The humble building at 700 East Kilbourn Avenue will soon meet its fate. Its façade, simple and elegant, will unfortunately never resurface to the public eye. Awaiting a new project, the Ascent, will soon replace this site with a 21-story timber framed residential tower.
There are many small details about this building that draw interest in its survival. Originally known as the site for Irving Benesch Real Estate and built in 1926. What is most striking on the exterior are the embellishments made of architectural terra cotta. The glazes that cover these units are pulsichrome, and feature a mottled effect of various hues, including light green, peach, rose, cranberry red, and buff. Even though the building is painted white, the layers of paint has slowly been peeling off. This is one reason why it is strongly advised not to paint terra cotta. Besides, the natural surface of fired terra cotta is handsome.
As depicted in the last four years, there has been no change at the site. However, several of the base units on the structure have also been crumbling. Much of this neglect has been recent. A black-and-white photograph documenting the façade in a better condition (in 1946) can be see on the Milwaukee Public Library Digital Collections.
As a bicyclist, working in Walker's Point and living in Riverwest, I often use Van Buren Avenue as a route. Therefore, I notice this building a lot. I have observed the peeling of the paint. I have wondered why does it appear vacant? Why does it seem that nobody maintains the site or improve its curb appeal? Such mystery has enticed me to wonder about the possibilities of what this space could become.
Now that the Ascent is coming, I guess the answer has been made. Unfortunately, the new apartment project leaves no room to imagine a space that appropriates the old building into a new space. I realize such a design challenge may be too clingy to the past. Most concerning is that a small commercial building with historic charm will soon no longer be available to the potential business owner, eager to start a new operation.
If the glazed surface of the terra-cotta units was not out of the ordinary, perhaps it would not be so interesting. However, it is the fact that the glazes are multi-colored pulsichrome that has given me the impression that this building is worth preserving. The old idea that "demolitions of grand structures should only occur if the newer building is better and grander" is likely the approach the developers of the Ascent are taking. Perhaps the renovation costs of the Benesch building are through the roof. At the very least, let it be that the polychromatic units are salvaged and reused in a dignified way (and not as garden ornaments).
One worthwhile idea could be a display in the lobby of a few carefully selected artifacts from the façade. These salvaged artifacts could serve as artwork in the new space as well as be symbols of the community and its local history. Despite the fact that the building will be gone, such a feature would communicate to its tenants and visitors that Milwaukee is a place that values its architecture and its past. It would also demonstrate that preservation in Milwaukee comes from a genuine place of love for the community.
Construction on this new building is slated for fall 2019. It is intended to be 238 feet in height and be the tallest mass timber building in the Western hemisphere. New Land Enterprises are the developer. Korb + Associates are the architects. Completion is expected in spring 2021.
Links to articles and notes on Benesch Building and the Ascent:
Old Milwaukee.net Building File
Tom Daykin article from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Oct. 5, 2018
Jeramey Jannene article from Urban MKE, Oct. 6, 2018
Plan Development Submittal, Korb + Associates Architects
Official website for new building: https://www.ascentmke.com/
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest by Ben Tyjeski.