City Hall, a landmark for 120 years

An early postcard view of Milwaukee's City Hall. Carl Swanson collection

An early postcard view of Milwaukee’s City Hall. Carl Swanson collection

Happy birthday to Milwaukee’s City Hall, inaugurated on Dec. 23, 1895. In honor of our beloved landmark, test your knowledge with these 10 facts about the building. How many did you know?

1) The building’s ornate style is Flemish Renaissance. Local architect Henry C. Koch & Co. designed City Hall to fit an awkward triangular lot. The local firm beat a rival proposal from a Chicago architect for a Gothic style building. The Chicago firm’s plans had a few drawbacks, among them a complete absence of any ladies’ rest rooms.

Milwaukee City Hall Atrium

The central atrium, eight stories tall, was a magnet for suicides in the Great Depression. Carl Swanson photo

2) City Hall sits on Market Square. In pioneer days this was an open market for produce and livestock. Even then, it wasn’t a square at all – it was a trapezium with no two sides parallel.

3) The marshy ground necessitated the driving of 2,500 pilings. Each piling is a yellow pine tree trunk, 50 to 60 in length. To support the four corners of the 393-foot tower, 1,000 of the pilings were driven in four clusters of 250 each.

4) Wood pilings last practically forever – but only if they are kept wet. When the water table dropped, the pilings supporting City Hall began to rot. In 1957, the building’s north wall was damaged when it abruptly settled a full inch. Solutions over time have ranged from concrete reinforcement to pumping water around the remaining pilings.

5) The basement and first two floors are granite. The remaining six floors are made from 8 million bricks. The tower required an additional 3.7 million bricks. The building weighs approximately 41,000 tons, has more than 47,000 square feet of mosaic and marble flooring, and features approximately 107,000 square feet of office and meeting space.

6) At 393 feet, City Hall was a gigantic building by 1895 standards. In fact it held the title of world’s tallest habitable building from 1895-1899.

7) Milwaukee does nothing quickly. It took 11 years of bickering and infighting before politicians agreed to build City Hall and construction took a further two years. The cornerstone, in the southwestern pier of the building, includes a zinc box containing copies of the city’s various newspapers, photographs, and copies of documents relating to building’s planning and construction.

8) The tower contains a massive bell named Solomon Juneau in honor of the city’s founder. It weighs 10 tons and was cast at the Edward P. Allis Co. Reliance Works – the forerunner of industrial giant Allis-Chalmers. The bell sounded the hours until 1925 when that practice ceased on fears its vibrations were damaging the building. It occasionally rings on special occasions.

9) The building generated its own electric power and heat until 1938, when the city decided to shut down the aging and inefficient machinery and signed an agreement with the Electric Co. to provide both electricity and steam heat.

10) The building has a dark side. City Hall features a central 20 by 70-foot open atrium rising eight stories in height. According to the City Clerk’s office, during the Great Depression seven people jumped to their deaths in the atrium and an eighth died of a stroke after one of the jumpers narrowly missed him. In 1935, protective wiring was installed to prevent accidents and suicides. The wiring remained in place until 1988. You can read more about the suicides here.Carl_sig

 

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7 comments

      1. Thank you,Mr.Swanson,I read this when it was posted,and thoroughly enjoy your offerings. Thank you for this service to the community of Milwaukee;your readers are indebted to you. Always look forward to the next time.
        Sincerely,
        Ralph Wettstein

        Like

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