Why the Historic Pumping Station Was Demolished
Could Michels have saved the building and incorporated it into its $100 million plan?
Buried in the good news that Michels is planning to invest $100 million in a five-building complex containing office space, apartments and a hotel, is the unfortunate demolition of the historic pumping station at 2011 S. 1st St.
The 3,895-square-foot building, known officially as the Milwaukee Fire Department High Pressure Pumping Station, had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981. The structure was built for a cost of $70,145 in 1931, with the specialized equipment inside, led by three 600 horsepower Allis-Chalmers pumps, costing the city an additional $230,000. It was designated historic for the high quality of “municipal engineering and architecture” and the “unique historic elements creating the purpose for which the facility was constructed.”
What was that special purpose? The building was designed to fight fires at a number of nearby factories and warehouses at the north end of the once-industrial Bay View. It replaced a fireboat that could face congestion on the way to a fire from the many area bridges. The structure was connected to 31 special fire hydrants and could quickly pump water directly from the Kinnickinnic River. The historic nomination document notes “Due to the extreme pressure involved, a telegraphic signal system from the hydrants to the High Pressure Pumping Station was necessary to indicate whether more or less water pressure could be handled by firemen manning horses or by other equipment attached to the hydrants.” It was the only such structure ever constructed in Milwaukee.
Horny Goat Brewing operated a brewpub in the space from 2009 until 2015, and during that period the structure appeared quite solid both inside and out. That’s not the condition the Michels Corporation found the building in. During interviews with Urban Milwaukee, Rinka Chung Architecture principal Matt Rinka and Michels vice president Tim Michels both said they encountered water, lots of water, when they entered the building.
“When we walked in there was like four feet of water in the basement, and the entire foundation and the structure were essentially to the point of no return,” said Rinka. Michels said the water was drained from the building, but it kept coming back. Rinka said his firm partnered with structural engineers to study preserving the building, but was ultimately unsuccessful. “Unless you completely rebuilt the building, there was just really no way to save it,” said Rinka.
Michels acquired the site for $3.6 million in April 2017.
Rinka said there is a takeaway from the unfortunate outcome. “That’s a good lesson, we’re preservationists at heart. What I would tell people, when there are buildings like that sitting empty, people need to come in and maintain them. Especially when they’re buildings that old and so close to the water. Had there been a plan to maintain that building it probably would be savable,” said the prominent architect.
One significant downtown building was spared the wrecking ball after sitting vacant for decades because of a focus on basic maintenance. Marcus Corp. shuttered the Warner Grand Theatre in 1995, but ensured a basic level of maintenance to the historic theater and 12-story office building. Now following a massive fundraising effort, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has undertaken an $89 million redevelopment of the theater into a music hall.
“Marcus Corp. has taken very good care of the building. They’ve kept the heat on,” said Alderman Robert Bauman at a May hearing on the project. Another city official noted the belief was that a Marcus employee walked through the building every week.
That apparently didn’t happen with the pumping station following the demise of Horny Goat Brewing.
Michels applied to demolish the building in April, and had nearly completed the job as of yesterday’s press conference announcing its plans for the six-acre site. Because the building was not locally designated as a historic structure, no hearing was required before the Historic Preservation Commission.
For more on Michels’ big plans read our coverage of yesterday’s announcement.
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