By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 16, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

This article first ran on Nov. 22, 2022. We're sharing it again today as its replacement nears completion. You can read about that here.

As a stunning new convention center expansion rises on the block between Kilbourn, Wells and 6th Streets and Phillips Avenue, it’s almost difficult to remember the earlier convention center that had stood upon the site for fewer than three decades.

Breaking ground in 1971, the previous building opened with great fanfare in 1974 and went on to become the setting of popular, long-running events like the Holiday Folk Fair, the auto show, Gen Con and the Sentinel Sports Show.

Thanks to some great vintage Kodachrome images shared by Adam Levin of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group, we can see snapshots of the building’s brief life, from the exterior view from the west taken by Ray Szopieray, taken the year after it opened, to a series of images by James Hildebrandt from an unidentified event in 1978, and finally, demolition photos taken by John Aschon.

The building was razed in 1998 after the opening of the Wisconsin Center (then called the Midwest Express Center) just across Wells Street.

There’s also this 1985 exterior image from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

WHS 1985X

The building in these photos was designed by the architecture firm of Welton Becket & Associates, which had plenty of experience in this sort of structure.

The design we got was considerably more modern and conservative than ideas that had been floating around the decade before, when Milwaukee leaders were eying convention centers rising in Atlanta, Cleveland, Louisville and even Brookfield with envy.

As early as the dawn of the 1960s, the discussion had already led to ideas for a convention-centric development on the block, including an incredible space age hotel and convention center designed by industrial designer Brooks Stevens.

By the mid-1960s, as the Stevens plan was still being discussed as a possibility, another rendering printed in the Journal in December 1966 showed a $30 million convention center on the site of the Auditorium (which would have been razed) and a circular Tourist Information Center and Bureau building across Kilbourn Avenue where the MECCA Convention Center was eventually built.

During this same era, a number of ideas were being bandied about for Downtown, including a water-gardens district in Westown and the paving over of the river for a freeway – both of which you can read about here. Had Gustav Mader gotten his way, the "Tivoli Gardens" idea for roughly the area between State and Juneau, and 5th and Water, would’ve been German-themed.

Fitzhugh Scott – who designed the Washington Park bandshell and the Allen-Bradley clocktower – even offered a hypothetical drawing of how Tivoli could look. It included the preservation of the buildings on what was then 3rd Street between Juneau and State, and it is perhaps thanks to this discussion that those structures did – and still do – survive.

A 1967 report by a group of local business leaders kicked the convention center discussion into high gear and by 1971, ground was broken on the Welton Becket design, which years later Stevens would decry as a, “miserable mistake, which I had initially dubbed as warehouse architecture with an early ‘high school gymnasium interior’."

Sour grapes? Maybe. But not entirely inaccurate, either.

By the start of the 1990s, it was clear that the convention center had outlived its usefulness and the square block between Wisconsin, Wells, 6th and Phillips was doomed.

Gone were the Belmont Hotel, the building that housed the old Schwartz Bookshop, the old Time Insurance / Wisconsin Telephone building on 5th Street, the diner where my parents lunched on the day they met, the Carpenter Building and Wisconsin Theater where Lionel Hampton entertained on the rooftop, a former JC Penney and other structures.

They were cleared to make way for the new post-modern Wisconsin Center, which opened in 1998 with 188,695 contiguous square feet of exhibition space, a 37,506-square-foot ballroom and nearly 40,000 square feet of meeting space.

At that point, the old building was torn down and it wasn’t long before talk of an expansion to sit on the now-vacant site ramped up.

That $456 million expansion project, now well underway, is expected to open by early 2024, when the face of its area will change once again. The facility will grow to 1.3 million square feet.

Enjoy these photos of the brief life of the MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena) Convention Center.

1975, looking east from 7th Street

Ray SzopierayX

1978 event

1978 eventX
1978 eventX
1978 eventX
1978 eventX
1978 eventX

1998 demolition

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.