Award-Winning Preservation: Milwaukee City Hall Provides Lessons for When "the Sky is Falling"

Posted on: January 28th, 2011 by Guest Writer

Written by Charles M. Engberg

Southeast View of Milwaukee City Hall. The $65.9 million exterior restoration of this 1896 National Historic Landmark took four years to complete and will preserve this community treasure for many future decades. (Photo: Eric Oxendorf)

Southeast View of Milwaukee City Hall. The $65.9 million exterior restoration of this 1896 National Historic Landmark took four years to complete and will preserve this community treasure for many future decades. (Photo: Eric Oxendorf)

The historic Milwaukee City Hall recently garnered an Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation at its Annual Conference in Austin, TX. For eight years prior to that event, the Milwaukee City Hall was the focus of our preservation planning, design, and execution. Once we were selected to be the design team for the landmark building’s exterior restoration, our collective team prepared the city leaders and the general public for what lay ahead, what was already in process, and what they could expect when the City Hall’s exterior was restored to its original grandeur.

The initial and informal forecast of work ahead was delivered to me while serving as Chairman of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission. Then-Mayor John Norquist said,“Chuck, the City Hall tower is seven inches out of plumb at three hundred feet in the air, and we are beginning to find pieces of the building on the street. I can only guess at what that means.” He suggested that I speak with the DPW commissioner who was about to commission the initial forensic building report. I walked around this 394 foot tall building the next day and saw evidence that either “the sky was falling” or that the mayor’s concerns were more than warranted.

When you discover pieces of your favorite historic structure at your feet, as we did, these measures are suggested:

First steps taken should be with a person of authority walking the building perimeter to see where the trouble spots are located. If the danger level of falling material is minimal, take the time to discover what is happening under different climatic conditions over a period of months. The major culprit in most deterioration will be water, so discover where and how it is getting into your building.

Public safety issues should be quietly attended to with more severe exfoliation. Provide a sidewalk cover of sufficient width and length to protect passers by. Get netting installed to keep additional debris from falling.

Public relations messages should be crafted with a focus on the historic and present value of the building knowing that eventually your project will be a community feature on the news. Milwaukee handled most of the public relations on their own creating a professional quality video shown several times on the city's public access channel, at meetings of preservation groups, and at service club luncheons.

Engineering reports about the building’s material condition and the magnitude of the distressed areas must be the basis for any remedial work. Milwaukee had the foresight to engage two nationally known forensic engineering firms that repelled from the top down testing every material at the building’s surface and “sounding” the entire building envelope to test for solidity and material bonding.

Peer review of the engineering findings can be the best way to begin a preservation plan from the perspective of common sense, building science, and proven technologies. Milwaukee City Hall, with multiple building materials at all levels, proved to be a national laboratory for formulating methodologies and restoration techniques integrated by our architectural and engineering team when we eventually secured this amazing commission through a competitive interview process.

Other actions include the refining of planning, construction, and schedule contingencies. Public relations should be geared to pique the public’s curiosity and push expectations as the construction process builds momentum. When the process is thorough and open, and you have qualified design professionals with you all the way, your success is assured and your preservation ethic will remain intact.

Milwaukee City Hall Exterior Restoration, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Award Type: Honor Award

Charles M. Engberg, AIA, NCARB, is a partner in Engberg Anderson, Inc.

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