Maybe Karl Kopp Was Right
I criticized him for letting a historic building rot, but he’d planned a stunning replacement.
Back in December I did a column about Karl Kopp’s historic building along the Milwaukee River, questioning whether he deliberately let the J.L. Burnham Building at 100 E. Seeboth fall apart. I’ve since learned additional information that provides another, quite interesting side to this story. I’m indebted to a knowledgeable reader, Bill Kissinger, who alerted me to this.
I reported that Kopp had intended to tear down the Burnham Building back in 2003 and build a brand new condo development, only to have the city come forth in February 2004 and designate the building a historic one that should be preserved. I was not, however, aware of what a stunning building Kopp intended to build. He had hired an internationally admired firm, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects to create a six-floor, “glass-covered building framed on three of its four sides by pre-cast concrete walls,” as Tom Daykin and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported back in 2003. “The idea, Tsien said, is to create a garden effect with the river and the glass.”
The building was intended to be very high-end, with a restaurant on the first floor, offices on second and condos above that. The top two condos were expected to sell for $2 million apiece.
“After having the land for 20 years, I thought we’d do something special,” Kopp told the paper.
Whitney Gould, then the paper’s architecture critic, was blown away by the proposed building, describing it as “a bold slice of modernism, with a T-shaped expanse of stone facing the street, wraparound corner windows, a transparent parapet jutting up from the roof and a glass curtain wall overlooking the Milwaukee River. From the waterfront, the views of the downtown are spectacular.”
“Williams and Tsien, who are husband and wife, are best known for their design of the American Folk Art Museum on Manhattan’s W. 53rd St.,” Gould continued, “a stunning sculptural icon clad in a white bronze alloy; it won the 2002 Arup World Architecture Award for Building of the Year. That Milwaukee is now able to attract architects of this caliber suggests a heartening openness to innovation in a city long associated with heavy Germanic buildings and their imitators.”
Take a look at this page of buildings created by Williams and Tsien and you, too, may be blown away. It would have been quite a coup for this city to have them build a signature building at a location that has since been redeveloped into a wonderful part of Milwaukee. Doug Weas, whose Weas Development was to serve as developer for the building, says the proposed building “could have been really special, almost like another Calatrava for Milwaukee.”
Gould was clearly torn by the issue. The Burnham building, she noted, “has badly deteriorated. But with its arcaded windows (now filled in with glass block), rhythmic corbeling and other Italianate flourishes, it’s a charming part of a group of commercial and industrial buildings in what was a thriving business hub between roughly 1858 and 1885.”
Gould, though, came down in favor of change. “I, for one, would miss this little artifact, warts and all,” she wrote of the Burnham Building. “But I have to admit that the potential replacement looks appealing enough to make the sacrifice defensible.”
I would link you to the story, but I cannot retrieve it from the Journal Sentinel’s historic archive, no matter what key words I use. Speaking of history, it’s lamentable how difficult it can be to find the newspaper’s older stories. (Gould sent me this link from newsbank.com to the story.) That’s all the more true in the case of Gould’s work: her passion and bracing clarity on architectural issues are still missed today.
As Weas recalls it, Peter Park, then the reigning planner at the Department of City Development, favored the project, but by February 2004 Ald. Marvin Pratt had just taken over as acting mayor, and city leadership was in flux. “The timing wasn’t right,” Weas recalls. “There were a number of historic preservation people who strongly opposed it; it didn’t have a chance.”
It’s quite possible Kopp had let the building deteriorate even before the historic designation was slapped on the building, as he was simply using it for storage. I think I was too hard on him in my original story. And I must say, it would be wonderful if he followed up on his plan of 2003 and decided to build something truly special along the river.
Meanwhile, there is a broader issue here that transcends this one development. While the city’s historic buildings are a key part of Milwaukee’s unique charm, the city’s action in this case meant that a fantastic-looking project by world-renowned architects did not get built. There is a danger, in cases like this, of being too dogmatic about history, and thereby sacrificing architectural greatness. I don’t have the answer as to how to balance such issues. Nor did Gould. But this particular situation seems exactly the sort that smart leaders should take into account in determining how they handle historic preservation.