Federal Building

515-519 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Outstanding Richardson Romanesque Revival Building

Photos 

Overview Looking Southwest

Photo taken by J.R. Manning in September 2013

Enlarge

Map 

Description 

"Milwaukee's Federal Building is a five-story structure, sturdy and picturesque, solidly built, handsomely detailed, and admirably maintained. Its granite walls—dark gray on the basement story, light gray above—rise to steeply pitched, intersecting hipped and gabled roofs of varying heights, and a massive tower crowns the facade (north elevation). In style the building is Richardsonian Romanesque, its design strongly reminiscent of H. H. Richardson's renowned Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

"Interior spaces on first through fifth floors are arranged about a vault central arcade, surrounded by broad corridors and surmounted by an iron and glass skylight. The arcade is substantially as it was at the turn of the century, and so are adjacent public areas—corridors, stairhalls, and lobbies—having many-hued terrazzo and tile files, multi-colored marble panelling, wainscot, and door frames, panelled wood doors, and mosaic, wood-panelled, and plaster ceilings. Many of the 125 offices that the building originally contained have been remodelled as their uses have changed (alteration of the first floor area long occupied by the U.S. Post Office is under way at this writing). But, fortunately, one of the most impressive rooms remains essentially intact. This is Room 390, a judicial chamber two stories in height, with oak-panelled walls and ceiling and intricately carved oak trim. According to the local press, visiting attorneys have called it 'the most distinctive courtroom in the United States.'

"With the addition constructed on the south end of the original fabric during the 1930's[sic], the Federal Building now fills the city block bounded by East Wisconsin Avenue and East Michigan, North Jackson, and North Jefferson Streets. Less ornamental in style, the eight-story addition is faced with granite matching the original and, in general, harmonizes with the 19th century edifice.

"The Federal Building's chief area of significance is its architecture. A handsome and imposing building, it is quite likely the finest example of Richardsonian Romanesque design in the Milwaukee area. Perrin states that 'The architect.. .may have been James Knox Taylor, who designed and supervised the construction of many buildings for the Treasury Department during this period [1892-1899].' Size, location, and function have made the Federal Building one of Milwaukee's most familiar landmarks. The massive granite edifice occupies a block-square site on the east side of the central business district. It was erected as the U. S. Post Office, Court House, and Custom House, and while the Main Post Office and Customs now have separate quarters, it still contains a postal sub-station and the Federal courts, together with the offices of Wisconsin's U. S. Senators; the Internal Revenue Service; F.B.I.; Secret Service; Bureaus of Indian Affairs, Labor and Statistics, and Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs; Selective Service; Immigration; Naturalization; and other agencies of the Federal Government."

Quotation from the National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form prepared by Mary Ellen Wietczykowski, Chairman, Milwaukee Landmarks Commission, July 7, 1972. A link to the document is listed below under "Sources."

Editor's Note: Since this document was prepared more than 45 years ago, some things have changed. Many of the listed departments, including the US Postal Service, have moved out and it appears that the courts are the only remaining original tennant.

Milwaukee's Shining Landmark 

Written by J.R. Manning

The Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Milwaukee is a textbook example of a striking landmark. It occupies a full city block between Wisconsin Avenue and Michigan Street and between Jefferson and Jackson Streets. Construction began in 1892 and took seven years at a cost of $1.4 million.

An old building directory in the front elevator lobby provides an amusing insight into important tennants of the original building. Besides the obvious U.S. Post Office (that took the entire first floor) other offices included Customs House, Collector of Customs, Wine and Spirit Deepartment, Pension Examiner, U.S. Lighthouse Inspector, Weather Bureau, Bureau of Animal Industy, the locomotive inspector, steamboat inspector and Oleomargarine Separtment. (It was illegal to purchase collored oleomargarine in Wisconsin until 1967.) You would also find the Post Office Inspector, Railway Mail Service and the U.S. Marshal here.

A $35 million dollar restoration was undertaken in 1989 and took until 1996. The restoration included refinishing of interior spaces, adding or refreshing decor, a new slate roof, energy efficient glass in the skylight, new elevators, security systems and new HVAC. A courtroom was added directly east of the other referenced courtroom, more modern in design but paying homage to the old courtroom in many ways.

The exterior is clad with gray Mount Waldo granite from Frankfurt, Maine. The building is Richardsonain Romanesque Revival, following the design ideas of renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Richardson's use of the Romanesque Revival in his designs became the source of the label, "Richardsonian Romanesque Revival."

The building;s design is credited to Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. Prior to Edbrooke, the supervising architect had been James G. Hill who abandoned classical designs and often added tall towers that could be clearly seen for miles around. This building features a soaring tower that was supposed to have a four faced clock that was deleted from the construction, likely for lack of funding.

The façade features recesses, projections, steep rooflines, gables and grotesques in many unlikely places. There are also several grotesques on the cornice that appear to be non-functional gargoyles. The decor of the façade is worth the time to study.

The nomination papers refer to the design being that of James Knox Taylor who did much of the design work for the treasury department in that time period.

The interior is as gorgeous as the exterior. The building is built around an atrium with long corridors with terrazo floors, columns of faux marble and hand-stenciling that stretches for miles throughout the building.

A steel grid framework is located above the atrium floor. It is not structural, in fact, it is unused. It originally supported a glass roof over the atrium floor, presumably for warmth. Over the years, items dropped from upper floors caused enough damage that the glass paneling was removed and replaced with corrugated tin. During the restoration, it was all (thankfully) torn out but the framework was left intact, perhaps as a symbol of what once was.

The courtroom on the west side of the building is two stories and paneled with floor to ceiling wood. Extensive carving includes a federal seal, the seal of Wisconsin and the seal of the City of Milwaukee. At the time of construction, you could not sit in the courtroom if you were not a landowner nor allowed to vote. Since this was pre-suffrage, a "Women's Balcony" is high up on the east wall to provide audience space for those not allowed on the main floor. (In the new courtroom, a faux "Women's Balcony" is on the south wall, just to be there.)

The courtroom is referred to as one of, if not the, most beautiful courtrooms in the United States.

The building was declared a Milwaukee City Landmark in 1972 and was listed on the NRHP in 1973.

National Register information 

Status
Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on March 14, 1973
Reference number
73000082
Architectural styles
Other architectural type; Victorian: Romanesque; Richardsonian Romanesque
Area of significance
Architecture
Level of significance
Local
Evaluation criteria
C - Design/Construction
Property type
Building
Historic functions
Courthouse; Customhouse; Post office
Current functions
Courthouse; Post office
Period of significance
1875-1899
Significant years
1892; 1899

Update Log 

  • October 7, 2017: Essay added by J.R. Manning
  • March 8, 2015: New photos from J.R. Manning
  • August 19, 2014: New photos from J.R. Manning
  • October 20, 2013: Updated by J.R. Manning: Updated Status and Added Photos

Sources