In Milwaukee History

The spiral staircase to the very peak of City Hall's tower is not for the faint of heart. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

City Hall has long been the international symbol of Milwaukee. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

The City's Paul Jakubovich kindly led us on a tour of the building. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

The first leg in the tower starts with a decorative iron staircase that ascends into darkness. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

The views from the observation deck are great in all directions. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

On the next level up, folks have scrawled graffiti into the bricks over the course of a century. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

The next level houses one of the largest American-made bells around. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

Ringing that bell was an experience I won't soon forget. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

Climbing story after story of spiral stairs, many stories in dim light, is something else I'll long remember. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

But peeking out the windows at the very top of the tower? Priceless. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

Urban spelunking: Scaling City Hall tower

With all due respect to Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum, homegrown architect Henry Koch created what has long been the symbol of Milwaukee, our towering City Hall.

In addition to making a major architectural statement to the world when it was built in the 1890s – it was among the world's tallest buildings upon its birth – it has since remained a testament to our German heritage.

In fact, its Flemish Renaissance Revival style recalls the great rathaus in Hamburg, with a bit of Romanesque flair added by Koch, who often worked in that milieu.

Soon, if Paul Jakubovich of the city's historic preservation office gets his way, the City Hall will house a museum celebrating, well, itself.

Jakubovich has a plan and is working to raise private funds to make the museum, which would be located in the building's lower level, a reality. In the meantime, there is a panel in the lobby with some historic photographs.

"If I can get the funds raised, and ... we think we can get the money fairly quickly, and then we open in the spring of next year," says Jakubovich. "We've already discovered that there is a marble mosaic floor that was down there that no one knew was there and covered up for probably 70-80 years. We had all of that taken up and it's been restored and the next phase will be constructing walls and ceilings. There will be a small movie theater in there. Our channel 25 cable station across the street is going to be doing some videos for us, which will be really nice.

"When you come to City Hall, you'll be able to get lots of information. We have a visitors bureau as you know, but City Hall is kind of this big prominent building that everybody knows. They see it, but many haven't been into it, and I think that this is a way of making this more of a destination, as opposed to a place where you only go to pay your taxes."

Jakubovich says the museum won't be a dry look at an admittedly tall pile of bricks and mortar. The goal is to make it much more engaging, drawing in the role the building has played in the history of the city.

"The stories that we're going to tell in our museum are not only about the architecture of the building, but also of the people who built it, the government, and significant events that took place here."

Did you know that for more than a century tourists have climbed the tower (which reaches the height of a 34-story building) to get a look out across the city from the observation deck? Did you know that up at the next level, couples have exchanged wedding vows next to the giant bell?

It took very little coaxing to get Jakubovich to lead us up on a tour of the City Hall tower, which is a dizzying array of ladders once you exit the elevator on the top floor of the building, just above the skylight that illuminates the soaring atrium in the main building.

Entering into the tower from that level, there's an ornate iron staircase that ascends up into darkness, though its lower section is in the middle of a big bright cube of a space that is the interior of the tower. Here you can see the brickwork, including the brick relieving arches that allow such a tower to stand by relieving – hence the name – the downward force that would love to explode the walls outward.

Also on this level is a fairly large apartment with great views south down Water Street, east to the lake and west, out over The Pabst Theater.

"This was for a caretaker," Jakubovich says of the apartment, "and they ultimately had a kid up here and I guess he became an engineer with the Department of Public Works when he grew up. I'm not sure if he's still alive or not, he'd have to be about 90 years old."

Right outside the apartment door is the staircase, which appears to ascend to nothingness. As I mentally cue up Jimmy Page's intro to "Stairway to Heaven," Jakubovich says, "You'll notice that this staircase is actually pretty ornamental, and the reason for that is that this was the route the tourists would take to go to the observation platform, which is that next level above us.

"Many thousands of tourists probably a month back then, about 110 years ago, would've gone up this staircase. Substantially fewer than that now, but we're kind of looking at changing that, too."

Jakubovich says that public tours are still conducted to the observation deck and some folks even climb the spiral staircase to see the bell.

From the observation deck level, the view is nice, and you can see much of the detail work that has been in the news in recent years as City Hall has undergone massive renovation and restoration work. Despite the fact that these spaces would have been way too high to be seen well back when Koch designed the building, the craftsmanship and attention to detail is amazing.

Looking out to the north you can see the roof of the main building and it's amazing how miniscule City Hall's footprint appears to be from this vantage point.

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