History in a New Light

Published in Milwaukee County Historical Society Newsletter

Over the last three years, the Historical Society’s Capital Campaign Cabinet has been working diligently to generate financial support for the restoration of our organization’s landmark headquarters, originally the Second Ward Savings Bank.  To date, the Campaign Cabinet has raised over $2.7 million in private funds and secured an additional $2 million in public funds from Milwaukee County to support the restoration of our National Register facility. 

Funds raised so far enabled the Historical Society to complete Phase I of the restoration project during 2005 – the repainting and reglazing of the 27 cast-iron windows which surround our building.  Supplemental funding from the Milwaukee County Public Art Program also allowed the Society to illuminate our second-story windows with “Life Light,” a dramatic lighting installation by New York artist Robert Wogan. 

During 2006-2007, the Society utilized other funds already raised to address accessibility issues as part of Phase II of the restoration project.  Under the guidance of general contractor Burkhart Construction, a group of skilled tradesmen made a number of significant changes in the existing structure.

The old basement public restrooms were demolished and replaced with modern facilities that comply fully with standards set forth in the American’s with Disabilities Act.  In order to provide ready access to the renovated restrooms, a new full-service elevator was installed in the southwest corner of the building.  The new elevator provides patrons and staff access to all three levels of the building, making records retrieval and artifact relocation much easier than ever before.

In addition to a new elevator, the Society also relocated the main staircase serving the first and second floors, moving it slightly to the east.  This repositioning allowed the installation of the beautifully crafted wooden reception desk and gift shop in the area formerly occupied by the stairs and wheelchair lift.  Replacement of the stairs and wheelchair lift by the reception desk and gift shop also opened up the north end of the first floor, allowing guests to view the teller’s cage and north vault as easily as the main south vault. 

Finally, with savings realized on other elements of Phase II construction, the Historical Society contracted with Conrad Schmitt Studios and Orlandini Studios to restore one of the building’s second floor ceiling bays to its original grandeur. 

After removal of the acoustical tile ceiling, installed when the east and west mezzanines were added to the building in the late 1920s, Eugene Orlandini fashioned molds from existing ornamental plaster ceiling elements and made new castings to replace those damaged by the installation of the dropped ceiling.  With these he restored the original Greek key, laurel leaf, egg and dart, and lamb’s tongue patterns surrounding the ceiling’s four recessed coffers.

Once the plaster restoration was completed, artists from Conrad Schmitt Studios developed a decorative paint scheme, which echoed the original and brought new brilliance to the building’s upper level.  The completed section of the ceiling offers a tantalizing glimpse of how the fully restored ceiling will enhance the entire building upon completion!

Northwestern Mutual Foundation Supports Society’s Relocation during 2008 Construction
A generous contribution from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation will make it possible for the Milwaukee County Historical Society to relocate its Research Library and Administrative Offices during the six to nine month period when the south end of the headquarters is being restored.  This will allow the Research Library Staff to continue providing basic services for students, scholars and other researchers throughout late 2008 and early 2009.  Administrative and curatorial staff will also be able to continue planning and developing traveling exhibitions and programs, many of which will be held at Trimborn Farm and other alternate locations while our building is closed for construction. 

From approximately June 1, 2008 through at least the end of the calendar year, the Society’s Research Library and Administrative Offices will be moved to another downtown location which will provide adequate room to house the Research Library’s basic collections, as well as space for staff, volunteers and researchers to carry out their work.  An adjoining suite of offices will house members of the Society’s administrative and curatorial staff. 

In order to provide Research Library patrons with relatively uninterrupted service, the staff will begin the complicated process of installing shelving, relocating collections, and organizing finding aids as early as January, 2008.  While this relocation plan might lead to occasional interruptions in access to collections throughout early 2008, it will allow for a smoother transition at the time of the move in early summer.  During the entire transitional period, Library patrons are encouraged to consult the Historical Society’s website or Inquiries regarding what collections might, or might not, be available during the construction period are also recommended so that needs might be met in advance.

The cost of the Historical Society’s relocation to the alternate facility will be underwritten by a generous grant from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.  For their generous support of the Capital Campaign and of the Society’s temporary relocation, the Milwaukee County Historical Society wishes to recognize and thank the Northwestern Mutual Foundation!

-Guests at “Extraordinary Access” on Saturday, Nov. 3 enjoyed a behind the scenes look at the Historical Society’s research library and artifact collections.  More pictures can be found inside this newsletter on page 2.

“An Evening of Extraordinary Access”
Celebrates Completion of Phase II Construction
Guest curators John Gurda and H. Russell Zimmerman, artists from Orlandini Studios and Conrad Schmitt Studios, as well as Lisa Chasco and Mike Reuter of the Historical Society’s curatorial staff provided interested guests an “Evening of Extraordinary Access” at the Historical Center on Friday, November 3, 2007.  The event was organized by Society Board Members Randy Bryant, Eric Vogel and Sarah Holbrook Slaughter in celebration of the completion of Phase II of the Society’s building restoration.

Following cocktails and a gourmet meal created by Gracious Catering, those attending were divided into three groups to tour the Historical Center ad learn more about the Society’s collections and the building’s unique construction.  While one group visited the Research Library to view treasures including Solomon Juneau’s letters and ledger book under John Gurda’s guidance, another explored the artifact collections stored on the lower level of the building with Curator of Collections Mike Reuter.  The third group heard Russell Zimmerman discuss the architectural history of the Second Ward Savings Bank and saw Eugene Orlandini of Orlandini Studios and David Andrews from Conrad Schmitt Studios demonstrate the techniques involved in restoring the building’s elaborate ornamental plaster ceiling.

The response of the audience to the evening’s special showing of artifacts, documents and photographs was so positive that similar programs will certainly be scheduled for the future.  Plan on joining members and friends of the Historical Society for the next event!

Phase III Construction to Begin in 2008
Supported by the allocation of nearly one quarter of a million dollars from Milwaukee County’s 2008 Capital Budget and the inclusion of an additional $1.7 million in the Country’s Five-Year Capital Budget Plan, the Milwaukee County Historical Society expects to begin Phase III of building restoration around the middle of the coming year. 

The third and final phase of the project will address both mechanical and functional issues.  Among the mechanical needs to be addressed are the structural reinforcement of the mezzanine, which currently does not meet code requirements; the replacement of the HVAC Hydronic system which is past its operational life; the upgrading of water piping and related fixtures, which are worn and aged; the replacement of the electrical system, which does not meet code requirements in many areas; and the installation of new lighting fixtures suitable for exhibition and general use. 

In the area of functional improvements, Phase III will address the expansion of the Research Library across the entire south mezzanine of the Historical Center to provide increased work space for staff and volunteers, as well as additional storage for collections; the consolidation of the Administrative Offices across the south side of the main floor to provide greater convenience for staff and separation between the building’s museum functions and those related to library and staff; the removal of later acoustical tile ceilings above the first and second floors of the Historical Center to expose original ornamental plasterwork and permit the installation of mechanicals; the replacement of the half-wall which currently separates the Research Library from the Atrium with floor-to-ceiling glass panels; and the painting of portions of the building interior to enhance worn wall surfaces. 

Funds available in 2008 are expected to allow for the completion of all work on the south end of the building – that is, the full restoration of the Research Library on the second floor, the upgrading and expansion of office space on the first floor, and the renovation of the lower shop area and the several rooms beneath the Kilbourn Avenue sidewalk in the basement.  Because of the extensive nature of these renovations, the Historical Society staff will be forced to vacate the headquarters building for a period of six to nine months.  (See accompanying article).  Thereafter, with all library and office facilities completely restored, the staff will return and the building will remain open during the final stages of construction that will follow, much as it did during the 2005 window restoration process.

History in a New Light (PDF 2.30 Mb)

Tell us about your next Project