Hidden in Plain Site: A Photo Tour of Milwaukee’s Architecture & History

I’ve seen many of these buildings before, but never like this.

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Throughout my four years in college, I explored Milwaukee…somewhat. My definition of explore was walking downtown to go shopping, or going to bars on Water Street with my friends, or heading to the Bradley Center for a basketball game. I never really took the time to see the city I lived in. I’ve visited Milwaukee numerous times since graduation, but the purpose of those trips wasn’t to experience the city. It wasn’t until this latest venture that I took the opportunity to join an historic Milwaukee walking tour. By the end of the two hours, I was surprised at how little I knew about Milwaukee, and all the beautiful places I had missed over the years.

Our guide gave a brief history of Milwaukee, which dates back tens of thousands of years with the native tribes that occupied the area. I won’t cover every fact and figure she gave us (you can hear all of them on the tour), but basically she covered a couple hundred years worth of Milwaukee’s past occupants and left us in the time period between 1860 and 1890 when most of the population was of German descent.

A Classic Shopping Mall

We began the tour in downtown Milwaukee, at the Shops at Grand Avenue. My friends and I frequented the stores at this urban mall, but the distinct features of the building were lost on us at the time. The building was constructed in 1916, and was an example of classical revival architecture, with gleaming white, very decorative terracotta with beautiful scroll work on the outside.

One of the main points of interest inside is the Plankinton Arcade, which was modeled after the arcade in Milan, Italy, which is still standing today (and is totally worth a visit). The key elements here are the skylight, the structured steel beams resting on the terra cotta columns, the wide arcades and the ornamental iron. All the railings, balconies and corridors are part of the architecture of the building. Most of the buildings from this time period had skylights because electricity was weak, if there was any at all, and this allowed natural light to stream in. John Plankinton, whose statue sits in the middle of the Arcade, played no role in the creation of the building. The reason it’s named after him is because it was built on the site of the Plankinton House Hotel. P1000331P1000333P1000334P1000335P1000337P1000330

Keep in mind: The Shops at Grand Ave were recently purchased by a development company that plans to completely restore the old mall. Construction hasn’t started yet, but plans are in the works for a full revitalization of the arcade, as well as a complete remodel of the entire mall.

A Natural Gathering Place

Our next stop gave us some insight into the rivers, and the architecture surrounding them. The city is the site where three rivers meet. The Milwaukee River comes down from the north about 100 miles and empties into Lake Michigan. The Menomonee River comes in from the west, and coming from the south is the Kinnickinnic River. With three rivers meeting in one area, it’s easy to see why Milwaukee was a gathering and trading spot for native tribes. When European settlers came in and began purchasing land, there was competition among villages that began springing up along the rivers. The landowners never intended for villages to combine. When bridges were built, people often tried to destroy them. The reason many of the bridges are at an angle is because they never lined up the streets, and apparently the city never tried. Even with all the turmoil, Milwaukee was eventually incorporated in 1846.

To this day, the rivers act as a social connection for people. The Riverwalk joins different parts of the city, making it easy for pedestrians to explore, while also enjoying the water. Many of Milwaukee’s most popular neighborhoods have made their homes near the rivers.

IMG_1297P1000338IMG_1290Keep in Mind: When you walk along the Wisconsin Ave. bridge, you’ll see these statues telling the story of Gertie the Duck. Take the time to stop and read the plaque. It’s a truly touching story.

Beautiful Inside and Out

It’s hard to miss the intricate detail of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Building and the Chamber of Commerce building. However, they still remain hidden because of their placement on Michigan Street, as opposed to the main thoroughfare of Wisconsin Ave. The lack of foot traffic here means these architectural jewels are often surpassed. I’ll admit I had seen them on past visits, but never took the time to inquire of their past. The architectural style of both is second empire, characterized by the heavy decoration on the facade.  Our tour guide gave us a long overview of the families that owned the structures before we ducked inside the commerce building for a quick peek at one of the main halls. The chamber moved out years ago, but the new owners now still rent it out for special events.


Keep in Mind: We were lucky enough to get a peek inside and get a glimpse of the elaborate decor. However, the buildings are not always accessible to the public. A tour may allow you the chance to duck your head inside, even if it’s brief.

A Hidden Interior

Across the street from the old chamber of commerce is the historic Loyalty Building, which has now been transformed into the Hilton Garden Inn Milwaukee. It was built in 1885, and the design is Richardsonian Romanesque, but unless you knew that, you probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. The style is named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and it’s characterized by the rock face stone, the squat columns, huge arches and the flat roof. The Loyalty Building was one of the early homes of Northwestern Mutual Life. From the outside, the building doesn’t look like much and I would have never considered going inside unless I was staying at the hotel. But you definitely should take the time to venture inside. What makes this building special is the interior decor. The hotel maintained the original look, keeping the metal stairway, marble floors, copper railings, and the gold trim on the walls. Our whole group was amazed, it never occurred to any of us this kind of beauty waited inside.


Take Me to Court

The Federal Building or the Federal Courthouse was started in 1893 and completed in 1899. When it opened, it held the courthouse, the post office and the custom house. While it is another example of Richardsonian Romanesque (apparently this was a favorite of architects in Milwaukee), the Federal Building differs in that it has a tower rather than a flattop roof. There are only a few other cities that have maintained similar courthouses, including St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Buffalo. We ventured inside, where we quickly glimpsed at the main hall. The massive interior features different railings at each level, due to changes in regulations, and is topped by a skylight (I never knew Milwaukee had so many of them). An odd, yet unique, feature is what looks like free standing steel beams floating in the middle of the room. These are the skeleton of what was once the post office glass ceiling.


Keep in Mind: You have to go through security to get inside, but if you really want to see the main hall, it’s worth it. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the interior, and the guards are standing close watch, so I wouldn’t even try. If you want to get an idea of what it looks like, there’s a photo on the Federal Building website. But the best way to see it is in person.

A Night of Elegance

The Pfister Hotel is the oldest, longest standing hotel in Milwaukee, and was built by Charles Pfister. It is filled with some incredible features. Victorian paintings cover the walls and ceilings, and venture all the way up the mezzanine upstairs. The mural on the ceiling of the lobby was once a skylight, but was transformed into a solid ceiling. The Pfister was built as a grand hotel, designed to give everyday Milwaukeeans the experience of an elegant hotel. It was said to be a contribution to the community, it wasn’t meant for the well-to-do. If I was living in Milwaukee during this era, I’d definitely book a night at the Pfister.


Classic Modern Mixture

Just down the road from the Pfister Hotel and the Federal Building is probably the most famous piece of architecture in Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Art Museum. It consists of three buildings, each designed by an acclaimed architect. The War Memorial Center,  built in 1957 by Eero Saarinen, is a modernist building shaped like a floating cross. The Quadracci Pavilion was an addition to the original museum, and has become a symbol of the city. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava, and consists of the cathedral-like Windhover Hall, and the Burke Brise Soleil, the beautiful wing-like element you’ve mist likely seen in photos. The truly remarkable part of the building is that it moves. Those wings fold and unfold at specific times every day. Even more impressive, the wings will fold in if the winds get too strong. It’s a smart building, too.


Keep in Mind: If you want to see the wings move, make sure you head to the museum around noon. That’s when the wings will fold down for a brief period before opening up again.

Other Notable Milwaukee Buildings

We couldn’t see all of Milwaukee’s architectural jewels, but our guide did point out/mention a few others that are worth a look, including the Wells Fargo Building (100 E. Wisconsin Ave.), an example of post-modern architecture; City Hall (200 E. Wells St.), which features a stunning bell tower built in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style; and the Grohmann Museum (1000 N. Broadway), paying tribute to the evolution of human work.

If you go: 

Milwaukee has a range of different architecture and history tours you can enjoy. If you’re interested in learning more about the city’s buildings, I definitely recommend a guided tour. You’ll get way more information and insight than you would exploring on your own. Check out the Visit Milwaukee website to view tour options, suggested itineraries, notable attractions, and more.

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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