Preserving an icon

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am

Take one look at the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company logo, and you will understand the importance of the firm’s downtown Milwaukee historic building. The logo is representative of the capitals that top the building’s columns.

“It certainly is a gem of an historical building,” said company spokeswoman Jean Towell. “It’s obviously valuable to us for historic reasons.”

However, the exterior of the eight-story, 230,000-square-foot office building at 720 E. Wisconsin Ave. has suffered from some deterioration over the years. The building was built in 1914, and over time its façade has been damaged from Wisconsin’s harsh weather. The building’s façade is made of Harwich white granite, which was originally quarried in Vermont.

In 2001, the company began planning to restore the exterior of the building. The company hired Minneapolis, Minn.-based architectural and engineering firm Inspec Inc. to create plans for restoring the exterior of the building.

Construction began last year. The first phase of the project was done during the first half of the year, focusing on roof repairs. The second phase started in January of this year, focusing on the restoration of the façade, especially the cornice edging at the top of the building.

Brookfield-based Hunzinger Construction Co. is the general contractor for the project, which has required the building to be encompassed by scaffolding.

The façade restoration work consists primarily of removing damaged portions of the building’s exterior, restoring and then replacing those pieces, Towell said.

She declined to disclose the cost of the project, only saying that the price tag is, “tens of millions of dollars.”

The façade restoration will take about two years to complete.

“It’s a big project for us,” Towell said. “It’s important for us to maintain that building and its architectural integrity.”

The building was one of the earliest homes for Northwestern Mutual, which originally started in Janesville before moving to Milwaukee. When constructed in 1914, it was one of the largest buildings in Milwaukee and remains an important downtown landmark. The company recognizes that legacy and feels an obligation to preserve it, Towell said.

“It’s sort of a jewel in the downtown business community,” she said. “We’ve maintained this building over the years and have (continued to restore and improve it) on a regular basis.”

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