Urban spelunking: Standing on the shores of Lake Emily
After months of trying to gain access, I have finally stood upon the shore of Downtown Milwaukee's Lake Emily and gazed out upon her limpid waters. But, it turns out, I arrived over-prepared and could have left the swimsuit and sand toys at home.
Let's go back in time for a moment, to when settlers arrived in what we call Milwaukee, more specifically, the area around Wisconsin Avenue, Mason Street, Van Buren Street and the lake. Much of the area now called East Town was a swamp, with anywhere from two to six feet of water depending on where you stood.
Wisconsin Avenue, before being filled in, was a narrow valley that drained into the lake. Where Northwestern Mutual's headquarters stand, there was a small body of water called Lake Emily (aka Drum's Hollow). Whether Emily was really a lake or more a retention pond created by filling in Wisconsin Avenue seems to be open to debate and opinion and the facts are, for now, lost to history.
Regardless, despite the comings and goings of Downtown development and the now more than a century old NM headquarters built right on top, Lake Emily has never gone away. She's still there, alive and well, Scott Wollenzien, NM's facility manager, who describes Lake Emily as, "a depression with water that probably wasn't very deep.
"I would imagine that this little lake froze out every year. Six feet is probably the maximum, at its deepest point. Lake Emily was a natural retention pond. People used to bring their horses down here to water them, and kids used to swim in it."
Hearing that, I arrived at NM's stately and imposing 1912-14 headquarters (designed by Chicago architectural firm Marshall & Fox) at 720 E. Wisconsin Ave. – with sunscreen, of course – to meet Wollenzien and get a peek at Lake Emily.
"They had to dewater this area in order to build the building," Wollenzien begins. "They dredged it out. ... This building went up in 1912. It took over seven years to build, so back about 1905 it was first started. They had to, first, drain the land, then they dug out the land using steam shovels.
"The building's built on wood pilings. Each one of those pilings is about 65 feet long, and they're virgin timbers from the northern part of the state. They brought them out via horse and buggy and floated them down Lake Michigan and then hauled them out of the lake, nearby.
"They drove the pilings in and then started to build on top of them. Each piling was numbered and grouped before being capped and built on top of. A lot of concrete was used to cap pilings back in those days. The pilings were also tested to make sure they were down to bedrock and a special gauge was used."
Twenty years later, a major eight-story addition was put on the north end of the property. The 1932 building was razed in 1978, but its footprint covered the current atrium and ran straight up to the sidewalk along Van Buren, Cass and Mason Streets. The same process had to be repeated.
"They had to dig out the area about 20 feet first, and that's where they started driving their piles. They drove those pilings down to bedrock – there are 3,000 of those individual pilings underneath the original building.
"There are 4,000 pilings underneath the second part of the building. The reason that there's a difference is because this (extant) building was always meant to be eight stories, and it still is today, and the old north building was meant to be up to 16 stories – originally eight, with the opportunity to build eight more on top."
Though you can no longer see the north building above ground, its basement and a basement and sub-basement survive and are used for storage, workshops, a bakery and other purposes.
The walls here are insanely thick – 4 feet 9 inches thick! – and consequently the basement of a building that no longer exists could be one of the safest places to be in Downtown Milwaukee in the event of something like a tornado or air raid.
And there's "Little Egypt," a sweeping double staircase that used to offer entry to the north building from an open courtyard. These days it sits, rather eerily, in a remarkable state of preservation, beneath the northern edge of the atrium, where it abuts an air intake plenum that was built when the north building came down in '78.
"They call it 'Little Egypt' because of the architecture of the staircase," says Wollenzien. "It's a grand staircase and you used to be able to walk down to an outside garden and walk back into that level, as well. We're 20 feet or so below grade."
I've been assured that the construction of the Commons building to the east would not result in the demolition of Little Egypt.
But what about Lake Emily? That's what we came to see, right? We've brought a rubber duckie and we want to float it.
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Great story! I've been to "Little Egypt" myself and it is cool how well it's been preserved.
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