Urban spelunking: (Re)visiting the Wisconsin Gas flame
Credit where credit is due: Molly Snyder was the first OnMilwaukee.comrade to ascend to the top of the Wisconsin Gas Light Building, 626 E. Wisconsin Ave., but I was offered a chance to get a tour, including climbing up to the flame, and I wasn't about to say no.
So, I played Vieau to Molly's Marquette, Hudson to her Verrazzano, and got the grand tour of the 1929-30 Eschweiler-designed Wisconsin Gas Light Co. HQ.
The reason I was invited was to help share the news that for the first time, the stunning art deco building – which Russell Zimmermann celebrated in his "Heritage Guidebook" as a "fine specimen of the rectilinear skyscraper style of architecture" – will be open to the public for Historic Milwaukee Inc.'s Doors Open event, Sept. 21-22.
Many of the building's floors are occupied by departments of the federal government and visitors must pass through security and generally aren't free to wander at their leisure. For Doors Open the building will be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Visitors can see the stunning – though altered – lobby, with its striking bronze and marble detailing. Stepping into the lobby, which used to have staircases flanking the opening to the elevators (those staircases have survived behind the walls – there's an access panel to get in), you just may be reminded of the interiors of the moderne masterworks at New York's Rockefeller Center.
"We are really excited to have the Gas Light Building in Doors Open Milwaukee for the first time ever this September," says HMI's Amy Grau. "This iconic representation of Downtown Milwaukee has roots that spread farther and shine brighter than the flame that tops it."
"Milwaukee has memories here, with generations of families who have worked here, and a rich history continuing to be made here. People remember seeing the flame on the news as part of the weather forecast, know the flame rhyme, and appreciate the Eschweiler architecture that makes the Gas Light Building a standout structure in the Milwaukee skyline. It's a wonderful representation of the city, as well as the many levels of which one can enjoy Doors Open Milwaukee."
On the tour, you will get a chance to see the old Wisconsin Gas Light Co. offices on the 17th floor. There's a big, old boardroom up there will great views out over the Milwaukee Art Museum to the east, as far as the eye can see to the south and down along Wisconsin Avenue and even out to Miller Park to the west.
You can also step out onto the small observation decks created by the building's setbacks at that level. One has a table and chairs as proof that folks don't take the views here for granted. One thing you cannot do during Doors Open, is climb three more flights up to the flame, which, incidentally, is currently only lit three hours a night due to the expense. But building owner Paul Weise is working to replace the incandescent bulbs with an LED system that is less expensive to operate and maintain. Then, the flame will be illuminated all night long.
Though the first staircase, up to the 18th floor, is lovely and plenty wide, the next one, up to the 19th floor is less so. Those floors house HVAC systems, elevator motors, an indoor water tank to help maintain water pressure and the like.
To get to the roof there is but a metal ladder. And once you're up there, the small space is packed full of infrastructure and to make your way to the actual flame you have to walk along a narrow metal walkway and up another short ladder through an opening. It's not for everyone and it's surely not recommended for crowds.
But don't fret. During the two-day event, there will be a raffle and winners will be able to make the climb to the flame at a later date.
You don't need to go to the roof to be wowed by this building, either. Here are some interesting facts about the building, courtesy of my tour guide Jim Drescher, who manages the property:
- "They started (building) this in 1929 and a year to the date they were already in this building. It's unheard of. They built a floor a week out of steel and then they followed up with all of the masonry work. They had over 1,000 people on the work site in a day, and they had 1,000 people waiting to work because of the depression. They had 600 masons (300 masons, two shifts a day). "
- "Unlike the Northwestern Mutual building, which has all wood pilings in the basement, we have all concrete footings. The waste pipe is 4-inch galvanized pipe. All the pipes were fabricated on-site. We don't have cast iron. As they remodel, there are plastic parts, but the original system is still here. In '50s or early '60s, they updated all of the electrical through the whole building."
- "All of the stone and granite on the outside of the building comes from Northern Minnesota. We're still trying to figure out where all of the brick and marble came from. It was hard, if you think about it, getting all of those pieces of granite here in 1929."
- "When they dug the foundation, there was a tavern on the corner of Wisconsin and Van Buren, and they had acquired it, but it was in foreclosure and they hit a stumbling block and they couldn't get the property, so what they did – it was going to take them months and months – was started the excavation. They completely excavated underneath the tavern and they held it up with scaffolding; held this tavern in place. Even though it was closed and nobody was in there, they couldn't take it down, so they started building around it. When they finally did acquire it, they took it down and finished that corner."
- "On the lower level, the basement level, we are 25 feet out. We're underneath the sidewalk of Van Buren and Wisconsin. Our building expands 25 more feet out. Our sidewalks are heated and that's because (the basement goes) right out to the curb line of Wisconsin and Van Buren. "
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.