Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Named as Wisconsin Historical Society 2021 Historic Restoration Award

GRAEF provided MEP, Fire Protection, Low Voltage Systems, and Energy Modeling on the Highly Visible Milwaukee Project. 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra is the recipient of the 2021 Historic Restoration Award for the restoration of the Warner Art Deco skyscraper. The award goes to the best restoration work of a Wisconsin historic property that involves comprehensive work to restore a historic building, structure, object, or site.

With polished granite ornamenting the lower façade, the Warner is named for the Warner Brothers studio that owned it. Designed by Chicago's Rapp and Rapp, a highly prolific and influential theater-design firm, the building is a twelve-story, limestone-clad theater and office structure. From the outside, it is a chaste composition. But theatergoers of the 1930s stepped inside to find one of the most fabulous cinema interiors in Wisconsin. Rich if somewhat eclectic, it began with a glittering gold-and-silver Art Deco lobby. From there, movie patrons moved into a 2,500-seat auditorium, fantastically decorated in the French Neo-Baroque style (a favorite Rapp and Rapp design scheme). Lavish ornamental plasterwork and hardwood trim imported from Italy and South America embellished the walls and ceilings, and murals depicted scenes of eighteenth-century French aristocratic life. The Warner closed in June 1995. A sound test in 2001 showed the venue offered near pristine acoustics for an orchestra. Thus began a 20-year journey towards renewal of place and purpose.

In addition to restoring the historic exterior and interior features, this project required one major hurdle to be cleared. The original stage which measured 18 feet deep needed to be 53 feet to fit an orchestra. Rather than building an addition, the MSO chose to preserve the architecturally significant back wall and move it out 35 feet into a city street. Relocating a fragile historical wall 86 feet high, 100 feet long, weighing 625 tons was an enormous feat. After 18 months of extensive planning and engineering, the wall was carefully detached and slowly moved. This operation was studied nationwide as it was risky, rare, and the ultimate commitment to historic preservation.

Inside, layers of dust, dirt, and grime were cleaned, and broken and missing elements restored. The terrazzo and stone decorative staircases in the lobby and theater were returned to their original forms. Two tall, eight-sided chandeliers with concentric rings of etched glass panels again glisten in the lobby, along with mirrors, metalwork, and leafed and glazed finishes restored to their original luster. Towering throughout the building are original 1931 murals reputed to have been painted by famous muralist Louis Grell. Significant amounts of surface accumulations and discolored varnish have been removed from the murals to unveil brighter original colors and stenciled details. Modeled after originals found in the building's basement, the updated theater also features new seats combining the look of the 1930s with the comfort and size required for today.