I was rapidly starting to like Milwaukee, delighted by my lodgings at a former Gimbels department store, the cleanliness of Lake Michigan, the fantastic Public Museum, a delicious brunch at the Pfister Hotel, and the city’s architectural treasures. During the last quarter of the 1800s, Milwaukee’s booming industries ballooned its population, increasing fourfold between 1870 and 1900. Many of the city’s best buildings date from this Gilded Age. These are my favorites.
#1 Basilica of St. Josaphat
Built by poor Polish immigrants from 1896 to 1926, the eye-popping Basilica of St. Josaphat reigns as Milwaukee’s largest church. Only three years after its completion, the church was elevated to basilica status (the first Polish-American church to be raised to this honor). The basilica is dedicated to St. Josaphat, who was born in the Kingdom of Poland around 1580, and, in 1623, was hacked to death, shot, stripped, thrown to wild dogs to tear him apart, and tossed into a river with stones tied around his neck. The third named basilica in the United States features salvaged materials from the demolished Chicago Post Office & Customs House as well as what was, at the time of construction, the second-largest dome in the country, smaller only than the one atop the U.S. Capitol. This National Historic Site (listed in 1973) includes wonderful oil murals by the Italian artist Gonippo Raggi, stained-glass windows imported from Austria, ornamental plasterwork, life-size angels holding clamshells filled with holy water, and marmoreal Corinthian columns. Behind the altar, an eerie painting portrays Josaphat, more brightly illuminated than anything else, with a darker figure holding up an ax behind him, ready to split his skull open. As I admired the tremendous interior, churchgoers began to arrive for the 10 a.m. Mass. And they kept coming, until it seemed like the basilica’s capacity of more than a thousand was breached. Sensing something special, I stayed for the Mass, which featured an exceptionally talented choir. Clearly, even after a century, this basilica maintains its importance and status as one of Milwaukee’s most impressive sites.
#2 City Hall
Just a block away from the Milwaukee River, I found City Hall, the city’s most iconic building, thanks, in large part, to its appearance in the opening credits of the 1970s–80s sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Completed in 1895, this Flemish Renaissance masterpiece was Milwaukee’s tallest building until 1973, with a tower rising 350’. The lowest portions are constructed of granite, while the top six floors consist of pressed bricks—approximately eight million of them—and terra cotta sculptures. That gives the building a hefty weight of about 41,000 tons. The top of the massive tower with a copper spire now turned a verdigris green sports clock faces on all four sides. At 18’ in diameter, these were the third-largest clocks in the world, with opaque glass numerals that measure two and a half feet in height. With a little imagination, the four turrets flanking the clocks resemble beer steins. The tower holds a single bell, named “Solomon Juneau,” in honor of the French Canadian fur trader who founded Milwaukee and became its first mayor. The 22,500-lb. bell, cast from melted copper and tin from old church and firehouse bells around the city, chimed for the first time on New Year’s Eve in 1896. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2005, City Hall is just as impressive inside as it is out. Pop in to see some of the more than 47,000 square feet of mosaic and marble flooring as well as the stained-glass windows in the Council Chamber, the fruits of a WPA project in the 1930s. Make sure to check out the eight-story open atrium, topped by a skylight—a beautiful space, but a little tragic: During the Great Depression, seven people jumped to their deaths here, and an eighth person suffered a fatal stroke after one of the jumpers nearly hit him.
#3 Tripoli Shrine Temple
One glance at this building and you’ll immediately think you aren’t in Milwaukee anymore. That’s what makes it so intriguing. Based on the Taj Mahal, the Tripoli Shrine Temple incorporates Moorish and Indian design elements that lend it an exotic flair quite out of place for Wisconsin. Completed as the first temple in the state and as a meeting place for the Shriners, a fraternal organization composed of Master Masons, the building today has expanded its original purpose, opening its doors for banquets, weddings, and other private events. But it looks just as wonderful as it did when it was completed in 1928. Often mistaken for a mosque, the temple sports an eye-catching façade of bands of polychrome bricks. Minarets rise at the corners. A long staircase at the main entrance, flanked by a pair of limestone camels that weigh about three tons each, leads to the fantastic entrance that would look more at home in Uzbekistan—a soaring Arabic arch slathered in glazed pottery tiles. Above, two smaller domes give way to the larger, 30’-wide, ornately tiled bulbous dome, one of the world’s top 10 domes. Inside, bronze door handles, carved light fixtures, intricate plaster lattice work, and tens of thousands of ceramic tiles of complicated floral designs add to the grandeur. A Florentine family spent three years installing fantastic mosaic work. Looking up 125’ to the top of the dome, you’ll find symbols like the Star of David and three recurring colors—blue (for heaven), brown (for earth), and gold (regal)—all illuminated by windows and a massive chandelier dangling from the center. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Tripoli Shrine is one of the city’s most unexpected treasures.
#4 Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion
He was one of many immigrants to Milwaukee who made good, but few did it as grandly. Born in 1836 in Germany, Frederick Pabst came with his parents at age 12 to Chicago. By the time he hit 21, he was a captain, helming ships around Lake Michigan. He relocated to Milwaukee upon his marriage in 1862; his new father-in-law was a brewer there. The captain learned a new trade, and before long, Pabst Brewing Company was the world’s largest brewing company. That success ushered in the Pabsts as one of the leading families in city (the couple would have 10 children in 12 years, only five of whom survived to adulthood). Their new home, a magnificent Flemish Renaissance mansion completed in 1892, became the premier residence in Milwaukee. I approached this handsome three-story structure, thinking how it could easily fit into the cityscape of one of the Low Countries, with its pressed-brick exterior, corner quoins, carved stone details, terra cotta ornamentations, and, especially, the gables. To the left, a porte-cochère granted passengers in whatever vehicle pulled up easy access to the house without letting a single raindrop or snowflake land on them. On the right, a one-story richly sculpted wing with a verdigris-green dome comprises the conservatory, but the entire tan terra-cotta structure originated as Pabst’s entry in the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago as a trade pavilion to display Pabst Brewing Company products. After the fair, Pabst had the entire thing dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt as a separate wing of his mansion. Front and center to the mansion, two small terraces flank a covered porch with three arches. Eager to explore, I stepped inside for a self-guided tour that took me around the 37 rooms, 12 baths, and 14 fireplaces. The city’s first home with electricity and central heating also features pocket doors and priceless art treasures. I was tremendously impressed by the remarkable woodwork of the banisters, crown molding, and wainscoting, and of the floors, no two of which are the same from room to room, and some of it relocated from Bavarian castles. Unfortunately, the Pabst family didn’t get to enjoy their abode for very long—the captain and his wife were both dead by 1908. The family sold it that year to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which used it as the archbishop’s residence until 1975, when it was again sold to a party who obscenely wanted to raze it, replacing it with a parking structure, despite its placement onto the National Register of Historic Places that same year. Fortunately, preservationists stepped in and persevered. Demolition plans were cancelled, and today the Pabst Mansion is one of the finest house museums in the United States, and one of the top five things to see in Milwaukee.
#5 Mackie Building
Now a 25-unit apartment building called Mackie Flats, the Mackie Building began its life in 1879 as a grand commercial building called the Chamber of Commerce Building, or the Grain Exchange. Adjacent to the equally grand Mitchell Building (designed by the same architect), the Mackie tops out at only five and a half stories. Clad in gray granite on the first floor and sandstone and limestone on the floors above, the building generates further interest with different windows on each floor, united by shifting bands of texture and color. Granite columns and images of the Great Seal of Wisconsin and, appropriately enough given the building’s original purposes, a bull and a bear. The Mackie is most noted for two elements. The first, a central clock tower that rises above the mansard roof, reaches a height of 160’. The second is the incredibly gorgeous Great Exchange Room. When we think of high-pressured, borderline-insane stock trading on a floor, we usually think of Wall Street. But the original trading pit was right here, when Milwaukee was the world’s largest primary wheat market for trading, exporting, and inspecting grain. This glorious three-story room brings in the granite, limestone, and sandstone from the building’s exterior and features soaring ceilings, hand-painted frescoes, gold leaf, Corinthian columns and pilasters with swags, stained-glass windows, caryatids, and a skylight. It operated as the exchange from 1880 to 1935, when the Grain Exchange moved out. The space remained vacant for several years until it was disastrously converted into office space that disrespected the space with dropped ceilings and acoustical tiles and the removal and transfer of the stained glass to a local bar. A recent conversion into an event space with more than 10,000 square feet restored its opulence, and the Mackie (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973) has regained its position as one of Milwaukee’s most beautiful buildings.
- Milwaukee Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse (1892)
- Milwaukee Public Library Central Branch (1895)
- Pfister Hotel (1893)
- Germania Building (1896)
- Milwaukee County Courthouse (1931)
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