as the Forest Preserve. Chicago's Lake Michigan coast is entirely artificial, constructed over a hundred years of city-building, and gives an illusion of control over the vast body of water. The city sprawls for thirty miles in every direction, ensuring no easy escape from its artificial environment. The resources of the Great Lakes funnel down to Chicago, which is the drain through which they flow, the sieve that sorts them, the mill which grinds them up and churns out product. Chicago is less a part of Lake Michigan and more an engine strapped to its side, converting its resources to commercial goods and fountaining wealth across the region.

At their cores, the cities may seem similar -- glistening downtowns perched on idyllic lakefronts (indeed, Milwaukee's lakefront is no less artificial than that of Chicago.) But the difference is in how they spread themselves across the land. In barely five minutes of driving north from downtown, Milwaukee's Gold Coast high rises give way to single family homes, and five minutes after that these houses gain their own private beaches and forests. By Whitefish Bay, the view up the coast is essentially the same as it will be for the next hundred miles. One must travel a good ten miles north of central Chicago to find a single-family home with a lake view. Milwaukee is a short interruption of nature; Chicago is its own nature.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A south side mystery

Wadhams Gas Station

It began with a photo on Flickr, showing the well-known brick wall on 1st Street where a Wadham's gas station pagoda once stood. The building's outline remains embedded on the wall, along with part of a painted sign.

"Oh," I commented. "I have a photo of that when it was still standing." But a dig through my film archives showed no such thing. Apparently, I was thinking of this place instead, which I photographed in the summer of 2001.

I have no idea if it was a Wadham's or not. I'm not even sure where it stood -- somewhere between the Modjeska Theater on Mitchell Street, and St. Hyacinth's a few blocks south on Becher Street, to judge by the before and after images on my negatives.

Wadhams Gas Station

Where was it? What was it? I turn to my readers for answers -- I have none!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Discovery World

View from the new breakwater

It's hard to argue with the new Discovery World building. From the outside, it's a knockout from every angle. It's a beautiful compliment to the Art Museum addition, without aping it.

I visited Discovery World about a year ago, and got to see how the inside relates to the outside. The building's functions are expressed well from the outside, about... 75% of the way through, I'd say.

Discovery World

The Headhouse is clearly distinct as a gathering point, a circular structure with balconies at the top. Those balconies surround a ballroom/meeting space, and provide spectacular views of the city, the lake, and the new harbor to the south. An awkward moment does occur when storage space winds up being placed on the outside of the third floor space, complete with windows and a view of the harbor. Oops! It might have been better placed in a block with the elevators nearby -- service functions like that should be grouped; it's a basic rule of thumb. It also emphasizes some of the inherent difficulty of a round building.

Lucky tables and chairs

The main body of the building is laid out along a broad, tall corridor lined with windows facing the bay to the south, an attractive and open space that provides easy orientation.

The glass tube

At the end, one turns right and enters the primary exhibit space, which is dominated by a double-spiral staircase with an elaborate moving model in the center. A window wall to the north provides continued orientation, and creates a delightful view of the colorfully-lit model by night.

Glowing in the night

Discovery World

Past this point, however, clarity starts to fall apart. A second room on the first floor kind of dead ends. The main room on the second floor is a bit chopped up by its exhibits, with no clear main circulation path. Classrooms and other interactive areas are accessed through an odd hallway that makes one hesitate to proceed, uncertain if they're headed toward a mock TV studio, the corporate offices, or the boiler room. It was at this point that I got the impression that this portion of the building had been designed from the outside in, rather than allowing the functions to generate the plan, and the exterior form to follow from that.

Some of the second floor exhibits were still under construction when I visited, so it's possible things may become more clear with time. Some bold signs would have gone a long way toward clarifying what was where.

Outside, the building and its grounds succeed brilliantly. What was once a completely forgettable section of the lakefront is now fully integrated with the parks and museum to the north, and the newly-opened Lakeshore State Park and the Summerfest Grounds to the south.

Facing the new harbor

The building's water-facing sides are wrapped with cantilevered walkways, offering exciting views of the new harbor and the lake waters to the south. The walkways hook up with a new breakwater with attached docks and a small connected amphitheater. The amphitheater faces a new dock for the sailing ship Dennis Sullivan. It's a brilliant expansion of Milwaukee's already-magnificent lakefront, and adds a worthy attraction to the lakefront's offerings. In light of that, a few architectural flukes are pretty negligible.

Discovery World

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Amtrak Station burdened by junk

Amtrak station

I recently visited the spacious new waiting room of Milwaukee's remodeled passenger depot. Perhaps "depot" is a poor choice of words, because the building no longer treats passengers like cargo. The dark and minimal waiting area has been replaced with a vast, bright and airy space.

The Waiting Room

As a consequence of the narrow space available for the expansion, the waiting room features a strange set of proportions. It is as taller than it is wide, and very long, running uninterrupted for the 300-foot length of the building. The pick-up-sticks wall of angled steel box beams begs to be beheld from a distance, to be appreciated in its entirety, but it's not quite possible with the room's narrow width.

Still, it is an airy and comfortable space, open and inviting, big but not overwhelming, much like Milwaukee itself. The white color continues a trend started by several of the city's most prominent new structures: the Art Museum addition, the 6th Street viaduct, and the new Discovery World building.

Functionally, the space breaks up into three parts. The western half is used for Greyhound passengers; chairs ring a large open area. The center portion is a general dining/communal area, designated by three tall trees and round tables. The eastern half is for Amtrak passengers, and is marked by multiple rows of chairs.

The Window Wall

This is not a pristine space; it is of course meant filled with chairs. Several large potted trees enliven the center of the space, breaking up the room's endless length. And the crazy-quilt structure of the window wall itself suggests some of the chaos naturally associated with travel. Yet there is something clean and crisp about it, and I was disappointed to find that the management has seen fit to clutter the entire space with junk.


More junk, and soda.

Much of this detritus was clearly not planned for, and was added after the fact. That monster game machine really should have its own dedicated space, in a game room somewhere (it makes a lot of noise as well, disturbing the peace of everyone waiting to travel.) And while trash cans and ATMs are necessary accoutrement of everyday life, there are ways to deal with them more elegantly than to jam them up against every available column.

One of those ways, for example, is to provide a dedicated alcove for objects like vending machines. It's not beautiful, but at least it gets them out of the way. And it seems that someone had this in mind... but somewhere in the planning process, the fact that vending machines require electricity wasn't accounted for. And thus, while an alcove big enough for twenty soda machines does indeed line the south wall of the waiting area, it's empty, because there's nothing to plug the machines into.

Connect the dots

Instead, they cluster clumsily around the ends of the alcove, butting out into the concourse area, not only looking ugly in their own right but giving the space the sort of ad hoc messiness that really shouldn't be present in a freshly remodeled building. Even allowing for the mistake of not including enough outlets, one would think that fifty dollars would be available to pick up a couple of extension cords and get the machines into the alcove where they belong.

And more soda.

Attempts to lure a full-time restaurant to the station have not met with much success, but with this phalanx of vending machines, the station already has the equivalent of a small 7-Eleven.

My one other criticism with the station's interior pertains to the Greyhound end of the waiting area. Travel by Greyhound is a catch-as-catch-can affair; one must wait in line to be assured of getting a spot on the bus. To that end, passengers typically use their luggage as a stand-in so they can sit while waiting. The open space of the waiting area serves this need adequately, providing plenty of seats surrounding the luggage line-up that allow passengers to keep an eye on their bags. Yet it remains a chaotic solution, and I wonder if other, more elegant alternatives were explored (integrating the line with the waiting room chairs, for example, or a numbering system.)

Outside, it took a little bit of searching to locate the bike racks. They're tucked away behind the Greyhound boarding area on the building's west end, out of sight from the road (and nearly everything else.) I'm not sure how I feel about the arrangement; while it doesn't advertise the presence of locked bikes to passersby, it also doesn't seem to be a very well-watched area.

Hidden bike racks

The bike racks are correctly installed, with plenty of room on all sides, and they are the multiple-U racks which are ideal for parking any type of bicycle. Having any racks at all is a great step up from the state of affairs during the renovation, and I do appreciate that bicyclists were given this thoughtful parking arrangement.

Criticisms aside, the new waiting area is a welcome addition to the Milwaukee traveling experience. Hopefully the building's management will soon relocate some of the clutter that's currently dragging down an otherwise pleasant and modern space.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Pritzlaff Hardware Building

Just across the river from the 3rd Ward is this monster of a building complex. The original two portions, with their endless marching windows and bays, were begun in 1875 as the Pritzlaff Building.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building

The building originally held a hardware company that, in time, became Milwaukee's largest. The enterprise was begun by John Pritzlaff, a Prussian immigrant who arrived in Milwaukee in 1841. In 1850 he started his hardware company, which would eventually become one of the largest in the Midwest, employing some 400 persons at its peak.

Leaving its original home on 3rd Street (still extant today), the company moved south to a site with railroad and river access. The new building was designed by John Rugee. The center portion of the east facade, dated 1875, came first; the corner portion to the north was likely the next addition. Overall the building was expanded at least three times, in 1916 among others, into a 300,000 square foot complex.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building

Pritzlaff's son Fredrick would continue as president of the company until 1951; Frederick's son and grandson also entered the business. However, by then the company was in decline; it closed its doors in 1958.

The buildings then became home to Hack's Furniture, who applied their own painted signs to its vast walls of Cream City brick. Hack's closed in 1984, but a family-owned storage business moved into the building.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building

The buildings were most recently occupied as a furniture store (The Mattress Store) and for storage, but have been largely vacant and underutilized for years. By 2000, the building was under consideration for conversion into a residential space, but no developers were willing to step forward, daunted perhaps by its considerable size.

Six years later, however, Sunset Investors got the ball got rolling on a massive renovation, cleanup, and remodeling. The building is now being converted to a mixed-use project, including 86 condominiums, retail, office space, and a new parking garage that has yet to be built. The project is being overseen by Brookfield design firm Cityscape Archtecture.

The renovation has cleaned the public faces of the building, washing away heavy layers of grime and soot accumulated in its 130-year history. The change is remarkable, letting the building's architectural beauty shine through unblemished.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building, spring 2000
East elevation in March 2000

Pritzlaff Hardware Building, summer 2008
East elevation in June 2008

While the renovated facades look unquestionably great, it is still a bit sad to see the building's physical history scrubbed away, losing the appearance of a building unaltered for a hundred years. The building has also lost the 1950s painted signs from the Hack's Furniture days.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building
North/west elevations, July 2005

Pritzlaff Hardware Building
North/west elevations, July 2008

Various painted signs for Pritzlaff Hardware remain on the back of the building at present, though the renovation may claim them as well. Some are over a hundred years old; it would be an unfortunate loss.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building
Above: a painted Pritzlaff Hardware sign on one of the original buildings was partially covered over by a western building addition.

The building's street facades are nothing short of remarkable. The various additions over the years are unified by their Cream City brick construction, and range in style from ornate Italianate to the largely unadorned 7-story addition to the south. An amazingly long line of windows marches down the Plankington Avenue side, beautifully rhythmic, their sheer number hinting at the heights of prosperity and money that drove the building's owners.

3rd Ward Multiples II

The building is remarkably well preserved, its cornice and Italianate brackets unaltered since their original 1875 construction. It street level storefronts are likewise virtually unaltered; the renovation has removed the various ad hoc alterations that did accumulate over the years, leaving a clean and lovely street facade.

Pritzlaff Hardware Building

Seeing this building renovated and on its way back to life is nothing short of uplifting. In its sheer size and power, it is one of the city's most remarkable structures.

Pritzlaff Building

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Teweles Seed, before and after

Continuing to muck around in the eastern end of the Menomonee Valley....

Teweles Seed, pre-renovation

This was Teweles Seed Company in 2003 -- a grungy-looking, ragged old industrial tower from 1918, in brawny concrete and battered brick and glass. The grounds were deserted, home to liittle more than ancient abandoned trucks and dumped tires.

Teweles Seed, post-renovation

This is the Teweles building today - remarkably renovated into rental apartments, with a shiney modern penthouse addition up top.

It's way too easy to romanticize decay, to lament the passing of the old industrial face of Milwaukee and bemoan the coming of the dreaded condominiums. Don't fall for it. The City Needs More People -- this is the infallible mantra of the savvy urbanist, and will be for many, many years to come. This part of the 5th Ward is a frontier now, but check back in five to ten years and by rights it should be bustling.

(All that said, they seem to be having quite a few management problems.)

More before and after shots may be seen here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Harley Museum rising

Harley Davidson Museum

Long anticipated, greatly hyped, the Harley Davidson Museum is nearing completion. It's slated to open on July 12th.

Harley Davidson Museum

It's a sharp looking piece of modern design, courtesy of New York City's Pentagram Design. Its factory-like aesthetic fits nicely into the Menomonee Valley, long the city's industrial center.

The campus is a bit sprawling for my tastes, but at least down in the Valley it's not taking away from denser areas. The Menomonee Valley is, by its nature, a large gap in the city's urban fabric. With no plans to change that, it's as good a place as any to host the museum, and having this sort of draw close to downtown is a definite plus.

Harley Davidson Museum

I'm very pleased to see the riverside landscaping and paths that have been included as part of the campus; presumably these will extend the Valley's biking and walking trails further east. They form a sharp contrast with the brutal rear wall of the main Post Office building across the river, showing just how much attitudes toward the river have changed in 40 years.

Harley Davidson Museum

As for the building itself, Whitney Gould summed it up nicely two years ago: it's no Calatrava-aping showstopper, but it's taut and disciplined, cooly and respectably modern. I look forward to seeing the interior, and what spatial surprises await within.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

5th Ward Building Collapse

The Journal-Sentinel reports that the Phillip Weimer Building, at 6th Street and National Avenue, has suffered a major roof and sidewall collapse amid today's heavy rains.

Phil Weimer Building
June 1, 2008, just a week before the collapse. The small house at right was largely destroyed by the collapse.

The 1892 Romanesque building is part of an amazing lineup of Victorian commercial buildings at the intersection and in the surrounding blocks, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its loss will diminish one of Milwaukee's major historical treasures. The front facade, at very least, should be preserved.

Phil Weimer Building
October 2006

Originally built to house a wine and liquor business, the building was most recently home to the Acapulco Lounge, which was closed for renovation. A small fire was reported, but quickly snuffed by firemen. No injuries are reported.

Phil Weimer Building

Post-collapse photos may be seen here.

The Corpse of Prospect Mall

Prospect Mall has been sitting empty for nearly two years now. In 2006, the mall booted out its last few tenants (the Chocolate Factory, a used bookstore, a dismal first-run movie theater) and turned out the lights. What could be done with this vacant hulk?

Prospect Mall

My first thought was to turn the whole thing into a movie complex. Gut the interior completely, add more screens, completely renovate everything. Add in a couple of restaurants facing a luxurious interior lobby space for a complete all-in-one stop for an evening on the town. Don't make it an interior arcade -- the building's too small for it to work. Make it one single space, lined by storefronts. The East Side already has two great theaters, but they're focused on art house films. A first-run theater might do well, especially if it was maintained to high standards, unlike the ratty Prospect Mall Theater.

Prospect Mall

My second thought: tear the whole thing down. There's an old brick building under there somewhere, but as it currently stands, the exterior is an EFIS-slathered nightmare, and the interior is a badly dated 1970s attempt at rustic ambiance. The lot is big enough to support something massive, a 5- or 6-story building with retail all around the base. There's no shortage of market demand for the area.

But when I went to get photographs, I discovered that, hey, the brick building might be something pretty nice:

Prospect Mall

That's some handsome brickwork. That's worth saving.

So now I’m back to my first position: gut it. Redo it. Take off the awful EFIS cladding; repair the brickwork (the building housing World of Wings a quarter mile south offers a perfect precedent.) Restore the storefronts, tie the building into the street, set up a small but quality first-run mainstream movie theater within.

And by doing so, get the black hole out of the East Side's heart.

Friday, June 06, 2008

S.G. Courteen Seed Corporation Warehouse

If you've ever driven south from the river down 2nd Street, you've seen this monstrous mountain of a building, its wedge-shaped form cutting an 11-story slice into the sky.

S.G. Courteen Seed Corp. Warehouse

Like a heavy-duty iteration of New York City's Flatiron Building, the knife-edge end of the Courteen building seems to lead a parade of industrial architecture up from the 5th Ward.

S.G. Courteen Seed Corp. Warehouse

In fact, the narrow end is the back side of the building. The front faces south, on Pittsburgh Avenue, and is rather tame by comparison.

S.G. Courteen Seed Corp. Warehouse

The building's original owner went out of business in the 1960s. Not much seems to have been done with the property since then, but a lack of boards and broken windows indicates some form of use and occupancy. Its owner proposed a residential redevelopment in 2006 (see article linked below), but to date only minimal work on the building is visible, mostly along the roofline. Delays in commercial development are extremely common, however, especially in the financing stage; it could still be coming. Hopefully it won't involve chopping up those amazingly huge Cream City brick walls.

S.G. Courteen Seed Corp. Warehouse
  • Aerial view from
  • After 40 years, Thatcher plans $40 million project - February 2006 Business Journal article