Historic Structures

Public Library and Museum, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: December 6, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin Library

This stately Neo-Renaissance building was designed by the prominent Milwaukee architectural firm of Ferry and Clas, winners of a national competition for its design. Designated a Milwaukee Landmark in 1969, this building was conceived in the architectural climate created by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Still serving as the county's central library, the building remains one of Milwaukee's most monumental public structures.

The city acquired the site, comprising lots purchased from Harvey Birchard, John Johnston, and John L. Mitchell, in 1890-92. Sponsored by the Joint Board of Trustees of the Public Library and Public Museum, an architectural competition was held in the fall of 1893, and the firm of Ferry and Clas was selected in early 1894. Prolonged contract negotiations ensued, with the architects finally agreeing to terms and commencing their work in the last weeks of 1894. In March 1895, they submitted plans and specifications to the board, who subsequently retained the noted Chicago architect Dankmar Adler of Adler & Sullivan to review drawings and written material. In her "Report" of October 1, 1895, librarian Theresa West states that Adler's comments, dated June 27, had generally been favorable, although he had "recommended certain changes for possible greater security." After further scrutiny by the Trustees and by the Board of Public Works, revised plans and specifications were approved, and advertisements for bids were published on August 31, 1895. Opening of the bids on September 27 proved to be a happy occasion for the Trustees as the low bid total was considerably less than anticipated. On October 3 the Sentinel declared that, "The work of excavation will be begun to-day or to-morrow...stone will probably be laid for the building within a few weeks." Construction seems to have proceeded relatively smoothly and was essentially complete by the fall of 1899. Expenditures during the period 1890-99, including outlays for lots, the competition, construction, finishing and decorating, furniture and equipment, and for the services of the architects, consultants, supervisors, and inspectors, totalled $735,000.

The Public Library and Museum when first completed was a U-shaped building three stories (plus basement) in height, its south wing, facing Grand (now Wisconsin) Avenue, forming the "base" of the U, its sixteen-bay west wing, on Ninth Street, and ten-bay east wing, on Eighth, composing the "uprights." Within the courtyard defined by these sections was a small single story U-shaped structure adjoining the south wing. Additional construction and alterations carried out in the last century have left only vestiges of both court and one-story section, have extended the building north to West Wells Street, and have significantly modified most interior spaces. Fortunately, the magnificent entrance rotunda in the south wing and the marble staircases east and west of this impressive, domed space have escaped extensive remodelling, as have corridors, vestibules, and galleries on east, north, and west sides of the rotunda, corridors on all levels in the east section of the south wing, the east rooms of the first-floor suite now occupied by Goethe House (near the east end, south wing), and the Board Room, located on the first floor in the southeast corner of the building. On the exterior, east, south, and west elevations remain largely Intact: in 1902 the elaborate bronze electroliers flanking the main (south) entrance were set in place (these were donated by Judge James M. Pereles), and, more recently, glass doors were installed in south and east entries; but beyond such minor changes and the inevitable weathering and darkening of the stone walls over the years, the street facades look much as they did when the edifice opened. At that time, as we have seen, the west end of the building contained the Public Museum, the east end and the single-story structure adjoining the south wing the Public Library. Today the Central Public Library occupies the entire structure, original fabric and additions, except first and upper floors of the west wing which presently house municipal offices. The Public Museum is now quartered in a new building nearby.