Beyond Cream City Brick: Modernism in Milwaukee


Eric Vogel


Regional Spotlight, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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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. 

Beyond Cream City Brick Part One
Milwaukee Moderns

Milwaukee Moderns will introduce the diverse communities, progressive ideas and cultural leaders in Milwaukee during the twentieth century. This preview chronologically examines five iconic modern Milwaukee buildings through the lens of the pioneering architects, designers, activists, and community leaders that pushed for design reform and advocated for architectural innovation.

Entering Milwaukee from the south across the Daniel Hoan bridge, we see the historic 19th century riverfront city recomposed through a modern lens of concrete and steel. With its bracing beams passing in sequence overhead like sprocket holes in a film reel, the bowstring bridge structure, completed in 1977, frames the skyline as if purposefully designed to animate the city’s architectural achievements. The Milwaukee lakefront itself is a modern conception; first inspired by Depression-era WPA projects, called to action at mid-century by the engineer’s aesthetic of Eero Saarinen’s War Memorial Center and later refined by Santiago Calatrava’s winged brise soleil for the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Discovery World Pilot House by HGA. In the city’s lakeshore skyline are classic step-back skyscrapers from the 1920’s, the grey piers and white steel trusses of mid-century landmarks, a stenciled 60’s metal façade, a faceted 70’s monolith, and the luminous glass of contemporary office facades. In the foreground are the fountains and tree groves of Dan Kiley’s Cudahy Gardens, the curving steel rooflines of Summerfest’s stages, and the aquiline paths of Lakeshore Park. Over the last century, modern architecture and landscape design have come to define the skyline of Milwaukee’s civic identity.

The story of modernism in Milwaukee is a more complex narrative than a single establishing shot can convey. Modernism’s introduction to Milwaukee was controversial and sporadic. Housing in many neighborhoods was largely unchanged from the 19th century with Queen Anne houses, German duplexes and turn-of-the-century bungalows dominating most city streets. Frank Lloyd Wright’s introduction of the American System Built Homes on Burnham Street was a striking exception to that rule. 

Abstract murals, mosaics, and public sculptures, along with futuristic furniture and interior design, were important forerunners of modernism in Milwaukee. Streamline moderne apartment towers and corporate office interiors flourished in the early 20th century under the auspices of Herbert Tullgren, the Eschweiler brothers and a young industrial designer named Brooks Stevens. Later, after the Second World War, modern ecclesiastical architecture, school buildings and civic competitions fueled architectural innovation.

The one constant for modern architecture in Milwaukee across the decades was corporate investment. Public and private companies were the primary engine of modern design in the 20th century, each generation reimagining the city skyline with its own aesthetic definition of the future. In 1929, flush with profits from the company’s 40% market share of US automobile frame production, L.R. Smith commissioned the Chicago architecture firm of Holabird & Root to design a new Research & Engineering Building that would expand the number of engineers dedicated to research at the A.O. Smith Company. Correspondence reveals the personal involvement of L.R. Smith at almost every stage of the design and construction process. At Smith’s insistence, the new design would leap ahead of the typical cut limestone facades of the 1930’s by using steel, glass and aluminum to showcase the company’s technological prowess and to symbolize its commitment to engineering innovation. Nine stories of steel plate construction and a box-column-girder framework carried the major structural loads allowing the three-sided “chevron” facade to become an ultra-thin curtain of transparent glass and aluminum frames. At night, the building seemed almost immaterial, the entry portal silhouetted against the prismatic glass facade. 

The interior design of the entry hall was just as futuristic, with floor to ceiling glass panels, an emerald green unitized wall system, curved aluminum pilasters, furniture inspired by gears, seating made from bent aluminum sheets, and a backlit geometric mural inlaid into the floor.

Today, the A.O. Smith Research & Engineering Building stands as one of the most radical innovations in building technology from the early Machine Age. More than two decades passed before Mies van der Rohe completed his first curtain wall design in Chicago at the Lakeshore Drive Apartments in 1951. With the advent of air-conditioning and synthetic rubber sealants later in the post-war period, the multi-floor curtain wall technology first tried and tested in Milwaukee in 1930 became a hallmark of mid-century American modernism.

The financial success of businesses like A.O. Smith began to support a new generation of cultural projects in Milwaukee, such as the Layton School of Art. After the Second World War, the school became one of the fastest-growing and most progressive colleges of art and design in the country. Charlotte Partridge and her lifelong partner Miriam Frink, who founded the school in 1921 in the basement of an old Victorian art gallery downtown, formulated a new vision for Layton in 1948 as a modern cultural destination on Milwaukee’s lakefront. Partridge was a well-known champion of modernist architecture, progressive art education, gender equality, civil rights and Socialist politics. The new school would be a material expression of everything she publicly espoused.

Industrial designer and Layton faculty member Jack Waldheim, architect of the new school, shared her vision. Partridge and Waldheim customized each aspect of the building to enhance the Layton curriculum. Their objective was nothing short of a full re-evaluation, both physical and psychological, of an art and design education using architectural means. The resulting edifice of concrete and glass stood out amidst the neighborhood’s aging Victorian mansions. Glass block in a tight grid was positioned above and below long ribbon windows which filtered light across the ceilings and floors. Slatted metal solar shades crossed the exterior facades to control the sun at its height. The result was a luminous ‘laboratory for art education,’ stunning both day and night. Tragically, after only twenty years of active occupancy, the Layton School of Art was demolished five years before Partridge’s own death in 1975 – for a lakefront freeway that was never built. 

The panorama of Milwaukee’s skyline belies many such erasures, including the history of early Indian removal, racial discrimination, redlining and misguided urban renewal efforts that marginalized communities of color. The pain of this legacy sets the tone for future political debates about why design matters, who should be empowered in Milwaukee’s ongoing urban design process and whether diverse groups, including the preservation community, will be given voice to promote greater social equity, sustainable design and preservation of historic architecture, including modernism, across Milwaukee’s many different communities.

The political activism of recent years has inspired historians and preservationists in Milwaukee to celebrate not only the “star-architects” and period styles of popular guidebooks, but also the unconventional practitioners and less well-known design activists who preferred working collaboratively behind the scenes as part of nonprofit boards, building committees and community groups. These design activists came from all walks of life, often from outside the profession, and include public figures like the first female editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, Louise Fenton Brand, progenitor of the War Memorial arts complex on the lakefront; unheralded talents like Alonzo Robinson, Wisconsin’s first registered Black architect, whose contextual modernism of the 1960’s helped repair the torn fabric of urban neighborhoods; and Sister Juliana Kelly, a hospital administrator who strongly advocated for Bertrand Goldberg’s radical biomorphic forms for St. Mary’s Hospital in the early 1970’s. Not coincidentally, many of these successful design activists were women whose talents and public achievements were unfairly diminished by systemic gender bias.

Lillian Leenhouts FAIA, the first registered female architect in Wisconsin, built a small practice with her husband Willis during the mid-twentieth century that integrated architecture with political advocacy and community activism. According to her daughter, Lillian was “the real force in the partnership” and worked for thirty years “as an architect who fights for environmental causes through a social lens.” (1)

Leenhouts contributed significant time to several citizens’ groups, and in 1969 she founded the Architects Concerned Committee in collaboration with the Walnut Area Improvement Council to stop an urban renewal project that threatened to demolish a significant area of what was considered “urban blight” in a largely African-American neighborhood on Milwaukee’s west side. Largely through her personal advocacy and the support of other volunteers, the Committee and WAICO were able to convince the city to suspend its demolition order and to pass an alternative ordinance providing funds to clean up the vacant lots and to rehabilitate rundown properties. Leenhouts then secured $500,000 in grant money to build new houses for the community with gardens and green space for outdoor activities. “In a city that is one of the most segregated in America,” notes design historian Monica Obniski, “and in a state that incarcerates African-Americans at a much higher percentage than the US average, the work that Leenhouts and the Council implemented would be welcome today as a way to guide Milwaukee’s built environment toward solving systemic issues of inequality.” (2)

These cultural innovators, and many others, propelled the transformation of architecture and design in Milwaukee during the twentieth century. The articles here begin to uncover their modern projects as an important part of Milwaukee’s cultural heritage.


  1. Obniski, Monica, “Lillian Leenhouts’s Milwaukee Eco-Socialism,” Midwest Architectural Journeys, Belt Publishing, Cleveland, 2019. p.111
  2. Obniski, Monica, “Lillian Leenhouts’s Milwaukee Eco-Socialism,” Midwest Architectural Journeys, Belt Publishing, Cleveland, 2019. p.115

About the Author

Eric Vogel is a designer, educator, architectural historian, and former Chair of the 3D Design Department at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. He is currently working on a book titled Milwaukee Moderns: Ten Cultural Innovators of the 20th Century Who Helped Make Milwaukee Modern.


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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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Two
Sensitive, Contextual, Modern: Examining Works by Alonzo Robinson, Wisconsin’s First Black Registered Architect