Recently, I got a question from a reader about one of those changes.
“I’m Robert Steeber and I run @mkefirehydrants on Instagram. (A) concern of mine is the fate of the ‘City Yard’ garden at the Baird Center,” the message read. “Along with a few police call boxes, this garden contained two Milwaukee Spec. hydrants as well as a what I believe to be a late 1800s Filer & Stowell hydrant which seemingly matches a model found in the MPM’s Streets of Old Milwaukee.
“The area where the garden sat up until a few months ago on the east side of the building is completely torn up. If you have any info on the fate of these artifacts please let me know.”
The “City Yard” installed was created by artist Sheila Klein and placed outside the convention center, which opened in 1998 as the Midwest Express Center.
The artist’s page on the installation dates it to 1995, which may be when she began work on it.
In 1998, the Journal Sentinel’s late art critic Jim Auer called the Bow, Washington-based artist’s work, “an outdoor reliquary garden.”
He described it as:
“Meticulously restored fire hydrants, traffic signs and speed bumps, all retrieved from the hidden hoard of the city's Department of Public Works, populate an open-air sculpture court that is a hospitable venue for strolling, schmoozing and staging performance events.
“Separating the motoring public from the pedestrians who are likely to linger amid Klein's lovingly restored artifacts is a street-side row of gingko trees. Closer to the convention center's walls are planters alive with serviceberries, spreading yews.
“Centrally located in Klein's instant flashback to a simpler, more amiable era is a raised ‘cruciform’ construction adorned, on its four outer walls, with lion heads salvaged from the old AT&T building that once stood at Fifth Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
“The piece, however, is a trifle deceptive. The wrought-iron railings, so perfectly in keeping with the art work's preservationist thesis, were fabricated by Klein's employees in her Washington workshop, proving that craftsmanship lives. Lilies top off the plantings.”
In a post on the National Council on Public History website, Adina Langer opined that:
“the architectural elements and ‘public works objects’ stand reverently, like monuments in a graveyard. The words beneath the lions’ mouths on the four-sided central structure of the piece further evoke a memorial sentiment: ‘Gone But Not Forgotten.’
“Like the stairway leading up to a tree that marks the border of the space closest to the convention center building, the whole piece seems to be a question mark incarnate. Who or what is gone? How are we to avoid forgetting if we don’t know what we are commemorating? Are we mourning for a time when the civic structure of the city provided a sense of comfort and community? There are still police officers and and firefighters without these particular call boxes and hydrants. But these objects inhabit a protected past behind their wrought-iron fences.
“‘City Yard’ is not exactly nostalgic, nor is it entirely mournful, and it is certainly not informative. It is an ephemeral timescape, a verb without an object, entreating the busy visitors to a modern convention center to remember for remembering’s sake.”
Now, “City Yard” is gone and pretty much the whole of the wide sidewalk on North Vel Phillips Avenue adjacent to the center is under construction.
I asked Wisconsin Center District VP of Marketing and Communications Sarah Maio about its fate.
“An important component of the expansion of the convention center is the simultaneous modernization of the current space – inside and out – to avoid any sense of one side being ‘old’ for clients and guests,” she told me.
“The garden space that Mr. Steeber references is being upgraded to add much more functionality for guests to enjoy outside time during convention events as well as enhance the public thoroughfare between Wisconsin Avenue all the way down to Fiserv Forum.”
That modernization, Maio added, did not include “City Yard,” and, in fact, a number of similar projects are being removed – like the Richard Blau's polka music photos along the escalators – or altered, like the “Portals and Writings Celebrating Wisconsin Authors,” the planned removal of which had caused controversy.
“Earlier this year, with cooperation from the artist, some of the pieces were delivered to the Milwaukee Historical Society for further preservation and some were disposed of.”
Next, I reached out to Milwaukee County Historical Society’s Ben Barbera, who said that Klein contacted him about the installation.
“She was in Argentina where she lives half the year,” Barbera said. “I met with someone from the construction company to look at the pieces and ultimately, took ... two pieces. I also shipped the two round (speed bumps) with red dots that you can barely see in the bottom of this picture to Sheila in Seattle.
“I contacted Villa Terrace about the ironwork because it was done in the style of Cyril Colnik, but they decided not to take it. I don’t know for sure, but I think the construction company got rid of most of the rest of the stuff. A couple guys might have taken pieces and the rest went to scrap.”
The pieces that MCHS held on to were two vintage traffic signals, one of which included signage.
According to the artist, the artifacts were original, including the hydrants. The latter were not sent to the artist, Barbera said.
But, adds Barbera, not everything was historic.
“From talking to Sheila,” he said, ”(not all) of it had any real historical significance. Some of the ... pieces were salvaged.”
The metalwork, however, was created for the installation.
Klein, the artist, told Steeber that she, "was only made aware of the removal very late in the process and was given few options, otherwise she would have wanted to relocate the piece."
Based on a rendering of the Baird Center project, the space will become a tree-shaded walk alongside the 1998 building.
“I certainly hope Mr. Steeber stops by to enjoy the space once it’s complete,” said Maio.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.