Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra plans move to former Warner Grand Theatre

Wants to turn vacant, historic theater into concert hall

Rendering of the new Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert hall planned at the Warner Grand Theatre.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has its eye on the former Warner Grand Theatre on West Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

Rendering of the new Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Rendering of the new Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

MSO announced Monday that an anonymous patron donor is leading an initiative to buy the vacant Art Deco-style theater and convert it into its new concert hall, once it is renovated.

“The Warner Grand Theatre is a beautiful, acoustically-outstanding, historic performance hall that is perfectly suited for symphonic performances and could undoubtedly create magical, memorable experiences for all of our patrons,” said MSO president and executive director Mark Niehaus. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acquire and operate our own venue, which would put us in a position of strength for decades to come. We are convinced it’s an absolute win-win for the MSO, patrons of the performing arts and the City of Milwaukee as a whole.”

The MSO is running a special $120 million fundraising campaign to secure enough money to acquire, design and renovate the theater. That campaign would also pay for an endowment for the symphony.

Niehaus said purchasing and renovating the theater could cost $70 million to $80 million, and that around half of the $120 million campaign goal has already been secured.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has been considering a move for some time.

Currently, most MSO performances are held at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee. But numerous scheduling conflicts at the Marcus Center force the MSO to play at various other venues for about 16 of its 39-week season.

In 2013, the MSO considered moving its performances to a concert hall that could be built in The Couture, the 44-story residential tower currently being developed by Barrett Lo Visionary Development at the southwest of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street at the lakefront.

“The MSO is the only major orchestra in the United States without control over its own performance venue,” Niehaus said. “We have made many improvements to our financial and operating model; however, without control of our venue these improvements simply will not be enough. We are tremendously humbled and grateful that our donors are leading the charge to not only secure the MSO’s future, but to also make an indelible impact on the cultural vision of our community.”

Construction on the Warner Grand Theatre, located in a 12-story building on West Wisconsin Avenue across from the Grand Avenue Mall, began in 1930. The 2,400-seat theater and offices, owned at the time by Warner Bros. Theaters, opened in 1931. Opulent and extravagantly-designed, the theater quickly became one of the most popular movie venues in Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

It closed in 1995 and has sat vacant for years.

It’s absolutely the most beautiful theater in Milwaukee,” Niehaus said. “Its stunning. It’s been empty since 1995, but not abandoned. It’s been maintained and just waiting to be brought back. It’s gorgeous.”

MSO’s renovation plans would include reducing the number of seats to around 1,750.

“1,600 to 1,800 seats is perfect for us,” Niehaus said. “The Marcus Center was just too large.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he was “thrilled” that, if the plans move forward and the MSO purchases and renovates the theater, the city will have its own dedicated symphony center.

WAM DC owns the building connected to the Grand Theatre.

“The heart of Milwaukee is in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance,” Barrett said. “The size, scale and impact of the many developments underway will be transformative for both downtown and the vital surrounding neighborhoods.”

In July, the two-story, the 20,450-square-foot building just east of the Grand Theatre at 200-208 W. Wisconsin Ave. was purchased by WAM DC, LLC and an affiliate of the Milwaukee Development Corp. The group the nonprofit group helps with redevelopment projects on W. Wisconsin Ave.

“We bought our building as a development project and we’re certainly willing to talk to the symphony and work with them if they are willing,” said Stephen Chernof, a leader of the group. “Obviously this is great news for Wisconsin Avenue.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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