Historical Society show traces City Hall restoration
Did you know that when it was completed in 1895, Milwaukee's City Hall was the third tallest building in the country?
Did you know that there are two lions heads on the bell tower? Have you seen the gargoyles that adorn the building? Likely not because they're so high up.
But as workers took on the task of restoring the city's most recognizable building -- to the tune of $70 million -- the Department of Public Works assembled an exhibition highlighting the job and the architecture and history of City Hall, so you'd be able to get a closer look at this hometown treasure.
When he saw it displayed in City Hall last year, Milwaukee County Historical Society Executive Director Bob Teske immediately thought it would be a good fit for the museum across the river.
"The Department of Public Works actually did the exhibit, all the photos and the documentation, while the restoration was progressing," says Teske.
"I went over to City Hall last December and saw it on display, and thought 'this is terrifi'c. They did a beautiful job with the panels and the descriptions and the explanations, and I think it makes much clearer to the layperson what was involved in doing the actual restoration."
The exhibition -- called, simply, "City Hall Restoration" -- is split up into three galleries at the Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St., and remains on view through July 31, 2010.
The exhibition officially opens Monday, Nov. 2 with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. At 6 p.m. Mayor Tom Barrett will introduce the show. Refreshments will be served.
"I thought, unfortunately, the only people who were going to see this were the folks who were standing in line to pay their taxes," says Teske.
"Partly because of that and partly because over the next eight or nine months, we're going to be in the final phase, happily, of restoring this building. The restoration of City Hall, the most famous landmark in town, was relevant to the restoration work that we were doing here, so the two of those came together nicely."
The first gallery -- on the ground flour of the museum -- includes the great LEGO model of City Hall that American Institute of Architects commissioned in the 1980s and that for many years could be seen in the children's area of Summerfest.
"It's happily survived and makes a nice centerpiece (for that part of the exhibit, which includes) four or five text and photo panels talk about the history of the original architect and so forth," says Teske.
The other main-level gallery has panels and objects that include information on the building, including inspections, condition reports, architectural drawings. This section has one of those lion heads that adorn the bell tower.
"It has all of the documentation and research they had to do, including finding people who still made terra cotta and who still made pressed brick," says Teske.
On the balcony level -- although the current restoration of MCHS means that some of these panels may be moved while on display -- there are panels and objects that talk about the materials used in construction and renovation of City Hall.
"We have a couple of those wonderful copper column capitals that were from way up on the top of the bell tower on the lantern itself on the south bell tower," notes Teske, "(as well as) some examples of the roof slate and the bricks. Below the clock tower there are two lions' heads, which are about 3 feet by 3 feet and weigh 940 pounds."
Most impressive are the original decorations that came off the building (and were replaced, of course). They are a testament not only to the craftsmanship required to create such a lovely building, but also to the dimensions of the job.
"That's what we were trying to (show)," says Teske. "I think that's why the lion's head and the column capitals give you a sense of things that look so small from ground level, and then you wonder how they get installed, how they're fastened, how that stuff stays up there for that period of time, so that was pretty exciting.
Of all the materials on display in the exhibition, Teske says one especially stands out.
"I'm really impressed by these column capitals," he says. "That's pounded copper into a mold to get that kind of detail, and for these things to have survived literally at the top of that tower for over a hundred years or a good portion of that anyway, I'm not sure if they were repaired along the way. I think it's just remarkable work."
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