Nearly eight years ago, Milwaukee got a tantalizing glimpse under the metal cladding that long enveloped the former Schuster’s/Gimbels building on the southwest corner of King Drive and Garfield Avenue, briefly revealing handsome masonry construction with gorgeous terra cotta detailing.
Now, the team working to restore the building at 2153 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. is making strides and in about a year, tenants will begin moving into the four-story Chicago commercial style 1907 building that Kirchhoff & Rose designed for legendary Milwaukee department store, Schuster’s.
The 470,000-square foot building – with its big, open spaces on every floor – also comprises a Brust, Philipp & Heimerl addition in 1913 and other expansions circa 1918, 1941 and 1948-50. Some of those, including the apartment portion of the development, have six floors.
Developer Royal Capital is working with architects Kahler Slater and Engberg Anderson and contractors CG Schmidt and JCP Construction to convert the building into the ThriveOn Collaboration headquarters, which will include community engagement programs of collaboration partners Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
There will also be an early childhood education center, a Versiti blood center, and the recently announced offices of JobsWork MKE, a community nonprofit that aids residents in finding sustainable employment while also working to bolster neighborhood economies.
The western portion of the building will get nearly 100 mixed-income apartments with amenities like a fitness center, underground parking, community rooms and more.
There is also discussion of a food hall, makerspace and other uses in the large building.
Schuster's operated its main department store in the building – located in the heart of what was once one of the city’s busiest retail districts – until the company was purchased by Gimbels in 1962, at which point it was co-branded until 1969.
The following year, the store closed and the building was used by Gimbels as a distribution center. The facade of the building – long used by CH Coakley & Co. for storage – was covered in 1984 to cut utility bills.
I stopped by recently to get a look at progress on the project, which began construction in June.
See how the building looked before work began here.
“We pretty much have gotten through the entire demolition phase,” says Royal Capital Executive Vice President Terrell Walter, before we start walking through. “We're roughly 95 percent complete there. All of the abatement work, all of the hazardous materials have been remediated out of the building.
“We actually have historic windows coming back as of last week, so enclosure is getting tight.”
Walter says work is proceeding on the roof decking, soaring interior columns on the former department store’s main floor are being patched and plastered, and after testing a few potential repair solutions, restoration of the main floor’s marble flooring is also underway.
Hardwood floors on the upper levels have been restored and skylights are being cut into the center of the building. The former opening that was occupied by the store’s escalators is being in-filled to create usable space on all levels.
A brick-paved loading dock area facing Vel Phillips Avenue will become the main lobby for the residential portion of the development.
Because the project is utilitizing historic tax credits, all of this work is being undertaken under the watchful eye of the National Parks Service.
“We're prepping at this point in time for our interior buildout,” ways Walter. “We are roughly a few weeks away from actually having walls framed, etc. on all of the office floors, which is levels two through four.”
Build-out on the first floor will come later.
And while there are beautiful hardwood floors and large original windows – offering stellar views, including some that look toward the Downtown skyline and out toward the lake – on the upper floors, where there are also vintage staircases with sturdy and attractive balustrades, the first floor is the real gem.
Here there are those capital-capped columns, there is that marble floor that once repaired will once again be a stunner.
There is a classic department store mezzanine with its evocative railing, and in one corner there is fun red and black (I think; we’ll see once it’s cleaned) striped terrazzo flooring with embedded aluminum strips delineating each stripe.
Adjacent to that floor is a sleek, streamlined Deco-style aluminum entrance facing King Drive, but the piece de resistance is a little further north along that side.
Here, you’ll find the original main entrance, encased in wood and transom glass, leading out into an almost European-style lobby arcade with a giant display case separating the street from the main entrance.
Part foyer, part meeting point, part showroom, this space is unlike any other I know of in the city today.
Outside, the cladding is off.
“The exterior of the building masonry restoration is plowing through,” says Walter. “So we're almost at a point where we have most of that work buttoned up. The work has been really firmed up by having a subcontractor who knew the building for some time.”
Walter says that the much-derided metal cladding turned out to be a blessing.
“The metal panels outside of the building actually did a great job of protecting that masonry,” he says, “so we found the building in better shape than we anticipated. It's rare that you get that in our industry.”
The old loading dock has been removed and foundation work for the new parking structure on the Phillips Avenue side is underway.
Walter says the project is basically on schedule.
“We're right on schedule right now, and, you know, of course, daily we come across a new site constraint or an constraint on the project that we have to work through, but major kudos to all of our project partners on the construction design side, on the construction side ... we've all been working together alongside ThriveOn Collaboration with MCW, GMF and Royal Capital to be quick, be nimble and make informed decisions in a quick fashion so that we can keep things on track.”
In terms of tenant move-ins, Walter expects those to begin in early 2024.
It’s exciting to see this beautiful building not only get a new life, but one that will be of service to its community, all while maintaining the details that remind us of the decades during which the store was an anchor of its neighborhood.
“We have always envisioned ThriveOn King as a community hub,” said Ken Robertson, Greater Milwaukee Foundation executive vice president, COO and CFO, and ThriveOn Collaboration co-chair, in a statement recently, ”marshaling the will and the way to improve the overall well-being of those who live, work and learn in Bronzeville.”
Find more about the ThriveOn Collaboration at thriveoncollaboration.org.
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.