Pabst Mansion to seek permission to reconstruct pavilion

Built as an indoor display for 1893 Chicago world’s fair, structure needs new framework to survive, nonprofit says

Mame McCully, interim executive director of the Pabst Mansion, Inc., stands outside of the Pabst Mansion pavilion on Thursday. (Photo by Cara Spoto/BizTimes)

Last updated on March 29th, 2023 at 12:57 pm

The 130-year-old pavilion at the historic Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee has served many purposes over the years.

Constructed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the ornate terracotta structure was originally designed to artfully display Pabst Brewing Company products to fairgoers.

Although designed for an indoor exhibition hall, the pavilion was moved – piece by piece – to the western grounds of the Pabst Mansion, 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave., at the request of company founder Capt. Fredrick Pabst. Pabst then had it moved to the east side of mansion and attached to the home itself, where it served as a porch for the family.

In 1908, following the mansion’s sale to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it was used as the archbishop’s private chapel. Most recently it has served as a gift shop for Pabst Mansion, Inc.

Today it is empty and ailing.

Over the course of the past century, water has seeped into its terracotta tiles, eating away at the metal framework that holds it together. Today that steel substructure is entirely missing in spaces, leaving visible cracks both inside and out.

In hopes of saving the endangered structure, Pabst Mansion, Inc., announced Friday that it will be seeking a certificate of appropriateness (COA) from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), that would allow it to deconstruct and reconstruct the pavilion.

Although it will be an enormous undertaking – one that could span several years – it is the only way to preserve the building without risking losing more of its original detailing, said Mame McCully, interim-executive director for the Pabst Mansion.

Standing in front of the weather battered structure on a chilly morning, McCully pointed to the many cracks and crevices on the exterior of the building where water and other elements have entered.

“Over here we have a spot where if this metal rod didn’t exist this terracotta would not even be in place,” she said pointing to scaffolding affixed to the building’s back wall.

Poised in the chilly interior of the pavilion, she gestured to the many cracks in the terracotta and plaster molding and said “You can look over there and say ‘well probably none of the metal core is intact. It does not have the strength any more to keep the building up.”

The HPC is slated to consider the COA at its May 1 meeting. Should the nonprofit win approval for their request, deconstruction could begin immediately after all city approvals are secured.

Documentation and reconstruction

Having shown structural issues since 1910, the pavilion has already been deconstructed and reconstructed several times – once when it was dismantled to be moved from Chicago to the Milwaukee, and then again when it was moved from the west side of the mansion grounds to the east and adjoined to the mansion itself. During its last move, some of the terracotta tiles were affixed to a cream city brick understructure, but none of the work was done with Wisconsin’s weather in mind. That means it was not constructed (or reconstructed) with appropriate materials or details such as flashing and insulation.

Deconstructing the fragile building today will be no easy task. It will essentially evolve removing, scanning, and studying every element of the building, and then storing the parts that can be saved and/or reproduced.

To help with the delicate task of preserving those elements, the Pabst Mansion is working closely with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Institute to create a 3D scan of the pavilion, using advanced laser scanning tools and recording techniques to document the structure, a press release states.

“If we get the COA, then as we deconstruct the building, every piece would be scanned,” McCully said. “Every piece. Four inches by four inches. One inch by inch. 10 feet by 10 feet. Whatever it takes.”

By documenting the pavilion in this manner, missing and deteriorated pieces can be recast using 3D printing technology in Milwaukee. The reconstructed pavilion will be constructed with a proper back-up structure, movement joints, weather proofing and insulation and other technologies necessary for an outdoor location, ensuring its integrity for decades to come, says Pabst Mansion, Inc.

In addition to saving the structure itself, reconstructing the building would also allow preservationists to restore the pavilion to how it looked when the Pabsts added it to their home to serve as an airing porch; before a copper dome, stain glass iconography, and a marble wall was added to the structure by the diocese.

Those stain glass windows would be saved and shared with the public somehow, because they are part of the building’s overall story, McCully said, but the main goal is to get the pavilion to match the same era as the rest of the mansion.

“We would bring it back to what it looked like when it was first added onto this side of the building,” she said. “So really, we would be bringing it back to how it looked in the 1890s.”

Timing, cost, risk

As the nonprofit focuses on the work of getting their COA approved, questions of how long the project could take, or how much it might cost, are ones that can’t yet be answered, McCully said. Those insights won’t come until deconstruction is well underway.

“Very few contractors can even handle a project of this size. And none of those contractors are going to bid on a building reconstruction (before they know what is going on inside of the building),” she said. “Once we know more about what is going on inside the building, the better we will be able to come up with a number. But we can’t do that without the discovery phase that will come with deconstruction.”

If it gets the COA for the pavilion, the nonprofit will turn its attention to seeking a COA to seal the entire mansion and complete vital exterior repairs to prevent water infiltration, the organization said.

“Some people have asked: ‘Well can’t you just fix it standing up?’ Well, no. We need to fix the skeleton, and then the skin, (but for decades) we have been just fixing its skin; bracing the skin, while the bones are totally corroding,” McCully said. “We have had terracotta experts from across the globe look at this, and everyone agrees. There is just no other way to do it.”

Asked if there is a risk of collapse if nothing is done, McCully said simply: “Nature will eventually decide for us.”

“That is why we think it is so important to act now, because right now we have choices for what can be saved and what can be reused. When nature decides, it’s not up to us,” she added.

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Cara covers nonprofits, healthcare and education for BizTimes. Cara lives in Waukesha with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, a dog named Neutron, a bird named Potter, and a lizard named Peyoye. She loves music, food, and comedy, but not necessarily in that order.

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