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
  • Tuesday, June 03, 2008

    Bradley Tech: the old and the new

    This blog's ostensibly about architecture, but in truth I'm so preoccupied with matters of urban design and historic preservation that I almost never get around to actually talking about architecture. So let's rectify that, shall we?

    But first, a topically related preservationist lament:

    Bradley Vocational Technical High School

    At the intersection of W. Bruce Street and S. 4th Street, where the massive Bradley Tech High School once stood, remains nothing but an empty field of mud.

    Bradley Vocational Technical High School

    Bradley Vocational Technical High School demolition

    I was disappointed that nothing was preserved from this building, which came down in 2006. In particular, the west entrance formed a brilliant termination to Bruce Street, a grand civic statement now lost and not guaranteed to be recovered in whatever eventually takes shape on the site.

    Bradley Vocational Technical High School

    Bradley Vocational Technical High School

    The old building was an enormous structure, built in several stages beginning around 1906 as Boys' Tech, and filling more than a city block. It was intimidating but grand; built in sections as it was, surely some of it could have been gutted and reused. The site as currently planned will serve as athletic fields for the school.

    Bradley Tech

    The new Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School, meanwhile, sits immediately to the south, facing W. National Avenue betweeen 3rd and 4th Streets. The building consists of a round-roofed section, flanked by two more standard box-shaped wings. It is seductive with its strong forms and shiny materials. However, I was rather confused by what I could make out of the interior.

    Bradley Tech High

    The exterior of the building is a classic Modernist Big Idea: we're gonna make this thing a half-cylinder, lying on its side, intersected by a series of vertical masonry cores. It's bold, it's powerful, it's iconic. Ordinary buildings are based on a floor plan which is then extruded vertically, but this one's a giant hoop, extruded horizontally. That's the Big Idea, the image you see from the street before you ever set foot inside. The result of that idea is that the building should be sectional -- elements that occur at one end should carry through the length of the building. The curve of the roof should provide the basis for orientation throughout the building. However, from what I could see from the outside, the building doesn't seem to work that way.

    Bradley Tech High School

    One end of the cylinder has a massive open atrium, the width of the building. This portion does indeed take full advantage of the building's iconic shape, with the curved roof exposed high above the entry doors, and a massive wall of north-facing glass filling the space with light.

    But south of that, it's solid labs and workshops (and, presumably, corridors.) The raw metal cladding of the cylinder ends before it reaches the ground, leaving a narrow exterior passage framed by curving structural members, but this is the only sectional element I could discern from the outside. Viewed from the inside, the Big Idea gets lost.

    Bradley Tech High School

    What else could have been done? Historically, a big, odd shape like a cylinder denotes a large open space -- a gymnasium or an auditorium (or an atrium). Curves are odd shapes -- computer age or not, we still live in a world of orthogonal construction. So you don't want to have to cut walls off to meet them or have glass made to fit their varying profiles. You wanna enclose it once and not touch it again. And the curve is a special shape, so it should remain visible; you don't want to bury it under a dropped ceiling.

    Bradley Tech High School

    So, the building could have been designed as a "building within a building" -- classrooms pulled back from the exterior skin, window walls along the classrooms allowing outside light to filter in, mezzanine balconies replacing typical hallways (enclosed in glass, of course, since the last thing you want to give a bunch of high school kids is the irresistable chance to drop things on their classmates three stories below), all of it opening onto a multi-story windowed west wall. Let that strange curved roof play through on the inside as well as the outside.

    Why didn't it play out that way? Could have been any number of reasons. Big atriums require a bigger building. Big buildings cost more money to build, maintain, cool, and heat. But if that ended up being the case, why use a form that screams out "sectional building"?

    Some of the oddness also comes to light in the meeting of the cylinder with its two adjoining wings, which are both more traditional in form.

    Bradley Tech

    Bradley Tech High School

    I may be coming down a little hard on this building. Compared to about 95% of the blobby nonsense that's hyped up in the glossy magazines these days, it's utterly practical, and unlike a lot of ultra-modern glass containers, it does have a strong visual identity, a sense of form and mass. Without that cylinder, the building wouldn't be nearly as memorable. But it does seem to suffer from a similar problem as the blobs, wherein a sexy shape is selected for the outside, and then the inside is compelled to fit within.

    Bradley Tech High School

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    Milwaukee's new Amtrak station has a bizarre problem

    In town this weekend, I briefly stopped by the newly completed Amtrak station. It looks pretty sharp. I felt a subliminal sense of letdown that the whole area wasn't magically transformed into some majestic gateway to the city, but that's far to much to ask of one little building. The traffic flow, the loading areas, and the existence of a waiting area with natural light are all a huge improvement over the pre-renovation depot.

    Amtrak Station renovation complete

    Didn't have time to go inside, sadly. But I did notice something very strange on the glass facade:

    What.. the.. hell?

    The seagulls, it would seem, have been leaving presents for Milwaukee travelers.

    It looks like they must perch on that little L-shaped ledge, with the step up creating a nicely secure spot for them. With downtown's itinerant gull population most recently displaced by the Harley Museum, it's not too surprising that the gulls would quickly latch onto a new perch. I didn't see any while I was there, but my visit was too short to be a representative sample. And if they're not perching there, then they must be dive-bombing it, which... well, that's just too bizarre to fathom, and the marks don't look right for that anyway.

    There's a simple and unobtrusive solution, fortunately. Expect some bird spikes to show up on the station's roofline shortly.