Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Marcus Center Unveils New Grounds

Kiley-grove replacement designed to provide more access, host more events.

By - Nov 14th, 2022 03:50 pm
The community grounds at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The community grounds at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Marcus Performing Arts Center is ready to welcome visitors to its reconfigured community grounds along E. Kilbourn Ave.

The $1.5 million project aims to redesign the previously disjointed area into a unified, accessible park-like area capable of hosting large events.

A large lawn is now at the center of the space, which can be used for its own events or as an extension of the adjacent Peck Pavilion amphitheater. A video screen is designed to broadcast what’s happening on stage to the lawn, but will spend most of its life rotating through advertisements for other performances.

A total of 23 honey locust trees, with movable tables and chairs interspersed atop crushed stone, frame the lawn.

A new war memorial sits at the corner of N. Water St. and E. Kilbourn Ave., a nod to the building’s history as part of a war memorial for Milwaukee County. Another memorial, located inside the colonnade on the north side of the grounds, remains.

The grounds project represents the second phase of the implementation of a 2018 master plan to revitalize the 1969 cultural center.

“This is just the beginning. We have much more to come,” said Marcus Center CEO Kendra Whitlock Ingram in an interview after a dedication ceremony in the center’s atrium.

Whitlock Ingram started in 2020, just as the pandemic took hold. The suspension of indoor performances caused the organization to reorder its planned projects.

It first installed new seating and accessible aisles in Uihlein Hall, the main performance venue, as part of a $4 million project. It also completed the removal of the existing tree grove, and, in 2021, hosted a handful of events on the new lawn. Lead contractor CG Schmidt installed the remaining community grounds infrastructure this year.

“The reaction we got to [the interior renovations] and to the grounds, in terms of having more usable space and guest-friendly experience is making us think more about all of guest experience spaces,” she said. That includes refreshing the Todd Wehr Theater and a series of back-of-house infrastructure projects, like replacing the stage rigging system.

Whitlock Ingram will depart in January for a similar job in Pittsburgh, located in her home state. She said the Marcus Center has a vision for what comes next, and a strong leadership team to execute it, but much of that will fall to the next leader.

“There is plenty of room for a new CEO to put their mark on the organization,” she said.

The first two phases have been primarily donor funded said Whitlock Ingram.

Milwaukee County is covering the cost of rebuilding the Water Street driveway, which was completed alongside the grounds project, and replacing the roof. The facility is owned by the county, but the nonprofit organization operates it. The county is expected to fund a handful of other basic infrastructure projects at the complex, 929 N. Water St..

The CEO said a medallion, previously embedded in the pavement of the driveway, was preserved and is intended to be installed at a new location in the future.

The lawn replaces a grove of chestnut trees, designed by famed landscape architect Dan Kiley, that became the subject of an unusual historic preservation battle over living, still-growing things in 2019. The Marcus Center ultimately won the right to advance the project after the Common Council overruled the Historic Preservation Commission. A large fountain, for which the water line was supposedly damaged, was also removed.

HGA is leading the design of the redevelopment.

The grounds area is buffered from the adjacent streets by a series of bioswales, the design of which serves as a trap to catch both stormwater and errant vehicles. Native plantings are intended to grow in each of the spaces. Each of the bioswales slopes downhill away from the street, with a masonry wall and fence delineating the edge. “That was an intentional design rather than having bollards or other things that would be disruptive,” said Whitlock Ingram. Bollards still protect the front of the building.

The organization hosted a formal dedication Monday morning, with a heavy emphasis on the cultural complex’s oft-overlooked role as a “living memorial to all who gave their lives in the service of our country.” A quartet from the U.S. Army Band played the national anthem and the Milwaukee Police Department‘s honor guard posted the colors.

The complex, designed by architect Harry Weese, first opened in 1969. The building’s marble facade was replaced in 1994 and a new lobby was constructed in 1996.

Tenants at the Marcus Center include the Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera, First Stage Children’s Theater and Black Arts MKE. The facility also hosts national touring productions of Broadway shows.


2022 Renderings and Pre-Construction Photos

2018 Renderings

Marcus Center Photos

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