You are here


-A A +A

Most states have one major urban area that is popularly viewed as its major center of commerce, culture, and sophistication. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee has been the “big city” for the past 150 years. As a result, its architecture reflects the city’s historic role as a leader of fashion for the rest of the state. Milwaukee offers the expected array of impressive commercial buildings, churches, houses, and institutional structures representing many periods and styles. But it also boasts scores of ethnically influenced buildings, particularly those designed to reflect architectural trends current in Poland and Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Taken together, Milwaukee’s historic buildings constitute an exuberant celebration of the city’s rich multiethnic heritage.

German immigrants, in particular, put their stamp on Milwaukee, lending it a Teutonic character that endured for almost a century. They established a thriving German culture in the city, complete with its own social, cultural, and humanitarian institutions, and German was widely spoken on the streets and in schools and churches. The Germania Building (MI30) housed the offices of a leading German-language publisher. Many of the city’s residents retained close ties with friends and family members in Germany. By the 1890s Milwaukee ranked as one of the most thoroughly German cities outside of Germany. Inevitably some German American Milwaukeeans would imitate the architectural styles popular in their homeland. In the late 1880s several of Milwaukee’s German American industrialists commissioned buildings patterned after those being built by elite groups in Germany. These early commissions opened the floodgates of German architectural yearning and touched off an explosion of German-style construction in Milwaukee.

A decade and a half later, a similar phenomenon seized the city’s Polish immigrant community, generating an impressive collection of Polish-style churches, as well as several rich concentrations of Polish-influenced commercial buildings.

This flowering of German and Polish design can be credited to Milwaukee’s unusually large concentration of academically trained architects. There were few cities of its size in the country between 1860 and 1920 that had as many professional architects per capita as did Milwaukee. Almost from its founding, Milwaukee was home to talented designers who could claim not only familiarity with the latest architectural styles but also knowledge of the most recent innovations in building technology. They set a high standard for the city’s new buildings as early as the 1850s. Perhaps more importantly, it became the norm in Milwaukee to hire professional architects. In the 1830s and 1840s many buildings, including churches and the county courthouse, were designed by builders using pattern books, but by the late 1850s most new churches, business blocks, and larger houses in Milwaukee were architect-designed buildings.

The city’s nineteenth-century architects were of two types. Yankee or Anglo-American architects, such as James Douglas and Edward Townsend Mix, came to Wisconsin from Great Britain or the eastern United States. German-trained architects, such as George Mygatt and Leonard Schmidtner, emigrated directly from Europe. Both groups established places for themselves in Milwaukee by the 1850s and were soon capturing the bigger commissions from the carpenter-housewrights. The result was a pioneer city, its muddy streets only recently cut from the forest already studded with substantial and permanent structures such as the Iron Block (MI26) and the Edward Diederichs House (see MI137)—buildings that would have been considered sophisticated even by the high standards of New York City.

German architects made the greatest impact on Milwaukee’s built landscape, and a significant number of them had studied at the well-established German technical schools. At a time when America had no professional architecture schools and was still schooling its architects through the apprentice method, Germany was turning out scores of academically trained professionals. Some of these men saw opportunity in the New World and immigrated to America, where they raised the architectural standards in the many American cities that had growing German communities. In addition to German-born architects, many of the city’s first-generation German Americans were sent to Germany for schooling, later returning to Milwaukee to practice their new craft. The result was an ample supply of designers, ready to serve both German-immigrant clients who were accustomed to patronizing professional architects and non-German clients who began to hire professional architects. By the 1870s practically all new buildings in Milwaukee, from middle-class dwellings to commercial palaces, were being designed by architects.

To be sure, since not all of the city’s population sprang from German stock, not all Milwaukee architecture reflected any particular German character. Until the mid-1880s, the city’s German immigrants were not in a financial position to commission large-scale construction of their own, so the large Anglo-American community dominated the demand for construction up to that point. From 1845 to 1890, even the city’s German-trained designers strove to imitate American architectural trends. They were likely motivated by the tastes of their Anglo-American clients and by their own desire to assimilate to their new community by adopting local customs. As a result, the buildings built during these years generally echoed prevailing American architectural styles, leaving Milwaukee with a fine collection of Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne buildings.

Still, even before the 1890s German designers expressed their ethnicity in subtle ways. They often betrayed a preference for bolder architectural styles, tending to favor Romanesque Revival over Queen Anne, for example. They were also fond of masonry construction, bold massing, lavish detailing, and robust sculptural ornament. Many of the city’s mainstream Victorian buildings therefore sport such Teutonic traits.

The most distinctive characteristic of late-nineteenth-century Milwaukee construction is the prevalence of local cream-colored brick. This soft, yellowish brick, virtually the only kind used in Milwaukee in any quantity until the later 1890s, gave the city its enduring nickname, the “Cream City.” Most of the city’s pre-1900 masonry buildings were also trimmed with local buff-colored limestone, resulting in a uniquely pale local aesthetic. In other cities a palette of rich, dark colors is typically associated with the Victorian era. Milwaukee’s luminescent cream brick buildings, with their harmonious limestone trim, were cheerfully bland by comparison.

The city’s narrow, rectangular urban lots demanded the construction of boxy buildings, so designers applied abundant detail to enliven them. Where the Germans favored bold sculptural ornament, such as carved figures, Anglo-American architects often used intricately patterned abstract detailing such as delicate fretwork, ornamental brickwork, or carved low-relief panels. All architects at the time relied heavily on picturesque rooflines to add visual interest. The Germans used massive, high-gabled, monolithic roofs to achieve a ponderous effect, whereas the Yankees preferred to use complex hip-and-gable roofs, broken up into many planes by dormers, chimney stacks, intersecting gables, and turrets.

In the late 1880s some local architects began copying architectural features directly from contemporary German buildings. The now-demolished Best Brewery bar and bowling alley, built in 1886 on N. 4th Street just south of the present Turner Hall, introduced the shaped Flemish gable and the bell-domed German turret to the city’s architectural vocabulary. Perhaps the first building to copy directly a German counterpart came two years later, when Adolph Meinecke had an idiosyncratic, sculpture-laden, Italianate mansion commissioned for his family in downtown Milwaukee. This impressive house (razed 1956), patterned after the staid classical mansions favored by the German aristocracy at the time, did not inspire any known local imitators. However, another of Meinecke’s buildings, a now-vanished 1889 commercial building on Milwaukee Street, helped popularize the gables and turrets that the Best bar had pioneered. Meinecke’s huge new toy factory at 117 E. Wells Street (1891) further promoted the German Renaissance Revival style by featuring a massive, three-story-tall, shaped Flemish gable (since removed) as its principal architectural feature. All of Meinecke’s buildings were designed by German American architect C. F. Ringer.

The German Renaissance Revival style became even more popular following the construction of the city’s costliest house by a leading German American brewery owner, Captain Frederick Pabst. The magnificent Pabst Mansion (MI101), built 1890–1892, legitimized the direct copying of German architecture in Milwaukee and unleashed a flood of new buildings in the style. By this time the city’s German American community had come into its own in terms of power and economic influence, and many affluent merchants and manufacturers were ready to build their dream homes, as well as impressive new stores, factories, and churches. Soon buildings with scrolled or stepped gables, massive arched porches, ornamental half-timbering, and faceted or helmet-domed towers could be seen everywhere. Lured by the booming demand for custom ironwork, carved woodwork, and sculpture in the German Renaissance style, European-trained craftsmen came in large numbers to Milwaukee. The first decades of the twentieth century saw local architects exploring progressively more sophisticated versions of German revival styles, including neo-Baroque and, later, neo-Renaissance with Art Nouveau overtones. Many Milwaukee congregations built magnificent German-influenced Gothic Revival churches, identifiable by their spiky silhouettes and soaring central spires.

It is impossible to know how long the German craze in Milwaukee would have lasted had it not been for World War I and the resulting anti-German sentiment. Before the fashion declined, however, it left behind some remarkable monuments, of which the Milwaukee City Hall (MI1) is perhaps the best known. In later years, the hulking German mansions became particular targets of derision for tastemakers, and many houses that had been built to last for the ages were razed before they had barely reached the half-century mark. Similarly, the remodeling of commercial structures frequently meant shearing off their fancy gables, helmet-domed towers, and quaint sculptures in an effort to rid the buildings of their embarrassing Old World character. Fortunately, enough structures have survived to impart an unmistakably German character to portions of the Cream City.

As the popularity of the German style began to wane, Milwaukee’s Polish community was reaching the zenith of its prosperity and influence. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, local Polish merchants began to construct their own buildings. Even the most affluent Poles typically shunned the elaborate dwellings favored by German elites, but they took great pride in their places of commerce and worship. As a result, although there are no great Polish mansions in Milwaukee, one can find ebullient expression of Polish ethnicity in the spires of many Milwaukee churches and in the facades of many of the city’s shops.

For architectural inspiration, Milwaukee’s Poles looked especially to the trading cities of western Poland, where tall, narrow Baroque townhouses, topped with dramatic curvilinear gables, shadowed the market squares. Twentieth-century Polish-immigrant merchants found that the layout of such houses—shops on the ground story, proprietors’ living quarters above—fit their needs perfectly. The merchants and their architects, many of whom were also of Polish descent, borrowed the shaped gables to add distinction to their buildings. Today, these curved and cusped gables still differentiate Polish commercial areas, such as Lincoln Avenue (MI77), from other neighborhoods in the city. Architects vied with each other in designing original curvilinear compositions. Their love of the curving line found expression in the Polish churches, with their graceful arched windows and domed tower roofs.

Beyond academic architecture, Milwaukee’s ethnic groups also devised signature designs in vernacular housing. For the Germans, the duplex was the most characteristic housing type. Defined in Milwaukee as a building with two full-floor apartments, one above the other and each with its own outside entrance, the duplex first appeared in the 1880s. It grew in popularity until, by the early twentieth century, the construction of duplexes outnumbered the construction of single-family houses. The Milwaukee duplex quickly evolved into a more or less standard form, consisting of a long, narrow rectangular block with a dominant tall gable facing the street. The gable was typically the building’s most eye-catching feature with its elaborate surface treatments and a highly ornamented central window.

The Germans embraced the duplex as an eminently practical and desirable urban house type. Since there was no social stigma attached to living in this kind of apartment, duplexes of varying sizes and degrees of architectural sophistication gave shelter to Germans of all social and economic levels. Duplexes survive in every neighborhood where Germans once lived, from the most modest working-class sectors to Lake Drive along the Gold Coast.

Meanwhile, Polish immigrants in Milwaukee evolved their own two-family house type, the “Polish flat.” A Polish flat is similar to a duplex in that it also consists of two full-floor apartments, one above the other, each with its own outside entrance. But it differs from the duplex primarily in that the lower unit is located partially below grade in the raised basement level of the building. Also, each unit’s outside entrance is at the same level as the unit. Hence the entrance to the upper unit of a Polish flat is at the second-story level and is reached via an exterior flight of stairs from the ground, rather than from the first-story front porch by means of an interior staircase, as in a typical German duplex.

Many Polish flats were created by raising an older single-family cottage and constructing a basement flat beneath it. By the early 1900s, however, new Polish flats complete with basement apartments were being built. As their name implies, Polish flats were almost always built for Polish owners. Unlike the duplex, which continued to be widely built in Milwaukee into the 1950s, the Polish flat’s period of popularity was relatively short, from 1890 to about 1915. After 1915, most Poles who wanted a two-family house opted for a standard duplex.

As the direct copying of historic German and Polish architectural styles lost popularity in the early twentieth century, Milwaukee’s Germans and Poles embraced more mainstream American architectural trends. Germans still favored styles that could satisfy their aesthetic yearnings for craftsmanship, bold use of natural materials, and a solid, built-for-the-ages look. For many German Americans, this meant embracing Tudor Revival, which shared many of the same design characteristics of the German Renaissance Revival. Another segment of the German community, however, looked forward to the more avant-garde architecture of the period, such as the emerging Prairie Style. Many of the city’s high-quality, Prairie Style houses were built for German Americans, so these dwellings represent the final architectural legacy of German ethnicity in Milwaukee.

Writing Credits

Marsha Weisiger et al.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.