Urban spelunking: Touching the sky atop Calatrava's Brise Soleil
From one Milwaukee icon to another, in just a couple weeks time. About a month ago I had the pleasure of climbing as high as one can go at City Hall.
Soon after, on a visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, public relations manager Kristin Settle said she'd read my account of that trip and made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
"Do you want to climb the wings," she asked as we walked to a gallery to tour a new exhibit. How could I say no to this personalized edition of "Roofs Open Milwaukee"?
A couple weeks later, on a day the museum was closed, I met Settle and MAM facility engineer Dan Kehrer in Windhover Hall. They informed me that I was the first writer – and second from the media world – to make the climb, and we set off.
In the interim I had asked Settle how we get up to the wings and she was coy. "You'll have to wait and see," she said. The morning of my visit she wrote in an email, "bring your courage."
I had no idea what to expect. Would we climb with ropes? From the public spaces it's hard to imagine that there's an interior path to the top.
But architect Santiago Calatrava is a talented fella and he most certainly did build in an interior route to roof and it is from that that we'll visit the peak of the mast that holds the museum's moveable brise soleil.
The brise soleil (or sun shade) has 72 steel fins that open and close with the museum and daily at noon. The shortest, at the bottom at 26 feet long, but the longest ones, at the top, reach a span of 105 feet.
The 90-ton brise soleil's 217-foot wingspan is similar to the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400.
The climb begins in an extremely unprepossessing location in the museum, where no one would ever expect it to be. Inside a door there's a red vertical ladder, may 12 or 15 feet tall, with rebar steps leading to a small metal grate platform.
Up another short ladder and then yet another short ladder and you're up above the ceiling of the museum, in a crawlspace.
Here, in a room is the motor, control panel and a backup generator to open and close the wings that are basically directly above us. Another control panel is located in a much easier-to-access location within the museum and that's the one that Kehrer uses regularly.
Settle points out a small motor that can be seen in the crawlspace off the path we're taking, saying it's the motor that spins the giant Calder mobile just inside the museum entrance below.
Around a corridor, into a small room and up another short ladder and Kehrer pulls open the vertical roof hatch, which we crawl through. Still on hands and knees we pass through a very short tunnel (maybe three feet long) and we're out in broad daylight at the base of the wings.
Around us the giant mast cables are anchored and the lowest wings and their connections are at head level.
Kehrer lifts open the lower section of the white metal staircase that rises on the axis between the wings and we crawl through. Behind us is the Milwaukee skyline; in front of us the roughly 75 stairs to the top of the wings.
I set off for the top with Settle, who is making her third trip, and Kehrer, who says he gets up to the roof maybe 10 times a year, typically for minor maintenance and repairs and for inspections.
There is a breeze blowing and it's sunny with temps in the mid-'70s. I can't imagine a more glorious time to be up here. I reach the top of the stairs and have a clear view all around, but most exciting is gazing straight up to the point of Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee masterwork.
I turn, sit on the top step and snap some photos before simply breathing in the great weather and view. Discovery World and Harbor House to my far left, the Hoan Bridge, off in the distance the Allen-Bradley Clocktower, directly in front of, almost literally at my feet, is Downtown, shimmering in the sunlight.
To the right is the Gold Coast of Prospect Avenue, up to St. Mary's Hill, and just below, there is a worker pressure washing the skylight windows that run the length of the Quadracci Pavilion all the way back to the War Memorial Center.
Behind me, there's nothing but blue water, planes descending toward Mitchell International and seagulls squealing their calls into the wind.
I've seen some breathtaking views of Milwaukee, but this little seat at the top of Milwaukee is hard to beat.
Afterward, we take a little walk around the roof and Settle invites me to return on a day when the museum is open so I can climb again with the wings open. I think I'll take her up on it.
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