Urban spelunking: (Re)visiting the Wisconsin Gas flame
Credit where credit is due: Molly Snyder was the first OnMilwaukee.comrade to ascend to the top of the Wisconsin Gas Light Building, 626 E. Wisconsin Ave., but I was offered a chance to get a tour, including climbing up to the flame, and I wasn't about to say no.
So, I played Vieau to Molly's Marquette, Hudson to her Verrazzano, and got the grand tour of the 1929-30 Eschweiler-designed Wisconsin Gas Light Co. HQ.
Many of the floors in the stunning art deco building – that Russell Zimmermann celebrated in his "Heritage Guidebook" as a "fine specimen of the rectilinear skyscraper style of architecture" – are occupied by departments of the federal government and visitors must pass through security and generally aren't free to wander at their leisure.
Visitors can see the stunning – though altered – lobby, with its striking bronze and marble detailing. Stepping into the lobby, which used to have staircases flanking the opening to the elevators (those staircases have survived behind the walls – there's an access panel to get in), you just may be reminded of the interiors of the moderne masterworks at New York's Rockefeller Center.
Other than the flame itself, one of the highlights is the 17th floor. There's a big, old boardroom up there will great views out over the Milwaukee Art Museum to the east, as far as the eye can see to the south and down along Wisconsin Avenue and even out to Miller Park to the west.
You can also step out onto the small observation decks created by the building's setbacks at that level. One has a table and chairs as proof that folks don't take the views here for granted. One thing you cannot do when the building is typically open each September during Doors Open is climb three more flights up to the flame.
When I visited the flame was only lit three hours a night due to the expense. But building owner Paul Weise later replaced the incandescent bulbs with an LED system that is less expensive to operate and maintain. Now the flame is illuminated all night long.
Though the first staircase, up to the 18th floor, is lovely and plenty wide, the next one, up to the 19th floor is less so. Those floors house HVAC systems, elevator motors, an indoor water tank to help maintain water pressure and the like.
To get to the roof there is but a metal ladder. And once you're up there, the small space is packed full of infrastructure and to make your way to the actual flame you have to walk along a narrow metal walkway and up another short ladder through an opening. It's not for everyone and it's surely not recommended for crowds.
You don't need to go to the roof to be wowed by this building, either. Here are some interesting facts about the building, courtesy of my tour guide Jim Drescher, who manages the property:
- "They started (building) this in 1929 and a year to the date they were already in this building. It's unheard of. They built a floor a week out of steel and then they followed up with all of the masonry work. They had over 1,000 people on the work site in a day, and they had 1,000 people waiting to work because of the depression. They had 600 masons (300 masons, two shifts a day). "
- "Unlike the Northwestern Mutual building, which has all wood pilings in the basement, we have all concrete footings. The waste pipe is 4-inch galvanized pipe. All the pipes were fabricated on-site. We don't have cast iron. As they remodel, there are plastic parts, but the original system is still here. In '50s or early '60s, they updated all of the electrical through the whole building."
- "All of the stone and granite on the outside of the building comes from Northern Minnesota. We're still trying to figure out where all of the brick and marble came from. It was hard, if you think about it, getting all of those pieces of granite here in 1929."
- "When they dug the foundation, there was a tavern on the corner of Wisconsin and Van Buren, and they had acquired it, but it was in foreclosure and they hit a stumbling block and they couldn't get the property, so what they did – it was going to take them months and months – was started the excavation. They completely excavated underneath the tavern and they held it up with scaffolding; held this tavern in place. Even though it was closed and nobody was in there, they couldn't take it down, so they started building around it. When they finally did acquire it, they took it down and finished that corner."
- "On the lower level, the basement level, we are 25 feet out. We're underneath the sidewalk of Van Buren and Wisconsin. Our building expands 25 more feet out. Our sidewalks are heated and that's because (the basement goes) right out to the curb line of Wisconsin and Van Buren. "
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