My Travels to Milwaukee and Fort Worth, and the Prospect of an American Grand Tour

Posted on: May 8th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

Starting in the late 16th century through to the 18th century, rich, young Europeans (and later Americans) traveled around Europe on something known as the "Grand Tour." Meant to be a capstone to formal education, the Tour involved a period of travel to some of Europe's great cities with the intention of introducing individuals to society, art, and culture.

For the last two weeks, as I made my way to two distinctive cities, I wondered what a modern Grand Tour in the United States would be like. What would be the unexpected places that would serve as a window into our culture, our architecture, and our people?

Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward neighborhood.

As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, I spent the last two weeks traveling to Wisconsin and Texas. I'll be honest -- if given a choice, I doubt that Milwaukee and Fort Worth would have been high on my list of intentional personal travel destinations -- but while I was there, each city succeeded in opening my heart in unexpected ways to what they had to offer.

I don't know what expectations I had for Milwaukee -- aside from its robust brewing past and present -- but I'll leave that alone for now and instead talk about its Historic Third Ward neighborhood, replete with converted warehouses, a fantastic Public Market, shops, and a river walk. Added to the National Register in 1984, the neighborhood is made up of enormous brick buildings that used to be centers of manufacturing. While some of the spaces are still vacant, the neighborhood is very much alive with residents, businesses, and creative public spaces.

The Mitchell Park Conservatory.

I also got a chance to visit the Mitchell Park Conservatory. Three mid-century domes replaced the old conservatory (which is probably an interesting preservation story in and of itself) in 1959. They loom high, and house three different ecosystems, each arrayed with a magical array of smells, sounds, and temperatures: tropical, desert, and a show dome for fancy flowers. I took delight in the way the arcing lines of the dome mimick the curve of the earth upon which these plants grow. 

Finally, we took a walk along Lake Michigan where we caught a glimpse of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Architect Santiago Calatrava's sleek white lines blend in with the lake behind it, providing an interesting contrast with the more brutalist/modern concrete plaza -- the War Memorial Center, by Eero Saarinen -- that leads up to it. I don't know how it all works together, but somehow it does.

The Fort Worth Water Gardens.

After leaving Milwaukee I headed south to Fort Worth. I know that many claim that the Fort Worth Stockyards are the place to visit, but instead I ended up spending a lot of my time in the downtown area.  This included a walk through the vaunted Fort Worth Water Gardens. Like the Milwaukee Art Museum, the contrast between the fluidity of water against the rugged stonework is comforting. And like most gardens, it is meant to be multi-sensory with the trickling sound of the water providing a sense of solace in the middle of the urban space.

Our meetings for the week were held in two historic houses -- Thistle Hill and the McFarland House -- run by Historic Fort Worth. Both houses, built around the turn of the 20th century, are great spaces that provided the right atmosphere for conversations between preservationists.

Inside the now-closed Heritage Park Plaza.

But perhaps the most exciting view of Fort Worth that I saw was from Heritage Park Plaza. Currently closed for a variety of reasons, this modernist park boasts an excellent view of the river -- and there is something magnificent about what this place could be for citizens of Fort Worth if preserved.

Each of these cities illustrated that there is something that makes them worthy of a spot on a modern American Grand Tour. Each has its own pulse, defining character, and heart. Ever changing, they speak to those who are willing to listen, and offer to those who venture amidst their streets, parks and neighborhoods a glimpse into the vast beauty of place in America.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Modern Architecture, Reflections, Travel

2 Responses

  1. Richard Gibson

    May 8, 2012

    I’d encourage you to visit Butte, Montana – for vernacular architecture (as well as Cass Gilbert), for ethnic heritage (Irish, Italian, English, Welsh, Cornish, Serbian, Finnish, German, Chinese, Scandinavian, and many more), for labor and political history (consider the 17th amendment to the constitution and the 8-hour day), mining and big business history and heritage (500+ mines juxtaposed with a one-time urban metropolis of 100,000) and, with Anaconda, 6000 properties contributing to a national landmark district. Yes, unexpected.

  2. Timothy Orwig

    May 8, 2012

    How about Sioux City, Iowa, a center of American agriculture (from corn and soybeans to JollyTime Popcorn and SueBee Honey). It is the heart of the Loess Hills, home to Iowa’s largest remaining prairies (complete with their own herd of bison). Its downtown has amazing terra cotta and Romanesque office blocks, and the largest and grandest Prairie style court house, co-designed by Purcell and Elmslie: