After two hour family car ride through life-less suburbs and outlet malls, and past the Bristol Renaissance Fair, we finally hit an urban tangle of highway ramps. This was the signal of our arrival to a Place. A real Place. A city, with diversity of people and buildings, and a bus system (I didn't distinguish much between Milwaukee and Chicago as a 10 year old). Even if we would pull into the parking garage, take an elevator to shop at a neon-drenched mall, shop at 5 7 9, and get right back in the car without stepping outdoors again until the Brat Stop.
Unlike a lot of rust-belt cities, Milwaukee began to pull itself out of the post-industrial economy in the early 90s because of smart planning and a New Urbanist Mayor. But don't worry, all Milwaukee's planning mistakes have not been erased. Glorious mid-sixties Brutalist-style government structures still loom above downtown sidewalks.
Inner-ring neighborhoods are clad in a patchwork of aluminum siding, particle board, and signage with out-dated fonts. The quaint turn of the century facades that once housed something-or-other German, have been adopted and modified by the next group of immigrants. There's even a few centrally-located warehouses that have escaped 'condo duty' and a bar on every corner, waiting to serve you a happy hour special right now.
I like to imagine it's what Chicago was like in the 70s. That sweet time (that I'm probably making up) before white-flight had completely run its course and the yuppie influx hadn't begun. Milwaukee has embraced its 1970s dive bars, German restaurants, and lounges. That's the beauty of mid-sized cities that never quite had enough wealth to destroy/redecorate/rehab and otherwise muck up the architecture. And if they do, at least they muck it up in a fun way.
|Shatner in black light velvet|
On a recent Milwaukee/Chicago trip in a torrential downpour, the prairie scenery morphed with the raindrops on the Amtrak windows producing a lovely acid flashback sorta feeling. That day the Des Plains river was swollen to record levels and mid-century office park detention ponds overflowed to meet the edge of the tracks. I overheard a retired German couple (I'm guessing from her wacky glasses and their accents) asked the ticket guy,
"which side of ze train has ze best view?". His answer is the reason why I want to write about the Midwest.
"Oh there's really nothing to see," he said in earnest.
|View of the old portion of the Amtrak station from a riverside park.|
I felt deflated and angry, but empowered. Since then I have decided to make it my personal mission to get people excited about the subtle beauty of the prairies and the thousands of architectural gems throughout the Midwest. This is the land of Frank Loyd Wright, the world's first skyscraper, and the freaking Great Lakes goddamnit #!)%*#(@#$*!
|Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum|
Besides the spectacular pub crawl possibilities, Milwaukee seems to have got it right with smart urban planning principals and the most important building for architectural tourism – the Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum. Many cities have tried to capitalize on the tourist dollars and gain the cultural respect that an architecturally daring building sometimes yields, and MAM has become a rare Midwest success story. Though budget over-runs, mechanical malfunctions, and maintenance issues have plagued the building since its inception, the boost in civic pride, world-wide attention, and most of all being the envy of New York and Chicago’s architectural community has made it all worth it. Milwaukee has also made possible what progressive urban planners everywhere can only dream of: in 2004, lead by New Urbanist Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, 26 acres worth of highway in the downtown area was demolished and restored to the street grid, the largest section of highway ever purposefully destroyed.
Another building that exemplifies the city's new direction, which also happens to be the best way to arrive in Milwaukee, is the newly renovated Intermodal Station (Eppstein Uhen Architects, 2007). Here’s the short version of its idiotic history: in 1965 the 1886 Everett Street Depot, with a massive Gothic clock tower, was demolished to be replaced by an urban renewal style modern Amtrak Depot down the street (also with a clock, to appease the public). This proved to be unpopular and so, was transformed into an ultra modern, gleaming glass box in 2007. The crumbling 1960s concrete box still remains the bulk the station's container, and the old glass bricks are still visible from the back. But EUA architects did more than perform a façadectomy. They brought the daring new glass and steel atrium closer to the street and showed restraint in the MCM free-standing letter signage. The structure knits its north façade back into the city with angled white beams as if playing a game of cats cradle with the skyline. The graceful, white cable-stayed bridge behind the station engages the Harley Davidson Museum and further broadcasts the area’s revitalization.
"The architecture itself is rugged, fashioned from the plainspoken stuff of industry - steel, brick and glass - without falling into historicist platitudes. Its crisp, hard edges and restrained grays and blacks show deference to the supple shapes and sheen of the motorcycles. It's honest architecture, designed to wear its structural logic on its sleeve, with a lattice of steel beam supports on the exteriors and most rivets and bolts out in full view." MARY LOUISE-SCHUMACHER writes of the Harley Davidson Museum
|Public Market oysters and beer|
1. Walk four blocks east from the train station to the Public Market and eat fresh oysters.
2. Catch the bus to Bryant's Lounge down in Bay View and get to know the bartender before it gets crowded.
Bryant's alone has just about convinced me to move to Milwaukee. It's classy and welcoming and darker than the make-out room at a 7th grade party. It's not nostalgic, it just hasn't changed since the 70s. Blindly trust the bartender to invent a drink on the spot according to your mood; they're so good at it, they don't have a menu.
|At Random, named for it's erratic operating hours|
This story made me chuckle: It's Cute That New York is Slowly Catching Up with Wisconsin (from the always entertaining blog The Awl).
And speaking of New York, it looks like Calatrava was practicing on the Milwaukee Art Museum for the World Trade Center building Oculus (which opened in 2016).
|Mark di Suvero's 1982 sculpture "The Calling"|
Back to architectural tourism: The view of the Milwaukee Art Museum campus from Wisconsin Avenue, including the orange I-beamsculpture, the Calatrava, and the Eero Saarinen War Memorial Center demonstrate the major art and architecture movements of the last 60 years. "The Calling," by Mark di Suvero in all of its 1980s glory, sits at a vista off Wisconsin Avenue to which the Quadracci Pavilion is perfectly aligned. Calatrava juxtaposes his airy Pavilion with the simplicity of the industrial sculpture and the austerity Saarinen’s cantilevered concrete War Memorial.
Maybe because “The Calling” is from the all-too-recent past, or maybe because it's orange; the 1982 starburst-shaped sculpture has sparked intense controversy. A readers poll conducted by The Milwaukee Sentinel whose results favored moving the sculpture by a 2 to 1 margin because it was perceived as blocking views of the new "Calatrava" and threatened its removal.
Even if the 80s brought us the post-modern nightmare of skyscrapers as corporate logos and a historically false architectural elements as a response to the "populist demand", that is no reason to hastily dismiss the art of that era. Thankfully, the bold sculpture remains today, announcing the museum and animating the Wisconsin Avenue view corridor. It's a like a funky modern broach pinned to the breast of the city.
And besides, orange goes with everything- from a brilliant cobalt blue to a dishwater gray sky, the bright white Calatrava, the surrounding green trees and gardens, and especially the steel, glass and stone of the Milwaukee skyline.
|Calatrava from inside the War Memorial Center|
|Saarinen framing Lake Michigan|
Daring, unconventional Spanish 'star-architect' and Artist (accent on the i) Santiago Calatrava’s first American project the Quadracci Pavilion- is Milwaukee's newest addition to the MAM. Since its opening in 2001, it has become the city's official icon and marketing tool as planned. Previously Milwaukee's touted the German Renaissance Revival style City Hall (1895) which was the world’s tallest building until 1899.
For the record, the marketing campaign worked on me and brought me, camera in hand to the city of Milwaukee. Once inside a museum I thoroughly enjoy myself, but my typical tourist itinerary puts museums below: drinking local alcoholic specialties, photographing architecture while getting lost, and shopping. Milwaukee being the premiere capital city of beer- I'd skipped stepping INSIDE the museum on my last eight visits.
The Quadracci Pavilion looks like the sun-bleached skeleton remains of a graceful sea bird that has morphed Terminator 2-style into Saarinen's 1962 TWA Terminal, but the pause button was hit halfway through the CGI process. Here, Calatrava has successfully paid homage to Saarinen's boldly unique style without borrowing heavily or becoming nostalgic. Calatrava leads pedestrians from the city grid to Quadracci Pavilion on a flashy harp-like bridge to an astonishingly small entryway. The bridge strikes me as over-engineered for its narrow walkway, as if it was meant to support multiple lanes of vehicular traffic like the majestic cable-stayed Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam or the Zakim Bridge in Boston. After twisting and turning to take photographs with all three of my cameras, I became dizzy and disoriented and stumbled around looking like a less graceful version of The 50ft Woman. To my dismay another, even smaller walkway lead to a revolving door. Was I supposed to go up, or down; use the elevator or the stairs? For all the hype, the scale of building almost seemed almost 'cute', the kind of cute the 50ft Woman would love to crush.
Once I figured out how to get inside - all was forgiven. Windover Hall does what all great architecture does - it left me speechless, and in this case proud to be from the Midwest. The endlessly photogenic floors gleamed the reflection of Calatrava's moveable Burke Brise Soleil above while absorbing the cool blue hues of the lake Michigan and its green shoreline below. I immediately began to strategize how I could experience Windover Hall in a 1. thunderstorm, 2. snowstorm, 3. cloudy day, 4. partly cloudy day, 5. during an eclipse 6... It'd also be an ideal venue for a roller-disco party. After photographing Windover Hall's beauty to death with the other wide-eyed tourists, skeptical engineers and smug architecture nerds, I turned around to re-examine the entryway and fell in love with the Calder mobile hanging quietly in the atrium.
|Even the parking garage is architecturally interesting|
|5 O'Clock Steakhouse|
|The Mitchell Domes|
Thanks for reading my TLDR post, here are some recs in Yelp list form:
Barnacle Buds, fish shack on the river in an industrial area in Bay View
At Random, classic Milwakee cocktails served at random hours
Bryant's, classic Milwaukee cocktails in a gorgeous dark bar with a fish tank
Safe House, gimmicky tourist joint that's actually pretty fun
Bernheart's, Bay View neighborhood bar with chill djs (Northern Soul, Synth Pop)
Mitchell Domes, glorious 70s dome architecture and some plants and shit
Public Market, get the oysters or the lobster dinner special. The soups are delicious too
Foundation Tiki Bar, Riverwest Tiki/Punk bar
Jamo’s Bar, chill neighborhood bar for day drinking after vintage clothes shoppingFive O'clock Steak House, start with a brandy old fashioned with soda and cocktail onions, and then the prime rib
More Milwaukee photos here
Sad update: Karl Ratzsch Restaurant has closed. THIS is a great article about how it's our fault for not supporting our local businesses, and also includes the list below of Milwuakee's great remaining establishments by Bryant's owner John Dye:
"Have a steak at 5 o'clock, get a sandwich from Jake's, buy a cocktail from Ronnie at At Random, get some sausage from Usinger's, buy you spices from the Spice House, buy your lumber from Bliffert, order a faucet from Crown Hardware, bowl a round at Koz's, eat at Three Brothers, drink a stein at Von Trier, see a movie at the Oriental, get a pizza from Lisa's, order a wallet from Mitchell Leather, have the cobbler on Oklahoma fix your shoes. You get it, don't let us turn into another generic city.