Symphony Breaks Ground on New Hall
$89 million music hall means "rebirth of a neighborhood" and "rebirth of the symphony."
Shovels are in the ground, as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra moves forward on its $89 million plan to transform the Grand Warner Theatre at 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. into a world-class music hall. Originally built in 1930, the theater will become the symphony’s dedicated home, with the floors above serving as symphony offices.
“We call it a groundbreaking, but it is in many ways a rebirth of the neighborhood and a rebirth of the symphony,” said symphony president Mark Niehaus at a ceremony held Tuesday morning. Niehaus singled out a number of key players involved in the fundraising effort, including board president Andy Nunemaker. “It has been a journey of joy, frustration and happiness,” said Niehaus referring to the $139 million fundraising effort the two have led.
Niehaus also made sure to praise the project’s most notable donors, David and Julia Uihlein. The Uihleins, who rank among Milwaukee’s most prominent philanthropists, have donated to the project three separate times and announced a fourth gift during their speech at the ceremony. In addition, the Bradley Foundation, founded by David’s grandfather, contributed $15 million to the project. Terms of the family donations were not disclosed.
Niehaus also thanked Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele and Alderman Robert Bauman. Barrett praised the symphony’s vision and noted that the effort was a catalyst for the rejuvenation of not just Milwaukee’s main street, but Wisconsin’s main street. “The one constant in this city is that it’s always changing,” said the mayor.
Abele, who besides being county executive previously served as the board chair of the symphony, lauded the musicians for the life and energy they bring not just to the symphony performances, but in their community outreach. The millionaire philanthropist also noted that after a dinner with Nunemaker earlier this week, he would be personally matching the next $500,000 in donations. This later caused Nunemaker to joke that no one was going to go out to eat with him anymore, and Niehaus to proclaim “we are just going to keep doing speeches for everyone that wants to donate.”
Nunemaker was tasked with thanking all of the partners involved in the project, and there are many. He credited everyone from Gov. Scott Walker to the mayor for being good partners in allocating historic preservation tax credits, vacating a street, giving a facade grant and helping coordinate the construction. He also thanked architecture firm Kahler Slater which is leading the project’s design, Mandel Group executive Robert Monnat and Godfrey & Kahn attorney Steve Chernof for serving as real estate consultants. He singled out Niehaus and Susan Loris for their leadership of the symphony. And he also thanked the many donors for making the project possible.
Most importantly, according to Nunemaker, he thanked the musicians. “Our musicians are the entire reason we are here,” said the board president.
At a mid-May Greater Milwaukee Committee meeting, Nunemaker laid out the symphony’s strategy as “killing three birds with one stone,” and at a bargain price. The organization faced a $3.5 million annual structural deficit according to Nunemaker, and initiated the campaign to reinvent how the symphony operates. The dedicated building, allowing the symphony to control its schedule, its hall and its parking, is planned to yield the organization an additional $2 million in annual income. Creating a more substantial endowment is planned to yield $1 million annually. And the final piece of the puzzle is stabilizing the employee pension fund, which will save an estimated $700,000 annually.
The orchestra has shared the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts with a number of other local tenants, like the Milwaukee Ballet and Florentine Opera, and traveling Broadway shows, since it opened in 1969.
About the Project
Last operated as a cinema by Marcus Corp. in 1995, the building has been vacant ever since. The Marcus family helped get the project off the ground by donating their ownership in the building to the symphony and included an additional donation according to Niehaus. During Tuesday’s ceremony, the symphony president also thanked Paul Bielich for buying the land the building sits on and working to save the theater. “You did it, you saved it,” said Niehaus.
A dizzying array of detail goes into all the moving pieces required to bring the project to fruition, including a planned move in October of the theater’s eastern wall 35 feet east into N. 2nd St. The move is necessary in order to build a stage that can fit the symphony. But in order to qualify for $16 million in state and historic preservation tax credits, the wall must be maintained and moved as one piece. “The National Parks Service wouldn’t allow us to deconstruct it and rebuild it; we have to literally move it,” Chernof told a city committee in May. He noted there are just two companies in the country that do this work, and the MSO has scheduled the move for October because the early fall month is the least windy. To make matters more expensive, no additional tax credits were awarded to assist with the move, said Monnat, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.
The symphony is also acquiring a small slice of land to the building’s north as part of a three-way transaction that will allow for back-of-the-house functions like dressing rooms and restrooms to be constructed.
Adding to the complexity, the theater is part of a 104,955-square-foot, 12-story building. Five floors of the tower will be converted to offices, warm-up space and a reception space for the symphony, while more of the space will be marketed for sale to a developer for a future conversion to housing or redevelopment as office space.
For those wondering what the interior of the building looks like, Tour de Force has posted a series of interactive, 360-degree images of the space. Visible among the Art Deco detail is the small stage and remanents of the structure that divided the theater horizontally into upper and lower theaters during the end of its run as a movie theater.
The city previously approved granting the project $750,000 from a tax-incremental financing district.
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