Is an “Art Island” Possible?

Art Milwaukee’s idea to transform a RR swing bridge is intriguing but has hurdles to overcome.

By - Aug 12th, 2013 02:55 pm
Possible future site of Art Island. Photo by Joe Kelly.

Possible future site of Art Island. Photo by Joe Kelly.

Originally built nearly a hundred years ago, the old swing bridge on the Milwaukee River in the Historic Third Ward plainly isn’t the hot spot for locomotives that it once was. It hasn’t been for quite a while. Jeremy Fojut, President of Art Milwaukee, sees this virtual abandonment as an opportunity to expand Milwaukee’s art community by repurposing the swing bridge into a public, art-oriented space that he has tentatively dubbed “Art Island.”

“About a year and a half ago, I was kayaking down the river and just thought ‘What if?’” Fojut says. The idea he hit on was to take the vacant, 243-foot long, 32-foot wide, nearly 800-ton swing bridge and convert it into a linear park complete with green space, public art and studios for artists.

“The bottom part would be a linear park where people could do art,” Fojut says. As for the control room that sits on top of the bridge, he envisions, “Stairs would lead up to studio space and deck space where people could just go enjoy themselves.” That space, in short, could be enjoyed by the general public in the same way one would enjoy any park.

Fojut sees the project as cool addition to not only the Third Ward, but to the city. “Anytime you can take something not in use and make it a community asset is a positive,” he says. Art Island could become a unique landmark that could draw attention from both residents and tourists.

Historic Third Ward Association Executive Director Nancy O’Keefe echoes the sentiment. “I always thought it should be used for something,” she says, “and I think it could be a very unique spot for the Third Ward.”

However, there are still many questions and concerns regarding the project.

First, there is the concern the bridge is in disrepair and will not turn anymore. According to a recent Journal Sentinel article, it has not been used in a decade. If the bridge needs repair, then the obvious question of funding comes up, noted by Fourth District Alderman Bob Bauman, whose district includes the Third Ward.

Rendering of Art Island.

Rendering of Art Island.

“If it does require rehab,” Bauman asks, “who will pay for that?” Bauman considers the Art Island, conceptually, an outstanding project, but he notes there are “technical hurdles.” Fojut and Art Milwaukee have not begun considering any kind of fundraising strategies thus far, which leaves a large question unanswered.

Union Pacific owns the bridge today. In addition, arrangements would have to be made with the United States Coast Guard regarding any potential plans to change the bridge’s use because of its location within, and possible obstruction of, a navigable waterway. Fojut has contacted both the Coast Guard and Union Pacific and is currently waiting to meet with state representatives to discuss his idea.

At this point, he concedes, the project is “very wait and see…we don’t really know if we can do it.” But Fojut has certainly gotten a lot of discussion about how to handle this unique industrial landmark. “Even if it doesn’t happen,” he says, “the idea will hopefully spark a larger conversation about ‘what if?’”


Categories: Real Estate

32 thoughts on “Is an “Art Island” Possible?”

  1. Mike Brenner says:

    You guys print this garbage just to upset the artists in Milwaukee that actually work hard and make a substantive contribution to the city, don’t you? Publishing renderings of a $5M+ project that is nothing more than a fantasy is insane.

  2. Douglas Quigley says:

    Railroads were crucial to Milwaukee’s 19th cen. commerce & development yet architecturally little is left of them. Both of our train depots were demolished. The swing bridge is an important relic of our city’s past. Iron trestle bridges have been depicted in art (paintings & photography) since they were built. Monet & other impressionists used them as focal points. This bridge is a thing of beauty that we will never see the likes of again. If someone has the foresight to find a use for it, bravo. Meanwhile it continues to be a hauntingly beautiful sight on foggy mornings with gulls circling it’s hulking form.

  3. Scott Halperin says:

    well done, and interesting article

  4. Frank says:

    The stench from the river must have gotten to Fojuts head.

  5. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Love it!!

    Granted, those particular renderings are not that interesting, but I’d love to see *somthing* done with that place, it has all the makings of a micro-high-line for Milwaukee…. I always thought a cafe/bar would work best…

  6. Sam says:

    Putting an ‘art island’ on this already beautiful bridge is a terrible idea. Please don’t destroy any more of downtown’s historic landmarks by ‘modernizing’ them and forcing them into your cliche urban-renewal ideas.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Sam I’m curious have you seen the High Line in NYC? Would you consider that “destroying” a historic landmark?

  8. Jeremy Fojut says:

    Just an FYI for the “virtual comment wolves.” If nothing is done with this island and it is not saved the Coast Guard is set to rip it out of the water because it is unused and in a navigable waterway. So we are trying to raise money to make it operable again, take the donation from the owner and make sure this historic bridge is at the minimum kept as a part of history.

    Activating space and allowing people to enjoy history up close, would be the next step in our 5 step plan to allow the public access to the bridge and a use of it. There is no destroying going on. It’s using the same structure and turning it into a linear park initially. It is nice to see the loving comments though lol, it makes me move forward even stronger. Thanks Urban Milwaukee for covering this.

  9. Noah S. says:

    I think that this would be a great addition to the city personally. I might not be quite so keen if taxpayer dollars are required, but if they can come up with the funding for such a project, great! Although it is beautiful on its own and shows the city’s heritage, I don’t have a problem with modernizing it. Especially if they use this “art island” idea to display the railroading history of Milwaukee in some way, shape, or form. I think it is a good start to an idea, but a lot of work has yet to be done. Nice to see people looking for creative ways to beautify Milwaukee. I especially agree with it if the bridge is going to be torn right out of the water, something should be done with the space.

  10. Jeff Jordan says:

    As one of the historic narrators on The Milwaukee Boat Line, I pass this bridge on everyone of our tours. It’s story is a significant part of our history. I see nothing wrong with the idea of using it for an Art Island. Actually, any useful activity on it helps to preserve it. Besides being an art center it also could have a coffee shop.
    Frank, While the river smells like a river occasionally, it doesn’t really stink anymore. That would be the MSSD plant.

  11. STACY MOSS says:

    two thoughts:

    — if the Coast Guard rips things like this out, then why hasn’t it happened all ready? That cost a lot of money too. (I think this is an urban legend.)

    _ Just as it is, it’s graceful decay, is better than most artists can do. The High Line has an all star cast of architects and gardeners.

    BTW — I “use” this bridge all the time when I look at it. It’s a beautiful relic from another age just as it is. Let’s not goof it up or take it down.

  12. David Tatarowicz says:

    I think it is an intriguing idea ….. yes there is a smell sometimes, but it is from MMSD and not the river per se — and Barnacle Bud’s restaurant bar business does not suffer from it.

    I see no reason to make the bridge operational — the way it is — parallel to the river allows boat traffic on both sides — if one side had a walk bridge link to the bank the other side would still be navigable and should satisfy those requirements, and a ton of money would be saved by not trying to make it swing again — it is fine just where it is.

    Great idea to make an icon that very few people ever see into something unique and attractive and functional again.

  13. Dave Reid says:

    @Stacy? It hasn’t been removed yet because today the railroad still owns the bridge. If / when they declare it abandoned then yes the Coast Guard intends to remove it. I do not believe this to be an urban legend as in fact it was recently discussed during a city public meeting.

    As far as the High Line it started as an idea, just like this.

    Should we not have pursued the Trestle Stair project?

  14. Hereiam says:

    If this plan is put into place, what effect would that have on the proposed bridge that was to connect the eastern Third Ward with the Fifth?

    The proposed bridge was to serve as a vital catalyst for development of both the ICC’s sea of parking lots in the Third Ward and the stretch of nearly undeveloped land from the river south to the new Freshwater School on Greenfield Ave.

    Any chance this proposal will leave enough space to accommodate a new bridge over the river?

  15. Jeremy Fojut says:

    Fact: Yes, it is scheduled to be removed at the cost of the owner. I know because I have been in multiple conversations with the national coast guard. At the very least I would like to preserve it as is and not have it removed.

  16. Jeremy Fojut says:

    Another FYI. The swing bridge has to be operable under federal law to be designated as a linear trail if a railroad abandons it.

    So we would only have to move the bridge once a year for 1 minute. It’s one of those federal guidelines that has to be followed when dealing with structures in a navigable waterway.

  17. Jeremy Fojut says:

    @Hereiam the bridge connection on the east side of the river is actually going to be turned into a city park. It is still unclear what is to be done with the west side but there are a lot of development talks.

  18. Hereiam says:

    @Jeremy Fojut seems like a lost opportunity to leave all that very desirable land without a direct north-south connection.

  19. Jeremy Fojut says:

    @Hereiam I agree. The land to the west is not actually owned by the city it is privately owned. That is a long term strategy as developers continue to work on the area.

  20. Stacy Moss says:


    What if the bridge could be designated as a landmark or park, a work of art for that matter? Then it would not have to removed.

    Also, before we artify something, it would be good to know if the end result would be better.

    I doubt it. I think we should find a way to leave it be, like a Roman ruin.

  21. Jeremy Fojut says:

    @stacy the bridge is a historic landmark. However, it doesn’t matter because the Federal coast guard has jurisdiction over navigable water way. A historic designation doesn’t “by law” trump that.

  22. STACY MOSS says:

    Ok, lets say you are right about moving it once a year……

    That’s fine with me.

    Are we talking about a good art bridge or just an art bridge? I would suggest the later is worse than life. Bad or average art at this scale would be truly horrifying considering the site.

    I wonder what a great artist would do with that bridge? It’s daunting. I doubt someone like Richard Serra would have much to add. It’s a daunting proposition to add something that is so perfect all ready. Let’s just move it once a year, call it art, and be done with it. That would be an incredible public service.

  23. sid says:

    great article. this guy has real talent give him a full time gig, let’s wait and see if this happens

  24. Jeremy Fojut says:

    @stacy we are talking about a linear park on the bottom for the public and reconstructing the house on top into a residency program / studio. In addition we are talking about decks on top in the final stage of the planning. These are the initial renderings. Until we have approval and contracts in place to acquire the island we are holding off on any future “what could this be” type of scenarios. One carful step at a time. Community input sessions are definitely a part of the planning.

    The primary use would be a park.

  25. Keith says:

    Interesting concept but doesn’t seem economically feasible – even if you could raise part of the money, it is doubtful you could create the revenue to maintain it as a useable space.

    Until it starts falling into the River or becoming a hindrance to navigation, I don’t see it coming down. Demolition would cost too much.

    I think we tend to overthink issues like this. I would agree with Sally that these industrial ruins make beautiful follies for the city, and do not necessarily have to be useful to have purpose in our society. The precedent has been that if we can’t use something immediately, we should demolish it. Like the smokestacks in the Menomonee Valley, the Coast Guard station, and now the Schlitz Brewhouse. These were gorgeous landmarks just to behold, and there was beauty in their decay.

  26. Stacy Moss says:


    First of all you are talking millions of dollars.

    Then consider your rendering, such as it is. Do you think it improves this fantastic relic? Why mess with such a good thing?

  27. Tom D says:

    How can there be a “linear park” without a line? If the bridge stays open, you can’t reach it without a boat. If a new bridge is built from one side (allowing boats to pass on the other side), you still don’t have a line, you have a “stub”.

    NYC’s High Line park works so well because it is not a stub; there are at least a half dozen entrances along the way. There is never any need to retrace your steps. You enter from one neighborhood and descend (almost magically) into another (probably one you don’t know) and start exploring. If a “linear park” has a stub, the end will be underused and perhaps even creepy (if very underused).

    Linear parks work best when people arrive by transit and when there is good transit near most entry points (like in Manhattan). If you have to walk back to your car, you must retrace your steps and can only cover half as much territory in a given time.

  28. Keith says:

    Agree with Stacy*. Not Sally. My apologies.

  29. Stacy Moss says:

    I agree with Keith!

    Sometimes we forget there are passive uses of things. The bridge, with all of its decay, is a wonder.

  30. Alan says:

    paint it red

  31. Jeremy Fojut says:

    Thanks for the feedback. A linear park is the designation by federal guidelines and legality of it to turn it into a art island. You are right it would only be reachable by boat. And again the bridge is set to be removed by the federal coast guard unless its fixed and operable again. I have been working on this for a year now.

    Yes the project is a lot of money. Im the type of person that asks why not when others only ask why. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible or shouldn’t be looked at. It also doesn’t mean the money can’t be raised. I don’t like every park that was created in the city it doesn’t mean they shouldnt keep them up. I value everyone’s feedback as I push forward with the project. If it doesn’t happen there will be other projects if it does I think it will an international icon. Everyone is entitled to their opinions though that’s what makes a project like this great.

    You can always contact me directly I’d you have more input or you have direct questions at or 414.732.0998. Comments back and forth on a website never solve problems . So this will be my last one.

  32. D says:

    Cool idea but I’d prefer it remain untouched. I’d like to have a reminder of Milwaukee’s railroad and industrial heritage without the artsy yuppified influence.

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