Milwaukee is a great city to explore on foot. Actually, it's a great city, period.
We spent two weeks there in the summer of 2020, indulging in super-tasty, super-caloric food and drink that we then tried to burn off on long walks in search of Milwaukee's fabulous outdoor art and its architectural gems.
You should know: We're not architects. We just appreciate cool buildings and interesting history. We think you'll like these, too!
On our first day of wandering, we got a little – OK, a lot – lost and found ourselves climbing a ginormous hill on top of which loomed a ginormous tower. This is the North Point Water Tower, a Victorian Gothic structure built in 1874. It stands 175 feet tall and was built to cover an open pipe that absorbed water shooting up from underground steam pipes that pumped up water from Lake Michigan. It's located at 2288 N. Lake Dr. at East North Avenue, and if you're interested, you can take a virtual tour.
This is the Milwaukee Building – better known as the Ladybug Building – at 622 North Water Street. John Burke, the cheeky owner of the company that managed the building, added the ladybugs in 1999, much to the consternation of certain serious artists and the delight of pretty much everyone else. These fiberglass lovelies are about 6 feet long and 3 feet and are lit up at night.
One of the coolest things about our trip was learning about Frank Lloyd Wright. We knew the name and a few basic facts, but we had no idea he was from Wisconsin or built so many homes in the state – including an estate of his own in Spring Green. The Frederick Bogt House, at 2420 North Terrace Ave. was built in 1917 for $15,000. According to Zillow, it's worth about $1.2 million today.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Burnham Block
Even more interesting (to us, anyway) is Burnham Block, a collection of six “tiny houses” that Wright designed. In 1915, he partnered with a Milwaukee developer on the American System-Built Homes, which they hoped would rival Sears kit homes. He chose Burnham Block to build and test his first models—two one-story homes of less than 1,000 square feet and two two-story homes that each had two apartments. The one-story house cost $3,000.
The business went bust—as so many Wright businesses did—and the homes were largely forgotten. The owners didn't think of them as anything special or historic, and so they modified them to suit their needs.
Burnham Block Model B1
In recent years, a nonprofit has begun to buy and restore them. You can tour two of the buildings (including the one above) for $15. At the time of this writing, tours are only on Saturdays. You'll find a lot more information here.
The coolest thing, though, which we sure wish we'd known when we were there, is that you can actually STAY in one of them. It's got three bedrooms, some great touches, and is rented out through VRBO. Next time!
The Mitchell Building went up in 1875 and housed an insurance company. You can find it at the intersection of E. Michigan and N. Water streets.
Milwaukee offers an intriguing blend of the old and the new. Here's one such example—the three-story F.H. Hochmuth Building, built in 1892, and its 30-story apartment building neighbor, The Moderne, completed in 2013.
Another clash of old and the new: 1895's City Hall bell tower reflected in the BMO Tower, which opened in 2020.
Because of the pandemic, Milwaukee's art museum was closed during our visit. But the outside impresses all on its own. Santiago Calatrava, a famous Spanish-Swiss architect, created the section you see here in 2001. It has a 90-foot high vaulted glass ceiling and a 217-foot sunscreen that folds and unfolds twice a day. The museum is now open again; you also can view some of its collection virtually.
You might expect to find—or at least be able to see—a lighthouse from the shore. But you can't, at least not in summer, which explains why we got really, really lost looking for the North Point Lighthouse and Museum. (Find directions here.) It began operations in 1855 (but this version was built in 1886)—and yes, back in the day, you could see it from the water. It's been out of service since 1984, but you can tour it and climb to the top of its 74-foot tower for $8. You can even rent it out for parties!
We would love to have toured Pabst Mansion and seen the inside of the Oriental Theatre. We certainly wouldn't have passed up the chance to see a chapel that was built in France in 1420 and moved to the U.S. 101 years ago.
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