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In Milwaukee History

The 1930 A. O. Smith research and development building has one of the best art deco spaces in the city.

In Milwaukee History

The building was revolutionary for a number of reasons. It's a true landmark.

In Milwaukee History

The lobby floor decoration was once lit from below.

In Milwaukee History

The emerald green panels and aluminum work are exquisite.

In Milwaukee History

Even the radiator vents in the lobby are gorgeous.

In Milwaukee History

The R&D lab has a reinforced terrazzo floor ...

In Milwaukee History

... and a giant arched skylight of a roof.

In Milwaukee History

The skylight seen from above.

In Milwaukee History

There is peeling paint everywhere. And one of the biggest challenges on the entire site has been asbestos cleanup.

In Milwaukee History

On the upper floors, the parquet floors are buckling.

In Milwaukee History

This offices on this floor might have closed around Christmas.

In Milwaukee History

The 1910 headquarters was the first building on the site.

In Milwaukee History

The original leaded glass windows have been board up for protection.

In Milwaukee History

Though most of the interior has been "modernized," a few original details remain.

In Milwaukee History

Most of the buildings on the site were connected by tunnels or, as in this case, above ground passageways.

In Milwaukee History

The view from the roof of the R&D building offers great views in all directions.

In Milwaukee History

The roof also offers a good vantage point for seeing progress on the entire site.

Urban spelunking: Tower Automotive site

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But those gigantic windows aren't the only source of natural light in the u-shaped building. In the space created by the sides of the U is a giant open interior space that is two stories tall, with a grid of small windows serving as an arched skylight.

A giant overhead crane – one of hundreds that were on the site – running on rails was installed in this research and development lab space. It's still there, though it's dormant now. In the terrazzo floors in this giant space are rows of metal rings that helped add strength to the floors.

"It wasn't built with energy efficiency in mind," says Timm of the R&D building. "Lots of natural light, but it's basically metal and glass and that's the only thing separating the outside from the interior. Both metal and glass do a good job of conducting hot and cold."

We entered the building through a door in the back and so, we saved the first floor's biggest treat for last.

The lobby is perhaps the most beautiful art deco space in the city. Aluminum art deco sections share wall space with glossy emerald panels and matching aluminum doors in the lobby, which isn't huge. Walking into the lobby, with its terrazzo floor that includes a multicolor decoration punctuated by translucent areas once lit from below, feels like stepping into a long-lost work of art.

Should this building ever be demolished, I hope someone has the foresight and the ability to remove the lobby piece by piece and reconstruct it elsewhere. It is that gorgeous.

Off the lobby is a large conference room. Wood paneled, it looks like a set for television's "Mad Men." Almost hidden in the wall is a door to the men's room.

Upstairs, in what was office space, the areas are large, with those giant windows – each one a single pane of quarter-inch glass 9 feet wide by 13 feet tall – along the exterior walls. Some floors are in better shape than others.

On one floor it almost looks as though folks moved out last month. On that one, a discarded little Christmas tree lays on its side on the floor, still wearing decorations. On another, it feels like the '80s with walls that alternate between pink and turquoise.

As you ascend to the higher floors, the lack of heating and cooling systems (they were located in a now-demolished adjacent building) has taken its toll and the parquet floors are buckling, creating long strips of elevated flooring, poked up in an upside-down V shape.

In a small office, there are boxes and boxes of discarded files, still on the shelves. A membership booklet for an industrial union sits on a desk. Outside an office on another floor is an old issue of Penthouse magazine.

We climbed to the roof – passing through an HVAC space as quickly as possible because there's still friable asbestos in there – and were treated to some great views. Everything on this side of town is low enough that you can see distant landmarks in every direction. To the southwest, Miller Park and Froedtert Hospital. Downtown to the southeast. Off to the northeast, there's Bayshore and far off on the horizon is Holy Hill.

To the northwest we can see the two glass office towers near Good Hope Road and Highway 45. That's where A. O. Smith's headquarters are now located.

We also get a great view of the entire Tower Automotive site from up here. It's amazing to see how the site's many buildings – most of which had been built into and on top of one another; some were connected by above-ground passages, others by tunnels (workers uncovered all kinds of underground bomb shelters, torpedo factories and the like) – have been cleared.

The City has completed a lot of work on the site and is working now on moving into the future with its master plan.

"We're going to start a full-scale marketing initiative in 2013," says Timm. "When we started this project and people would drive down Hopkins all they'd see is a wall of buildings. You're telling them what you're doing, you can tell them your vision and they're standing there saying, 'you're crazy.'

"Now they can come and see 80 acres of open land, now people are starting to get it."

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