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Urban Visionaries

Project: Milwaukee City Hall Exterior Restoration, Milwaukee, WI

Architects: Engberg Anderson, Inc., Milwaukee, WI; Charles Engberg, AIA, partner; with Quinn Evans | Architects, Ann Arbor, MI; Ilene Tyler, FAIA

Contractor: J.P. Cullen & Sons, Janesville, WI

By Eve M. Kahn

Milwaukeeans in the 1890s spent a million dollars on a hopeful, ambitious scheme for a new city hall. The footprint of its brick, stone and terra-cotta mass measured 315 by 327 ft., and its clock tower, at 393 ft. tall, was ten times the height of any competing roof on the skyline. Only two other structures in America – the Washington Monument and Philadelphia's City Hall – were taller than Milwaukee's civic landmark. The building also stands out because its German-born architect, Henry C. Koch, based its competition-winning design on German precedents like Hamburg's Rathaus, to appeal to Milwaukee's immigrant population. The historic structure report for Koch's masterpiece calls it "the only American city hall to be constructed in the German Renaissance Revival style" as well as "one of the largest city halls in the country."

The downside is that its dormered bulk – a 107,270-sq.ft. trapezoid – requires constant maintenance. Just monitoring conditions has proved daunting. In the early 2000s, after brick and terra-cotta shards began mysteriously falling from the spire, the city had to hire engineers with cliff-climbing skills to explore the sources of the failures.

During initial assessments, investigating teams (including engineers from Chicago's Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates) "rappelled in multiple drops across all facades, taking photographs and notes," says architect Charles Engberg, AIA, partner and a founder of Milwaukee firm Engberg Anderson. "And we knew there'd still be more problems than the rappellers could see. We knew this would turn into one of the largest civic restorations of the decade in this country."

Engberg's firm, in consultation with the Ann Arbor, MI, office of Quinn Evans | Architects and engineers from Simpson Gumpertz & Heger in Waltham, MA, just completed a three-year, $60 million overhaul of the City Hall envelope. The project came in on time and within budget, despite countless unfortunate surprises – rusted beams, severely cracked brick backup at the 20 dormers, eroded sandstone – discovered as the restorers ventured deeper into the building.

"Even while the reports were being written and the funding set aside," says Engberg Anderson project manager James Otto, "the deterioration was accelerating at an exponential rate. More water and ice were getting in." Engberg Anderson senior associate Kevin Donahue adds, "Areas that we'd predicted would require just repairs, like the dormers, turned into areas that needed nearly wholesale replacement." Most perilous, Otto recalls, were the clock tower's steel beams: "The further down we inspected, the more rust we found, until there was nothing left _ there were columns with no bases at all."

Henry C. Koch's innovative engineering strategies had caused some of the structural problems that Engberg Anderson had to undo. Supported by 2,584 pine pilings driven into Milwaukee's formerly swampy soil, the steel frame is embedded in the thick masonry wall construction. But like most architects of his time, Koch did not foresee how much rust forms when the steel has no chance to dry out. City crews had tried to staunch the deterioration over the past two decades by repairing or redoing copper and slate roofs and re-flashing dormers. But the repairs themselves had started to fail.

"The flashing repairs between the dormers were causing cracks in the terra-cotta caps," says Quinn Evans principal Ilene Tyler, FAIA. "Water was pouring into the cavity walls. Efflorescence was spreading. The insulated glass had fogged up on windows only 20 years-old. And we could see vertical cracks that threatened the stability of the tower, and debris fallen on the deeper ledges. We knew that scaffolding had to go up right away."

As the urgently needed restoration began in 2005, only a few Milwaukeeans grumbled about the expense. "It became such a fast-track project that the work started even before we'd finished the historic structure report," which turned into a 350-page opus, Tyler explains. Aiding her firm's research were City Hall's own lovingly kept archives, she adds: "There's a huge room of flat files with drawings from every era, neatly organized, stacked and labeled. We could pore over the details and figure out exactly what repairs had been made where over the past hundred years."

To insure that taxpayers understood how their dollars were being skillfully deployed for the work, Engberg Anderson held numerous open meetings with the public, historians, and preservation activists. "There was a constant effort to maintain dialogue," Donahue explains. Local journalists started eagerly documenting the work, and have reported on its sometimes staggering statistics.

The building was engulfed in 75 linear miles of scaffolding components (from ThyssenKrupp Safway of West Allis, WI). Milwaukee roofing contractor Penebaker Enterprises, with Milwaukee's F.J.A. Christiansen Roofing, applied 19,000 new slates to dizzyingly steep pinnacles. Christiansen Roofing also installed some 240,000 pounds of new copper sheets and ornaments, including balustrades and Corinthian capitals, from Ontario metal fabricator Heather & Little. Window restoration contractor J.F. Cook of Oak Creek, WI, repaired 2,000 wood windows. General contractor J.P. Cullen & Sons oversaw the installation of some 200,000 bricks from Alberta manufacturer I-XL Industries plus 12,000 terra-cotta ornaments from Gladding, McBean in Lincoln, CA. Engberg Anderson staffers estimate that they fielded 19,000 emails about the project while workers spent some 500,000 person-hours onsite, wearing safety harnesses to clamber along breezy scaffolding and open staircases with 45-degree slopes.

By the time the scaffolding was peeled off in late 2008, and the turreted masonry trapezoid started gleaming again, and the bell-tolling clock – with a new translucent face from Lee Manufacturing in Muskego, WI – told the right time again, some locals had already forgotten how rundown city hall had so recently been. Otto recalls that "one person actually asked us, 'What did you guys do?' Now, putting my architect's ego aside for a moment, and my knowledge of how much effort we'd poured into the building for so many years, I'll take that as a high compliment." TB

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