Marcus Center redesign plans threaten historically significant landscape, advocacy group says

Cultural Landscape Foundation concerned with plans to alter plaza

The revamped plaza.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:10 pm

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ plans to revamp its downtown Milwaukee campus make it a “nationally significant at-risk and threatened cultural landscape,” according to a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

The concerns raised by the Cultural Landscape Foundation stem from the Marcus Center’s plans to alter a site that features landscape architecture by Dan Kiley, a prominent post-war architect whose projects included the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis and the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden.

The Marcus Center has said it wants to create a more open and accessible gathering place for the community on its campus, 929 N. Water St.

Plans include creating a park-like setting in front of the Peck Pavilion, which will include expanding the plaza, installing new water fountains (replacing the fountain at the corner of Water Street and Kilbourn Avenue) and establishing a flexible “great lawn” for events, which will require the removal of a grove of trees. The center’s war memorial dedication will also be relocated to the plaza for greater prominence on the campus. The project is expected to take three to five years to complete.

The new Marcus Center plaza. (Rendering: HGA)

The Cultural Landscape Foundation said the plans threaten to ruin Kiley’s landscape.

“The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a masterfully designed campus whose building, by architect Harry Weese, and landscape, by Dan Kiley, exist in harmonious equilibrium,” the foundation’s report said. “Despite being an exemplary collaboration between these two masters of their craft, the cultural venue recently unveiled plans to obliterate Kiley’s grid of horse chestnut trees for the sake of a more flexible outdoor space.”

Chicago architect Harry Weese was commissioned in 1965 to design the performing arts center and asked his frequent collaborator Kiley to join him on the project. To complement Weese’s architectural design, Kiley’s plans for the grounds included installing 36 horse chestnut trees, which were placed in rows to create the illusion of a rectangle.

“Kiley’s work on the Performing Arts Center is significant for many reasons,” the foundation said. “It is a masterful demonstration of the skill and vision that brought him international acclaim as a pioneer of Modernism in designed landscapes and as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts (1997), a rare achievement for a landscape architect.”

Kiley’s work also included the Cudahy Gardens at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1998.

“To have, within blocks of each other, two public projects that bookend the civic career of one of the most important postwar landscape architects is of great cultural significance for the City of Milwaukee—a distinction that once forfeited can never be regained, and one that should be carefully weighed against the center’s plans, especially given its stated mission to provide ‘the best of cultural and community programming,’” the foundation said.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation has previously designated the Mitchell Park Domes and Sanctuary Woods, a 66-acre site adjacent to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Complex in Wauwatosa, as being threatened landscapes.

Representatives with the Marcus Center didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

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