#Milwaukee Mitchell Park #Domes and the history of Design Competitions

A few years ago at this time of year I visited Milwaukee, WI and was truly impressed by its design heritage. We stayed in an authentic Frank Lloyd Wright airbnb home, and toured some impressive structures that support this notion. Major highlights for me included:

  • The Milwaukee Art Museum, which received an impressive addition in 2001 by Santiago Calatrava. The collection holds more than 30,000 permanent works and is among the nation’s finest collections of American decorative arts, German Expressionism, folk and Haitian art and American art after 1960.
  • The Milwaukee City Hall was my first introduction to classic Flemish Renaissance architecture. It was completion in 1895 and was the second tallest building in America, exceeded only by the Philadelphia City Hall. 
  • The Wisconsin Gas Building is said to be Wisconsin’s finest Art Deco skyscraper. At 20 stories, it is prized for its form, distinctive cascading masses, and unique brick work.
  • The Milwaukee Public Library was completed in 1898 and is a true symbol of the city’s democracy. French and Italian Renaissance styles are combined through the medium of Bedford limestone. 
  • The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion was completed in 1892, and is another Flemish Renaissance Revival which has been restored to its original grandeur and features fine period furniture and architectural details.
  • West of downtown features Frank Lloyd Wright American System-Built Homes which were completed in 1916 for moderate- and low-income families. 
  • And finally, the Mitchell Park Domes at the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory were inspiring to me as a publically funded mid-century design competition that is an elegant example of modernism and environmentalism.

And those are just some highlights! As an east coast New Englander new to midwest culture, I can attest with confidence that there’s a lot to do and see in this historic city and region. For a recent movie featuring mid-century architecture in the heartland and garnering acclaim in architecture circles is Columbus. I recommend it!


Mitchell Park Domes

And now I want to expand a bit more on the Mitchell Park Domes, as it has a very interesting story on the history of its development. 

Milwaukee had its first conservatory in 1898, which functioned as an indoor display garden and served the public until 1955. Shortly after, the conservatory was demolished due to costly repairs and unmet deferred maintenance. However, with demand for a replacement, a design competition was put forth to explore the possibilities. The municipality wanted something unique that represented the city’s design heritage. They also favored a design which could be built in phases to avoiding bonds, and paid directly by the tax base annually. Shrewd yet beautiful.

The design competition was won by local architect Donald Grieb, whose plans for the new conservatory called for three beehive-shaped (and not geodesic) glass domes, each 140 feet in diameter at the base and 85 feet high. This volume offered 15,000 square feet of growing space for plant displays, with each dome showcasing a distinct climate setting: desert, tropical, and floral show. Construction began in 1959 and was completed eight years later due to the phasing and no-bond approach. The total cost was $4.5 million when it was completed in 1967.

As a public garden aficionado, I find the domes, geodesic glass structures, and large conservatories to be the most valuable assets to institutions simply for their ability to be a consistent year round destination. These structures often become emblematic of the organization too, and are part of their identity through branding, marketing, and iconography- think brand recognition. Especially in northern  climates, there just really is not too many large, indoor open places to go in the winter time for respite. Large cities have expansive museums with tons of natural light and atriums, but everyone living in less urban areas often has to settle for their local mall to get exercise in above freezing temperatures. As someone who has endured some pretty tough winters growing up in Maine, having a structure like the Domes would have had a huge impact on my life as place to learn during the long winters. How many children, for instance, were inspired to go into some type of STEAM field because they grew up in greater Philadelphia spending time at Longwood Garden’s four acres of year round conservatory gardens complete with excellent interpretation and learning opportunities? All northern cities should consider these types of year round learning spaces.


A Brief History of Design Competitions

The fact that the Domes were commissioned from a design competition is nothing new, but it made me wonder how and where the concept of architectural design competitions can be traced from. Luckily, there’s a great wikipedia entry on the topic that gives great context. Did you know for example that architecture competitions were actually a thing over 2,500-years ago, with records that The Acropolis in Athens was a result of an architectural competition in 448 B.C. ? This concept continued into the Middle Ages and Renaissance with cathedrals and churches. A highly popularized one to this day is the competition to design the dome of the Florence Cathedral in 1419, which was won by Filippo Brunelleschi and is gloriously accounted for in this book called Brunelleschi’s Dome. There’s also a strong history of open competitions in the western world dated back to the late 18th century in several countries including the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France and Sweden. By the 1800s, some of these countries started drafting rules to regulate these activities. The Institute of British Architects, for example, drafted regulations in 1839 and 1872.

Some iconic architecture built through competitions include:

  • The White House in Washington D.C. in 1792 by James Hoban from a pool of 9 entries
  • Houses of Parliament in London in 1835 by Charles Barry among 98 other entries.
  • Sydney Opera House in 1955 by Jørn Utzon among 233 other entries.
  • Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain in 1991 by Frank Gehry.
  • The 2002 World Trade Center site design competition was one of more recently highly publicized design competitions, with Studio Daniel Libeskind winning master planning rights.

To this day competitions are a normal part of successful firms, and i’ve even been on a few projects myself experiencing first hand the unorthodox deliverables and client relationship. The model seems very conducive to the competitive drive for ingenuity demonstrated in the Silicon Valley, for instance. Many headquarters for tech and media companies such as Google are designed through competitions. And there’s currently no evidence to suggest that this trend will stop; its clearly a very successful vessel for creating beautiful work.


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