When the Milwaukee Art Museum recently announced that funds would be dedicated to restoring the War Memorial building, I had reason to smile.
I smiled because it is a good building that will get some well-deserved attention. The last time I visited the museum, the depredations of time were evident on the reinforced concrete wings that establish its strong presence overlooking Lake Michigan. That kind of wear is inevitable in a building that is now 55 years old. But it must be corrected.
Designed by the modernist master Eero Saarinen, the building was created as a memorial to those who had died in World War II and the Korean War. It was also the new home for the Milwaukee Art Center, created from the merged Milwaukee Art Institute and Layton Art Gallery.
The original functions of the building were clearly delineated with the War Memorial above and the art museum below. Part of what makes this a good design is that Saarinen kept the view to the lake open between the stone-covered base and the raised wings which cantilever in four directions. Good as the design is, it has been overshadowed by the spectacular 2001 addition designed by Santiago Calatrava.
The smile I had upon reading the blog post also came from deep memories of the building. When I grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs, I enjoyed visits to the city and especially the lakefront. My first visit to an art museum was in this building, I had dreams of becoming an architect and the War Memorial was unlike any other building I saw. It was modern and bold. It made a big impression.
As a budding architect, I spent many hours creating my own buildings using anything at hand—wooden blocks, Scrabble tiles, game boards, paper towel tubes—as well as building toys. I used one of those commercial building sets to construct my take on the War Memorial with its dramatic cantilevers. After all these years, I was able to locate a photo of my efforts.
Looking at my model now, I can see that, like a real building, it accepts the limitations of the materials at hand. It’s the work of a boy more inclined to imitation than originality—a flawed, but sincere attempt to explore an idea.
Saarinen’s War Memorial planted a seed in me that has germinated in unexpected and satisfying ways. While I never became an architect, I’ve never lost my interest in buildings, their designs, their histories and their place in our communities.
Note: The Journal-Sentinel’s Mary Louse Schumacher has written a blog post about the War Memorial Building, its history and its importance to Milwaukee.