Polishing a gem

Last updated on June 7th, 2022 at 06:44 am

The Milwaukee County Historical Society hopes to restore its building at 910 N. Old World Third St. in downtown Milwaukee to its original grandeur.
The historical society has begun a three-stage, $7.5 million project to renovate the building, constructed in 1913 as the Second Ward Saving Bank.
The project is less about restructuring the building for the society’s purposes and more about restoring it to the condition it was in when it opened as a bank, said historical society director Robert Teske.
“We’re hoping to preserve the best parts and restore most of the other portions to the elegance that was once part of its fabric,” he said.
The first phase of the restoration project will improve the windows that have been blacked to protect the collection of historical artifacts that have been displayed inside since the historical society moved into the building in 1965, Teske said. Window suction cups will be used to transport the windows.
New advances in light filters that will be incorporated into new glass for the windows will both protect the artifacts and allow natural light into the building.
Several sections of the building are closed off from visitors, society members and employees, and construction crews are busy sandblasting and painting window frames. Portions of the historical society’s collection have been moved into storage.
The society has hired J.F. Cook Co. as its contractor for the window project. Work started earlier this year and is expected to be completed by September.
One window on the building’s south side is complete, and other windows should be finished in coming weeks, when plywood boxes, used to cover the windows while they are restored, will be removed.
Teske said the windows have presented workers with a “trifecta” of difficulties for the restoration project – because the windows were enclosed in cast iron frames, painted with lead paint and caulked with asbestos-containing chemicals.
Costs for the window project are estimated at about $1.3 million.
Milwaukee County owns the building. The renovations are being done as a public-private partnership. Teske said the society has raised about $1.75 million so far for the project, and the county has pledged $1.1 million so far.
In total, the society is hoping to perform $7.5 million worth of renovations to the building, with about $4 million from private sources and $3.5 million from the county.
“The county has included the $3.5 million in its long-range, five-year plan,” Teske said. “They’ve been very supportive.”
If the society meets its fundraising goals, Teske said it could begin the second phase of the renovation project late this year or early next year. The $1.5 million second phase will include the installation of a new elevator in the building’s southwest corner to improve handicapped accessibility to restrooms in the facility’s basement.
The renovation’s second phase will also move an existing staircase from the middle of the north side of the building to the eastern side, Teske said. That move, he said, will open up the north side of the building more, allowing visitors to walk easier and giving the society more room to display its collection.
The redesigned northern section of the building will be better able to take advantage of the natural lighting from the first phase of the project, because the large staircase and wheelchair lift will no longer be present, Teske said. The second phase of the project is expected to be complete by the end of 2006.
The third and final phase of the project will cost about $4.7 million and is expected to be completed in 2007 or 2008, Teske said, depending upon the fundraising efforts and the county delivering its promised funding. The final phase will address mechanical and aesthetic issues in the building.
The mechanical improvements will include replacement of the heating, cooling and air conditioning system, along with electrical and lighting upgrades.
Teske spoke enthusiastically about the aesthetic improvements, including the final removal of some interior walls that block windows and the restoration of the building’s ceiling.
“Our ornamental plaster ceilings are covered with acoustic tile,” Teske said. “Our contractors told me that they’re 95-percent intact, and it’s just a matter of getting the tile down, redoing the lights and bringing the paint all up to date.”
The third phase also will expand space for the historical society’s research library on its second floor and enclose its space with glass, which should improve visibility there and give it a more pleasant look, Teske said.
Administrative offices on the first floor will also be slightly expanded.
Teske said the renovations, once complete, should help increase the number of visitors the society has every year, because it plans to change its exhibits more often.
“It will give us a more open floor plan and also lend better to more contemporary exhibits,” Teske said. “We’re hoping to do more temporary work, so there will be more reason to stop back every six or nine months rather than every couple of years. It will give us more flexibility in regard to our exhibits and allow us to expand our staff, volunteers and researchers.”

April 1, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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