Milwaukee Architecture: Reflection of a Society


The Milwaukee County Historical Society’s 2016 feature exhibition Brew City MKE details the role that beer and brewing has played in shaping Milwaukee’s economy, society, and identity from its earliest roots to modern day, highlighting artifacts and images from their extensive one-of-a-kind beer and brewing collection. Be sure to schedule a visit in during your trip to the 2016 Main Street Now Conference! Read the article below for an overview of Milwaukee's architectural history by the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s associate curator Ben Barbera.

People build buildings. They build them to meet certain fundamental needs and they are constrained by very real factors such as money, materials, and means. Only once these needs are met, and if there is a largess in material and means, do people make buildings that are artistic. This was very much the case in Milwaukee's architectural history. The early buildings and residences in Milwaukee were utilitarian, and since there were no professional architects most buildings were based on published designs or the imagination of the builder. However, as Milwaukee grew rapidly, so did the finer points of its architecture.

Depiction of Solomon Juneau’s first cabin; image courtesy of the Milwaukee County
Historical Society

The first built environment in what is now Milwaukee County was constructed by mound building Native Americans. Several hundred years ago these people built mounds shaped like cones, circles, walls, and animals to be used for burial sites and other purposes. The Ho-Chunk followed the mound builders, but were devastated by diseases brought by early fur traders. In the late 1600s several eastern Native American tribes were pushed west by increased European settlement and the Potawatomi became the dominant tribe in the Milwaukee area. They built several villages made up of long houses in the summer and wigwams in the winter. The villages also had sweat lodges, meat drying huts, and open common spaces for meetings, ceremonies and games. In 1795, Jacques Vieau was the first European to build a semi-permanent structure (a trading post) in what we now call Milwaukee. Solomon Juneau, Vieau’s clerk, moved to the area in 1818 and became the first permanent European resident and one of the founders of the city. It is believed Juneau’s first cabin was located at what is now the northwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Water Street.

Benjamin Church House, 1844; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

In the 1830s people from the eastern United States began to move to Milwaukee in large numbers. These newcomers built simple log and timber buildings that spoke to the needs of a frontier community. These frame structures consisted of stores, mills, taverns, sawmills, and dwellings. Soon though, more substantial brick buildings built in either Greek Revival or Federal style began to dot the landscape. Among these were hotels and inns, a brick block of stores, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the first courthouse, and the houses of wealthier residents.

Left: Old St. Mary’s Church, 1847; Right: First Milwaukee County courthouse, 1836; photos courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

In the 1840s and 1850s Milwaukee became a processing center of goods like flour, meat, leather, and beer that took advantage of area natural resources. At the same time Milwaukee emerged as a major shipping point for agricultural products such as wheat. During this period significant manufacturing and processing buildings such as the Phoenix flour mill and the Bay View Rolling Mill were built and transportation infrastructure was improved. As many people in Milwaukee became more prosperous and the population grew during the antebellum period they built more substantial houses and churches. While the vast majority of these antebellum structures are gone, some remain including Old St. Mary’s Church, St. John’s Cathedral, the William Weber house, and the Edward Diedrichs house.

Edward Diedrichs house, also known as the Lion House, built 1852 and expanded in1860; photos courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

After the Civil War manufacturing took off in Milwaukee and the population grew rapidly, which resulted in a tremendous building boom that peaked in the 1880s and 1890s. It was also during the post Civil War period that urban services such as water and streets became public responsibility and public transportation emerged, dramatically changing the built landscape. Milwaukee was an extremely dense city in this period with 90 percent of the population living within two miles of the central business district, thus the buildings and residences were packed close together with few open spaces. In the late 1800s manufacturers built large factories on the outskirts of town and wealthy merchants and business owners built mansions west of downtown and in the “Gold Coast” area on the bluffs above Lake Michigan. Popular residential styles in the early part of this period included Italianate and Victorian styles. In the late 1870s and 1880s Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque styles emerged followed by period revival styles such as German Baroque and Gothic Revival. Commercial and public buildings often reflected the styles of prominent residences and Queen Anne, Romanesque, and period revival buildings were quite common.

Abel Decker double house, 1857; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

After the turn of the 20th century Milwaukee architecture began to appear more “serious.”  Public and commercial buildings tended to be in Classical Revival or more straightforward commercial styles. Period revival and European influenced styles remained popular for large residential structures, but frame duplexes and smaller bungalows became a significant part of the vernacular landscape. In the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco buildings dominated the public and commercial landscape with several prominent buildings and schools built in that style. Residential architecture was more diverse as modernist influences like Prairie style mixed with the European influenced large houses, while bungalows, duplexes, workers’ cottages, and Polish flats remained staples for most Milwaukeeans. After World War II a number of modern, International style, Brutalist, and Post-Modern buildings were erected in the downtown area. At the same time the need for post-war housing pushed the development of neighborhoods of small bungalows, ranch-style, and other simple and easy to build houses into the outskirts of the city.

Example of a “Polish Flat” in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Immigration contributed to the development of Milwaukee’s built landscape as different ethnic neighborhoods developed with each new wave. In the 1840s and 1850s German immigrants settled west of the Milwaukee River where the architecture was heavily influenced by styles popular in the home country. Native-born Americans settled east of the Milwaukee River and along the bluffs over the lake where the houses of prosperous Milwaukeeans dotted the landscape. Irish immigrants settled in the southern part of the city where the area was dominated by workers’ cottages wedged in between manufacturing and processing plants. After the Civil War new immigrant groups such as Poles and Italians moved into areas vacated by the first immigrants who continued to move toward the outer edges of the city. This pattern continued through the 20th century as African-American, Latino, and Asian immigrants and migrants moved into the city. The result was that new groups were often left with the oldest housing and retail buildings, which they then adapted and repurposed to meet their needs.

Milwaukee’s Lake Front Depot built by the Chicago and Northwestern Rail Road in 1889, razed in 1968; photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

In the 1950s and 1960s many of downtown Milwaukee’s older buildings and houses were suffering from age and neglect. At the same time the growth of the city’s outskirts meant that more people were driving downtown for work. As a result many of the city’s oldest buildings and houses were razed for urban renewal and expressway projects, which radically reshaped neighborhoods and the built landscape of the city. As significant buildings like the Chicago and Northwestern Depot were razed (1968) and others like the Pabst Mansion were threatened, a grass roots historic preservation movement emerged in Milwaukee. The movement was too late to save many neighborhoods such as the heart of the African American community centered on Walnut Street, but many buildings and houses have been saved. Nonetheless, the numerous empty lots and unused spaces that dot the once dense urban landscape are testament to the reshaping of the built environment that continues to take place. Just as the buildings of early Milwaukee were shaped by the values and means of the first inhabitants, our current landscape is a result of the choices we as a society make and thus reflect who we are and who we hope to become.

Milwaukee architecture blogs:
•    RazedinMilwaukee

Websites related to historic preservation in Milwaukee:
•    Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission
•    Reports for designated historic properties and districts
•    Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Inc.
•    Historic Milwaukee Inc.