Inside the herculean task to build the MSO’s new home

Construction workers at the Bradley Symphony Center project site.
Construction workers at the Bradley Symphony Center project site. Credit: CD Smith Construction

Last updated on April 27th, 2021 at 12:23 pm

On Oct. 1, 2000, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra held a concert inside the Warner Grand Theatre. The intended audience of this secretive performance was a consulting firm, which was testing the theater’s acoustics.

The consultants concluded the following year that “the Grand Theatre has a very good potential for becoming a great Symphony Hall.”

This month, the Bradley Symphony Center opened its doors for the first time to the public for in-person ticketed performances. MSO finally had its new home.

During that roughly 21-year period between acoustic test and project completion there were a lot of meetings, headaches, problem-solving and even doubts as to whether MSO could pull off the monumental task of transforming the historic former movie palace, built in 1931, into a modern symphony hall. 

“Earlier in the process, there were two or three meetings where I said to myself, ‘This deal is just not going to happen. There are just too many things that have to come together,’” said Bob Monnat, a project team member.

But the project was accomplished with the right team of experts, a bit of creative thinking and undying dedication from leadership.

“A consistent theme throughout this was we truly did have a great team,” said Cory Henschel, a project executive with Fond du Lac-based C.D. Smith, which served as general contractor. “That’s not to sound cliché. People were truly passionate about doing this project and doing it right.”

With its successful completion, the symphony hall also makes a statement about what the city of Milwaukee can accomplish.

“This project proves a lot about the quality of the city and its capabilities when people come together and there’s a larger vision that people are behind,” said Chris Ludwig, associate principal of Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater, the project architect.

Piecing together the puzzle

A lot of things had to happen to make this $89 million project work. An early task was putting together the development site.

Monnat, a senior partner at Milwaukee-based developer Mandel Group Inc., helped make the project a reality through his involvement with Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corp. He and Godfrey & Kahn attorney Stephen Chernof worked on site assemblage, financing and ownership structure, among other things.

They said the site assemblage took about three years.

The theater property was fragmented. The ground underneath the structure had separate owners; one piece was controlled by a single person and another small piece was owned by four members of one family. Marcus Corp. leased both of those pieces. The company itself also owned a small piece of land along Second Street.

“There were two leases and a piece owned by Marcus, all leased pursuant to two separate leases to another Marcus entity,” Chernof said, as Monnat laughed in the background. “The lease was to expire in September 2021, so we had to make a deal to buy out the lease and to acquire all the pieces. It was a lot of fun.”

Monnat said they also needed to acquire the building northwest of Second and Wisconsin and to rework the existing lease the old owner had with a sushi restaurant there.

MSO needed space for back-of-house operations. That was achieved through a building addition to the north, which meant the team had to take over part of a public alley and a portion of a parking lot.

Chernof said the parking lot owner is a real estate investment trust that specializes in acquiring and operating surface lots with the expectation they will eventually be sold for redevelopment.

The lot owner worked with MSO. It terminated the lease with the existing lot tenant and executed a master lease with the symphony. The Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee facilitated the deal by conveying an adjacent parcel it owned to the parking lot owner. 

“We were able to get what the parking lot owner really wanted, which was to make its parcel a rectangle, make it a better development site,” Chernof said. “We facilitated that with RACM. It really worked out for everybody.”

The northern addition contains a loading dock, bathrooms, a green room and mechanical systems, among other things. The parking lot was also used as a staging area during construction.

“The north wing, which is kind of the unglamorous side of the project, became incredibly important,” Monnat said.

An exterior wall of the Warner Grand Theatre was moved 35 feet into Second Street to add enough space for the symphony.
An exterior wall of the Warner Grand Theatre was moved 35 feet into Second Street to add enough space for the symphony.

Moving the wall

Perhaps the most high-profile aspect of the redevelopment project was moving the theater’s rear wall by 35 feet, taking over part of Second Street. The wall needed to be removed to make room for a larger stage, needed for a symphony orchestra. But the National Park Service said the project would not be eligible for historic tax credits if crews tore down the wall and put up a new one. They needed to keep the wall to get the tax credits, so they decided to move it instead of demolish.

Moving the wall cost about $1.8 million more than tearing it down and building a new one, Monnat said. But the added expense made the project eligible for about $19 million worth of tax credits.

The move was a success because of meticulous planning by all those involved, Henschel said.

“I say this all the time: The wall move was probably the easiest part of the historic renovation side of it, because it was so well-planned, it was so dialed in,” he said. “When we got to the point of moving it, everybody knew their job, everybody worked together, and we had the right people involved to do it seamlessly.”

Case in point: C.D. Smith brought on Williamsville, New York-based International Chimney Corp. to go through every single detail of the wall move. That included a survey of the façade, which determined the terra cotta at the top of the wall was in bad enough shape that it posed a safety hazard.

“We ended up removing it piece by piece, categorizing it and restoring it,” Henschel said. “Fast forward six or eight months, we were able to put it all back together. Almost like a giant puzzle.”

There was also the matter of relocating the utility infrastructure underneath the street.

“It seems like Second Street was a favorite street of every single utility, public and private,” Monnat said. “We had steam tunnels, water lines, sewer lines, fiber optic lines, power, gas, Western Union telegraph cabling. We had everything in that street imaginable.”

Blending old and new

There are a lot of details to consider when converting a historic building into a new use. There are even more when the new use is a symphony hall that demands both modern infrastructure and a preservation of the acoustical qualities of the original building.

Ludwig said the building’s good acoustics come from its design and materials. The team had to be aware of how it all worked together when redeveloping and adding onto the theater.

The building systems had to be thoughtfully placed. For instance, the air ducts were installed on large springs to prevent them from transferring acoustics into the halls.

Large expansion joints between the additions on the north and south building also prevent transfer of sounds, “so that the two structures can sort of make their own movement and their own sound isolated from one another,” Ludwig said.

MSO also had to carefully map out which design features needed to stay, not only for the overall aesthetic but also for historic tax credit purposes.

For that, the symphony called upon New Berlin-based Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc., which specializes in historic restoration and preservation.

“They knew that they were getting into a large project in a very historic building,” said Eileen Grogan, director of historic preservation for Conrad Schmitt. “The building was special partly because of those finishes, because of that historic material and the way that historic beauty makes you feel. It’s part of the appeal of that building.”

The company looked for character-defining features of the building. It also helped determine which new features were appropriate and where they could be installed.

A major challenge of this work involved restoration of exotic wood veneer that covered the walls of two areas in the building. The veneer in the basement suffered two floods.

“The wood veneer was buckled, it was peeling, the varnish on it was coming off, and it was in really bad shape,” Grogan said.

After some testing, Conrad Schmitt learned a lot of it cleaned up well. It was a matter of removing damaged layers of varnish, reapplying the veneer piece by piece to the walls with small irons with adhesive, and putting a final finish over the top.

Some areas were beyond saving. Conrad Schmitt sourced the original wood for replacement, and when that material wasn’t sufficiently available, an artist did a faux finish to match the style of the wood.

The exotic wood veneer is one of many architectural details to admire. Ludwig listed some of his favorites, including the proscenium arch at the main theater that has plaster cast faces at its top where the arch starts to return and become horizontal. 

And the new portion of the building has its own treasures to find. The glass pays homage to the 60-year history of the MSO with the names of symphonic composers that are printed in small type into the glass with a ceramic ink. 

“There’s so much detail that when you walk through it one time, you’ll only be able to take in so much,” Ludwig said.

It has been more than 20 years after that secretive concert was held and nearly three years after the project broke ground. The public is getting its first chance to take it all in, and project team members say they are glad to have been a part of it.

“I’m extremely proud to have been part of the project,” Grogan said. “It’s a gorgeous, world-class building right here in Milwaukee. I’m excited the symphony is moving in, and they’re really going to make it a vital part of the city again.”

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Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.

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