New vision for deteriorating War Memorial

The War Memorial is in a state of disrepair, and Milwaukee Art Museum is putting forth a new plan to help revive its lakefront neighbor.

By - Sep 24th, 2012 04:00 am
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A view from Lake Michigan of the proposed changes to the War Memorial Center. Photos courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum.

Administrators at the Milwaukee Art Museum want everyone to know: their proposal for an improved Milwaukee County War Memorial Center is not a way to control the veteran’s organization.

That was the unswerving message at a recent town hall style meeting at MAM, even as it appeared to have fallen on more than a few deaf ears.

Some veterans fear the art museum is launching a covert mission to whisk the memorial away from the hands of service members; others feel the generous proposal is simply a way for the museum to prevent further embarrassment by being attached to the crumbling structure–downgrading their own architectural crown, the Calatrava-designed Brise Soleil.

If either were true, it couldn’t negate the current state of disrepair seen at the War Memorial Center.

Dozens of veterans, MAM trustees and residents gathered in the Lubar Auditorium where the meeting was held to openly discuss the “Save the War Memorial” proposal set forth by the Milwaukee Art Museum.

MAM director Dan Keegan opened the meeting with a presentation and slideshow, complete with photos of the deteriorating campus and architectural renditions of what could become of the site if or when everyone is willing to get on board.

Perhaps the largest item proposed by the art museum is its commitment to raise more than $15 million to contribute to significant improvements, enhancements and new construction at the War Memorial Center. In addition, the museum is prepared to take responsibility for managing the War Memorial Center facilities with both long and short-term building maintenance.

More than half of that money has already been raised, said Keegan, who hopes that the Art Museum’s upcoming fundraising campaign—commemorating 125 years—will serve as the impetus to reel in wealthy donors to raise the rest.

The War Memorial Center has fallen a long way since it was first constructed in 1957 to “honor veterans and present the arts.” It began as a concerted effort by citizens and veterans who literally walked door-to-door to raise money to honor those who served. After the first building, designed by Eero Saarinen, was built, a second installation—the Kahler building—was added in 1972.

Today, the Art Museum occupies more than 70 percent of these two buildings. Neither organization pays rent and the buildings remain under County ownership, though both are funded dually by public and private monies. The art museum operates and owns the Calatrava addition, separately.

The buckled floor at the War Memorial.

The Milwaukee Art Museum began to negotiate changes at the memorial when an audit conducted by the County in 2011 found the War Memorial to be in a dire state of disrepair. An excerpt from the audit reads: “The current governance structure of the WMI and the scarcity of public resources have resulted in the War Memorial Center’s current state of disrepair, with $5.3 million with known and necessary capital improvements.” Among the problems includes crumbling concrete throughout the campus and extensive water leaks. Studies have estimated repair costs at more than $10 million.

The audit also stated that the “facility’s state of disrepair reflects poorly on the intent to honor Veterans,” and “threatens the safekeeping of the state’s most visible memorial to Veterans and its most important art collection; and threatens the health of visitors.”

Despite that recognition, the County’s squeezed budget has caused them to nudge the War Memorial campus to seek out private financial support.

So far, MAM has received the blessings of the War Memorial Board of Trustees, many who have seen and partaken in earlier discussions regarding the building’s design and purpose. But that hasn’t stopped many veterans from voicing their opinions.

One board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his status, compared the tug-of-war to intra-service rivalry, fueled by years of neglect and discontent.

“We’re not opposed to it,” he said. “The County has given up, and said the veterans aren’t worth it. The County has dropped the ball on us.”

Drip pans protecting the European art collection at the War Memorial Center.

“The County has put their stake in the ground,” Keegan said. “There ain’t enough money to go around. This is not the Veterans fault. It’s a combined failure, frankly.”

Keegan showed startling photos of metal drip pans used above the museum’s European Art Collection, buckled wood floors, and other water damage caused by the site’s poor water management systems.

“Don’t look at the artwork, look at the ceiling,” Keegan said as he showed a photo of the museum’s haphazard effort to catch leaks. “I don’t have the assistance that that wouldn’t happen again.”

A photo (right) of the War Memorial Center shows a heap of American flags, photos and other items lying in monstrosity on a dirt floor in the basement of the building.

The Milwaukee Art Museum currently houses more than 25,000 works of art, worth upwards of millions dollars. The War Memorial offers veterans remembrance. Both centers offer reflection, and for that, they are priceless.

Taking on the fervor of a Baptist preacher at time, Keegan wore his passion on his sleeve.

“I’m sorry for being angry,” he said. “But, you tell me why that concrete is cracked that way. It’s old. It’s neglected. And it’s disrespectful to vets.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum envisions the War Memorial Center to be the Midwest’s version of the National Mall—a place where citizens can come together to honor the dead and experience the arts.

Design for the proposed “Freedom Walk” at Fitch Plaza.

Among some of the proposed design concepts include a “Freedom Walk” in Fitch Plaza, or currently as Keegan calls it “the sea of concrete.” The Freedom Walk would be a stone walkway and include grassy areas, which would assist the site’s storm water management, and rejuvenate the dead space.

More importantly, it would allow Veterans to exit the War Memorial and walk out to edge of the space to take in the invigorating views from Lake Michigan.

A second War Memorial board member hopes Veterans will see the opportunities they will gain by giving the Milwaukee Art Museum the go-ahead. Anything is better than nothing, he added.

Keegan acknowledged the Veterans’ pain and concern. He reminded those in the audience that design concepts were just that—concepts—and anticipates a few more rounds of discussion.

“We will not do this without Veterans’ support,” Keegan said. “The museum does not want to take control of the War Memorial. We hope to partner with them. I don’t want to be the only one standing in front,” of veteran’s photos, he said alluding to the Center’s waned support in the community.

“We made a statement,” he added. “We’re in this together.”

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