A Postwar Vision for a Modern Milwaukee


Peter Zanghi


President, Board of Directors, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance


Murals, Regional Spotlight, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Five
A Postwar Vision for a Modern Milwaukee

In the years immediately following World War II, there was a concerted effort in Milwaukee to construct new arts, sports, and cultural facilities.  These projects were promoted by city and county politicians, business leaders, and civic groups as amenities to serve local residents and showpieces to elevate Milwaukee’s status as a major city.  All played a role in cultivating Milwaukee’s identity, and some even made a significant contribution to the city’s architectural heritage.  The three buildings discussed below continue to serve in their original capacities and are some of the city’s most visible symbols of the Modern Movement.

Milwaukee Arena (Now UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena)

In an age where new arenas are regularly built for hundreds of millions of dollars and “old” ones don’t seem to last more than 30 years, it’s not often that in a major city you’ll find a postwar arena that retains much of its integrity and maintains its relevance with the community.  Which makes the Milwaukee Arena, first opened in 1950 at a cost of around $5M, all the more interesting.  Five years earlier, Milwaukee’s civic leaders were gauging the public’s interest in building a new venue for the growing city that would serve as a larger counterpart to the old Milwaukee Auditorium and become the primary indoor gathering place for conventions, exhibitions, and athletic events.

While the building appears quite modest by today’s standards, its beauty lies in its simplicity and practicality, fully embracing the modernist ethic of “less is more.”  It was designed by one of the city’s most celebrated firms, Eschweiler & Eschweiler, and much thought was given to movement, wayfinding, and the overall user experience.  At the time, it was notable that there were no interior posts blocking views, large banks of doors on all sides allowed for rapid exit, and restrooms were prevalent.  The main lobby was also praised for its spaciousness, its wall of “nearly all glass,” and its semicircular ticket office which featured windows angled in seven directions in order to reduce crowding.  Visual queues also aided patrons as they moved through the building.  The stairs leading from the lobby up to the main concourse were colored in an alternating pattern of red and green to increase visibility, and the tickets were printed on a background of maroon, blue, or tan to make it easier for the patron to find their seat of the corresponding color in one of the three tiers.  In 1978, the Arena became home to a groundbreaking work of pop art in the form of a basketball court designed by Robert Indiana, painted in bold colors inspired by the building’s interior and featuring giant ‘M’s on either end of the court.

In order to cut costs on the building, decisions were made to clad the majority of the exterior with brick instead of Indiana limestone and to substitute a copper-clad roof with composite.  Hidden behind its unadorned exterior is a sense of post-war optimism and civic pride that was swelling at the time of its opening.  As stated in an Op Ed by then-Mayor Frank Zeidler upon completion of the building:  “The Arena is a symbol of the life of the people of Milwaukee. Its brick and mortar, its steel ribs, its decorative features, remind us how the bonding of many qualities can create a building of great beauty.”

War Memorial Center

Located on a signature site overlooking Lake Michigan, the War Memorial Center is arguably Milwaukee’s most notable and visible work of Modern architecture.  Designed by Eero Saarinen and dedicated on Veterans Day in 1957, the commanding structure appears to float over its lakefront perch.  The building was designed to serve three purposes: a monument to servicemen from Milwaukee County who died in World War II and the Korean War, a modern facility to serve living veterans, and a “major league” community arts center.  While the size of the building and scope of those it honors has expanded, it still performs these three functions today and abides by its motto, “To honor the dead by serving the living.”

In addition to serving as a multipurpose monument, the building had to address unique site challenges.  Saarinen had to consider how the building rose from two levels--from the earth below the bridge and from the bridge itself--while ensuring that views of the lake were maintained from downtown.  Reflecting the building’s three core functions, it is structurally separated into as many segments.  The lower two levels below the bridge serve as the building’s base and house the art gallery.  The upper two levels, which are cantilevered 30 feet in three directions, house the 600-capacity Memorial Hall as well as offices and meeting spaces for veterans and civic organizations.  Separating these two segments is the open-air Memorial Court and glass-enclosed lobby which sit level with Lincoln Memorial Bridge and downtown to the west.  Memorial Court features a reflecting pool with ledges of black granite engraved with the names of Milwaukee County’s 3,000 servicemen who died in World War II and the Korean War.  A glass-enclosed staircase rises out of the reflecting pool which connects the building lobby to the floors above.

The building is visually anchored to the ground by the use of granite on the north and south sides of the lower levels.  A man-made grass hill on the east side of the structure was removed when the building was expanded towards the lake.  Aside from two additions to the base that extend towards the lake, the building largely appears as it did when it opened--save for some mechanical equipment and 5G antennas that were recently added to the building’s roof.  This summer, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance will be hosting a webinar focused on prominent mosaics integrated into Modern buildings around Milwaukee and will include Edmund Lewandowski’s monumental work affixed to the western facade of the War Memorial Center.

Performing Arts Center (Now Marcus Performing Arts Center)

When fundraising for a lakefront war memorial began in 1947, it was envisioned that it would contain both an art center and a music hall.  When only half the $5M fundraising goal was obtained, civic leaders decided to put the music hall on hold.  A years-long disagreement over the building’s location ended up landing the project on a 4-acre site near City Hall on the Milwaukee River that was cleared as part of an urban renewal program.  Twelve years after its lakefront sibling was unveiled, the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center opened its doors in September 1969 at a cost of $12M.

The project is notable in part because it features designs by two notable Midcentury designers: the northern half of the site consists of the music hall designed by Harry Weese and the southern half contains a plaza designed by Dan Kiley.  While the building’s large and imposing form may take some cues from Brutalism, Weese’s use of white Italian travertine and colonnades on three sides of the building lends it an elegance more closely associated with New Formalism.  Kiley’s plaza to the south featured a grove of 36 horse-chestnut trees uniformly spaced across four rows in a sunken plaza.  Its formal, geometric layout complimented the building’s form while serving as a gentle foil to its massive walls of stone.  Hardly just a front lawn to serve the PAC, Kiley’s grove provided downtown residents and visitors with an inviting oasis of shade and serenity in the midst of the urban hardscape.

A comprehensive remodeling project took place throughout the 1990’s which began with a complete re-cladding of the building’s exterior.  Problems with the thinly cut sections of Italian travertine and the fasteners that held them lead to a complete replacement with Winona travertine for the walls and Diamond Pink Granite for the base.  Other alterations included the addition of an entrance canopy in front of the east colonnade, the elimination of the north colonnade to accomodate a loading dock, and the replacement of exterior doors and windows.   Despite these alterations, the building still retains the majority of its form and character. 

Unfortunately, the Kiley-designed landscape to the south no longer survives.  In 2019, when it was learned that the landscape was threatened, an application was submitted for historic site designation to Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission.  Local designation would have offered protection for both the building and landscape and was supported by Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Docomomo, and others around the country, but the effort failed when local officials denied the nomination.  The entire grove of horse chestnut trees has since been cut down and a complete makeover of the plaza is planned.  Further alterations are also planned for the building, including glass-enclosed expansions in front of the colonnade facing the plaza to the south as well as the staircase facing the river to the west.

Incidentally, neither Weese nor Kiley is a stranger to Milwaukee--Weese also designed two extant office buildings at 411 and 611 E Wisconsin Ave, the latter of which served as the local branch office of IBM and features a landscape designed by Kiley.  One of Kiley’s last works can be found on the grounds surrounding the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum addition, which is directly connected to Saarinen’s War Memorial Center.



Milwaukee Arena

444 W KILBOURN AVE: Property Record. Wisconsin Historical Society. (2012, January 1). http://wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Property/HI118240

(1950, April 9). Bigness of the Arena Is Impressive, but It Is Important in Other Ways. Milwaukee Journal, pp. 3.

War Memorial Center

Botsford, J. (1957, July 17). Showplace Rising on Lakefront. Milwaukee Sentinel, pp. 5.

Performing Arts Center

Historic Preservation Commission. (2019). Permanent Historic Designation Study Report: Milwaukee Center for the Performing Arts/Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission. https://city.milwaukee.gov/cityclerk/hpc/HistoricPropertiesDistricts

About the Author

Peter Zanghi serves as the Board President of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and works at Irgens Partners, a Milwaukee-based commercial real estate company.  He is passionate about architecture and music and is always looking forward to the next concert at a historic venue.

Beyond Cream City Brick: Modernism in Milwaukee is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas VegasColoradoKansas, and Pittsburgh. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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