Farewell To A Landmark

June 20, 2012

Building 200 in early 1945, with a giant flag on a towering flagpole in the front lot and banners marking awards for production flying nearby.

As far as historical landmarks go, Building 200 is among America’s homeliest. It’s a two-story barracks-like structure built for function with no attention paid to form beyond the basics of level, plumb and square. Anyone who has spent time on a military base in the years since World War II has seen buildings like it.

For exactly seventy years this month, Building 200 has stood off Highway 12 on the Sauk Prairie just down from the Barabo Hills. It was, until a couple of months ago, the headquarters of the United States Army at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Here the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Ordnance Department supervised the work of the various civilian contractors who constructed and operated the plant since 1942.

Homely it is. Two stories of narrow office corridors in the shape of a rectangle with a cross corridor creating two open courtyards. Not that the weed-choked courtyards are decorative. They are merely a means to admit natural light to the inner row of offices. The exterior is a catalog of historical siding. Wooden clapboards in the 1940s covered by asbestoes sheathing in the 1950s covered by vinyl in the 2000s. The framing is entirely wood post and beam, instead of iron or steel, precious materials reserved for more strategically important purposes. Instead tthe Army used top-grade Pacific Coast fir, old growth lumber, hard to find today.

World War II was fought out of Building 200, so was the Korean conflict. From 1965 to 1975, the managers in Building 200 oversaw the production of propellant for the ammo discharged by the rifles, machine guns, artillery, and rockets fired by American troops at war in Southeast Asia. Pick a scene of combat from a Vietnam war movie, the only way most of us experienced that war. It’s more likely than not that, in the real war the movie imitates, the ammo fired in that scene was manufactured at Badger.

Just as importantly, Badger and Building 200 were part of the Cold War arsenal of the United States. When the communist governments in eastern Europe collapsed, when the Soviet Union dissolved, when China moved away from strict Maoism to whatever philosophy governs it today, they didn’t throw a party in Building 200, but they could have. Just as Badger was part of the victory in the relatively short World War II, it was part of the decades long grinding down of communism afterwards.

As a result, Badger worked itself out of its job. It was decommissioned in 1998 and Building 200 became headquarters for a massive effort to decontaminate over 5,000 acres of infrastructure, soil, groundwater and surface water in nearby Lake Wisconsin.

Much of that work is completed. The Army and its contractors no longer need the 66,000 square feet of office space in Building 200. The property itself has been transferred to the Wisconsin DNR and will become part of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. Efforts by preservationists to prevent the demolition of Building 200 and convert it to a visitor center/museum have attracted little support.

Demolition work has already begun. Seventy years ago, when Building 200 was first ready for occupancy, over 8,000 workers were swarming over the grounds beyond to complete the over 900 structures necessary to begin production as scheduled in January 1943.

Today, a handful of equipment operators will pull Building 200 down. It’s not an architectural masterpiece, about as far from a Calatrava or a Lloyd Wright as a building could be.

Let’s call it a landmark to transience, a reminder that the greatest of human achievements, like the humblest, are temporary.

Building Memory: Milwaukee’s War Memorial

May 25, 2012

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.

War Memorial

The War Memorial when built in 1957.

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.Model Building

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.

–Michael Bridgeman

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.


Wright’s Style

November 30, 2011

In early November the Lake Geneva Regional News reported that the local library had installed two original windows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lake Geneva Hotel. The setting is fitting since the library, which opened in 1954, was designed by Wright apprentice James Dresser, the subject of a post to this blog earlier this year.

The hotel in Lake Geneva was one of only a handful of Wright hotels that was constructed.

An early image of the Lake Geneva Hotel (Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 36456)

In this instance, the commission came in 1911 from Arthur Richards and John Williams. Richards had also engaged Wright to design a hotel for Madison (not built) and would, within a few years, launch his American System Built House project with Wright. A number of these structures still stand, including a row of six houses and duplexes on the south side of Milwaukee.

The Lake Geneva Hotel opened in 1912 and financial problems soon arose. It held on for nearly 60 years through various owners and at least one name change, to the Hotel Geneva, before being demolished in 1970.

In the world of Wright, however, that is rarely the end of the story.

A night light using the window design from the Lake Geneva Hotel

Even Wright’s demolished work lives on through merchandising. So while the Lake Geneva Library is fortunate to have original windows from the hotel, you can buy the window design on a table clock, night light, magazine rack or doormat.

The commodification of Wright and his work has been going on for several decades and I confess to having some Wright tchotchkes of my own. The upsides are exposing a wider audience to Wright’s work and generating income, through licensing, for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The downside is reducing Wright to a mere stylist. He is so much more and we are fortunate to have a rich array of his  buildings in Wisconsin to help remind us.


The Shape of a Place

August 11, 2011

I’ve only seen it in pictures, but lately the Ashland skyline has captured my imagination. Perched on Lake Superior’s shore since 1916, the Ashland ore dock dominates the silhouette of the small northern Wisconsin city. And from what both residents and travelers tell me, this dock inspires awe. It stands 80 feet tall and stretches 1,800 feet–or about a third of a mile–into the lake.

Ashland native Michael Sullivan submitted the photo of the ore dock that appeared on Portal Wisconsin’s homepage last week (also seen above). He writes: “I grew up in Ashland and the oredock has always been a symbol of home–whether coming from the east or the west into Ashland, you knew you were home when you saw the oredock. As kids, we used to ride our bikes out to the end and there would always be people fishing from it. It’s one of the last remnants, I believe, of what Ashland was at one time.”

By all accounts, Ashlanders love their ore dock. Just last year, mural artists Sue Martinsen and Kelly Meredith paid it tribute in paint, when they completed a life-sized ore dock mural in downtown Ashland as part of the city’s historic Mural Walk. (The mural “truly is as long as the ore dock is long, and as high,” Sue tells me.) The City Council proclaimed it a local landmark in 2002.  Even the public school sports teams are called the Oredockers.

The ore dock remains as a monument to the area’s maritime culture, but not for long. Once used to load ore boats destined for eastern steel mills,  it hasn’t been employed for shipping purposes since the 1960s.  Now the ore dock’s fate rests in the hands of current owner Canadian National Railway, which has plans to dismantle it. Repairing the disintegrating structure would be too costly, the company says, and they have public liability concerns. A couple of years ago, a pair of endangered peregrine falcons nested on the ore dock and thwarted demolition for a while. Then the city raised water quality and right-of-way issues, stalling the process further. But with permitting issues resolved just this month, demolition could begin soon.

What happens to a community when its shape–perhaps its very identity–is so distinctly altered? It’s a fascinating and complicated story, one I’ll continue to follow.

–Tammy Kempfert


The Other Wright Women

July 26, 2010

By Joan Fischer

For all that we hear about the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life—a steamy subject that, 50 years after his death, still inspires works of fiction (Loving Frank, The Women)—we almost never learn about two indomitable spirits who not only influenced Wright, but also earned his admiration and deep affection.

Jane Lloyd Jones. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Ellen (“Nell”) and Jane (“Jenny”) Lloyd Jones, Wright’s mother’s sisters, are better known simply as “the Aunts,” which is how Wright himself referred to them. They founded Hillside Home School, a freewheeling, “learn by doing” elementary through high school that reflected their own liberal Unitarian upbringing. They ran the school during its entire existence, from 1887 to 1915.

Eventually the Hillside building (designed by their famous nephew, whose own sons Lloyd and John became students there) was repurposed to serve as a school/studio for Wright’s architecture students. It is located on the Taliesin grounds and is open to tourists. And it is there that many people first hear about the Aunts.

On a recent tour I was lucky enough to have a guide who was quite taken with the Aunts and provided more information about them than I had heard on previous visits. I followed up with a brief Q&A with Taliesin staff historian Keiran Murphy.

Ellen Lloyd Jones. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

What made these two women so unusual for their time?

Simply, there is the fact that they never married and had positions of authority before even starting the Hillside Home School. Jane had been director of kindergarten-training schools in Minnesota; and Ellen had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School in Wisconsin. The fact that they served as the principals at the Hillside Home School from the very beginning had to be very unusual.

I think Jane’s background helps explain part of their outlook on education: they believed in using education to teach the “basics” (and college prep courses), but also to raise fully empathetic and well-developed human beings who were engaged in the natural world around them. Science classes were held outdoors, on the grounds and in the gardens.

According to one former teacher, Mary Ellen Chase, there were no “rules” to speak of. The Aunts’ attitude was that the older students teach the younger ones deportment and responsibility, which is part of the “learning by doing” that we sometimes mention on tour.

The Aunts hired Chase in 1910 for her first job. Their interview with her is telling. “They surprised me by not asking anything about what I knew in the subjects for which they needed a teacher,” Chase wrote in her book, A Goodly Fellowship (Macmillan Company, New York City, 1939). “They wanted to know instead if I liked the country, if children amused and interested me, if I liked and could take long walks, if I knew anything about birds and common flowers.”

What was Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with the Aunts like after he became famous?

They remained incredibly proud of him and generally had a good relationship with him. The fact that they allowed him to design their “Home Building” (at 19), then took the chance and allowed him to design the unusual Romeo & Juliet windmill tower, then the radical Hillside Home School building, are testaments to their feelings toward him.

After he bought the buildings and land, Wright was supposed to support them financially, but wasn’t good at it. The Aunts spent years trying to (a) get the money out of Wright that he promised them, and (b) begging to come back to Hillside.

Wright wrote extensively about the Aunts, their school, and the buildings he designed for them—as well as their financial travails—in his autobiography. Reads one such passage:

Bankruptcy threatened the Hillside Home School where for twenty-seven years “the Aunts” had mothered some forty to sixty boys and girls, aged seven to seventeen—preparing their forty to sixty boys and girls for college by keeping a staff of thirteen teachers in residence besides themselves. They had done a pioneer work in home-school co-education. The Hillside Home School was perhaps the first—certainly one of the first—co-educational home schools in our country.

Eventually the Aunts did both die at the Hillside Home School site that they had sorely wanted to get back to, Jane in 1917 and Ellen in 1919.

* * * *

Hillside serves as a school to this day. Students of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees there May through October (the rest of the year the students are at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona).

For more information, visit Taliesin Preservation, Inc. and Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Hillside Home School. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.


Looking (and spelling) Backward

April 20, 2010

I recently stayed at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in downtown Fond du Lac. “Why does that matter?,” you may ask. Because it used to be the Retlaw.


The Retlaw in downtown Fond du Lac continues to operate as a hotel.

The Retlaw was one of seven hotels built across Wisconsin in the 1920s by Walter Schroeder, an insurance magnate, hotelier and philanthropist. He built the Schroeder Hotel (now a Hilton) in Milwaukee and the Retlaw in Fond du Lac. Among Schroeder’s other properties were the Astor in Milwaukee, the Northland in Green Bay, the Loraine in Madison, and the Wausau Hotel. Travel by train was still important in the ‘20s, so Schroeder’s hotels were built in the heart of town. By 1920 there were also 12 million automobiles in the U.S. which helped drive a boom in leisure travel.

Since I’m always interested in architects and their designs, it took just a little digging to learn that Herbert W. Tullgren had a hand in designing at least three of Schroeder’s hotels – the Retlaw, Loraine and Northland. All look back to historic styles for their design inspiration. They are solid masonry structures and well-proportioned. The lobby of the Retlaw (now a Ramada) is not very large, but opens to the second story to add a touch of grandness.


Walter Schroeder's Loraine Hotel in Madison has been converted to condominiums after having been a state office building for many years.

Tullgren practiced in Milwaukee and did some of the best Art Deco buildings in the city which are, to me, far more interesting that his traditional hotel designs. I’ve not explored Milwaukee for a while, but some of Tullgren’s work stands out when I think of Deco in the city: the Scottish Rite Masonic Center on Van Buren Street (Tullgren and Schroeder were members) that has fabulous carved figures, the apartment building at 1260 N. Prospect with its green-trimmed windows, and the Milwaukee Western Fuel Company building further north on Prospect. This last building is one of my favorites—a small, two-story rectangle with orange columns and terrific bas relief panels depicting men at work. It is now a Japanese restaurant.

But back to Walter Schroeder. The larger of his Milwaukee hotels bears his family name. The Loraine was named for his niece. And the Retlaw? That’s Walter backwards – a puzzle revealed to me by my father many years ago when driving through Fond du Lac, long before I had a chance to spend the night.

–Michael Bridgeman


Rare Taliesin Images

February 3, 2010

When I was a boy I traveled often with my family to Spring Green to visit my great aunts. They lived in town and earned income from the family farm a bit north of the village. Not too far south of Spring Green — across the Wisconsin River in Iowa County — is Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and one of the most important works of art in Wisconsin. What we see today on the brow of the hill is merely the last and latest incarnation of Wright’s home and retreat. It has suffered from fire, harsh Wisconsin winters and, a few years ago, an oak tree that fell on part of the building. Taliesin was an ongoing experiment for Wright as he expanded and altered spaces up until his death in 1959.

Wright first built at Taliesin in 1911 and it was this structure that was so damaged in the murderous fire of 1914 that is recounted in Nancy’s Horan’s popular novel, “Loving Frank.” Sadly, few images of the original building exist.

In 2005 a rare album of photos appeared on eBay that Wisconsin historian Jack Holzhueter called “a Rosetta stone for the building.” In a matter of days, he helped pull together the money that allowed the Wisconsin Historical Society to purchase the album. You can read about that adventure here.

Through March 13, you can view images from the album at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square in Madison. Presented as framed reproductions in the first floor gallery, they are a wonderful collection including interiors, exteriors and landscapes. If you care about Wright, Wisconsin, history or art, it is well worth a visit.

–Michael Bridgeman

Fill ‘er Up

April 16, 2009
I’m guessing most people, myself included, haven’t given much thought to the evolving architecture of gas stations. We’re more likely obsessed with the rising and falling numbers on the pump than we are with the buildings where we refuel our cars–we hurry through, we pay outside, we find ways to stretch the time between visits.
But last December, after seeing Christopher Robleski’s photo of a vintage filling station in PortalWisconsin.org’s Flickr pool (below), I wanted to learn more about these wayside relics. The quaint Wadham’s Oil and Grease Station he captured on film looked more like an Asian temple than the convenience marts we’re familiar with today.
The Wadham's Oil and Grease Company pagoda in West Allis has been preserved. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

Wadham's Oil and Grease Station in West Allis was preserved and converted to an automotive museum. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

On his Flickr page, photographer Robleski adds an accompanying description: “Famous Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler’s Wadhams Gas Station design is considered to be iconic. His ingenious design married typical steel frame, glass walled, box-like gas station to a swooping roofline, creating a building that was functional and efficient, as well as, eye grabbing.” While this gas station closed in 1978, the building was preserved by the West Allis Historical Commission and now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

I later learned that Eschweiler’s pagoda design dotted the streets of Milwaukee for a time: more than 100 of them were built in the 1920s and 30s, but very few remain. (In fact, here lie the remnants of another Wadham’s, a link Mr. Robleski sent me in an email.) Other gas stations, designed to meet changes in the ways Americans worked and played and spent, disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Now, two Wisconsin historians have made a mission of locating and documenting the buildings that have survived. Jim Draeger’s and Mark Speltz’s book Fill ’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations , a companion to the Wisconsin Public Television special of the same name, chronicles gas station history from the advent of the automotive era. The book’s second section provides insightful depictions of 59 historic stations throughout the state.

WPT and the Wisconsin Historical Society partnered in 2007 to produce the tv program Fill ’er Up. Though the show hasn’t aired since last year, you can watch it all online at WPT’s Web site–or you can purchase the DVD at the station’s online store. There’s a nice corresponding Web site as well.

And Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller spoke with co-authors Draeger and Speltz on a broadcast of his show airing September 29, 2008. You can still listen to this program at WPR’s audio archives. (I used the search term “Draeger.”) The interactive element of the call-in show complements the other resources nicely, with listeners adding their own stories about the filling stations in their regions.

Right now, the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison has a Fill ‘er Up exhibit of photographs and memorabilia on display through June 20. Anyone attending the Cars on State Classic Car Show on May 9 should definitely plan a side trip to the museum. (You’ll stroll right past it, as the museum is located on the Capitol end of State Street.)

If you still haven’t had your fill, Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz have a blog, Fuelish Thoughts: Wisconsin Gas Stations, and they continue to appear around the state to discuss their book. PortalWisconsin.org’s events calendar has all the dates.

We’d love to hear from you, too. Do you have one of these architectural icons in your area? What do you think 21st century gas stations will later tell us about our culture and values? You can post your thoughts and your gas station memories right here at Portal Wisconsin’s blog. Start the conversation!

–Tammy Kempfert