The Art of the Fire Escape (Milwaukee’s City Hall)

I had to walk past City Hall to a dentist’s appointment yesterday.  For months (actually, years off and on!) the Market Street shortcut behind City Hall has been blocked off by scaffolding erected to preserve/shore up the nearly 120-year-old structure.  I almost automatically walked farther west to Water Street, which would have added a good five minutes to my trip, before I realized the scaffolding was gone.

It was my first close-up view of City Hall’s exterior in a long time.  About two years ago, I took this picture one morning because the fire escape and its shadow looked so much like the spiraling strands of DNA’s double-helix structure to me.  (And, I just noticed, you can see some scaffolding around the base of the building even then.)

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So yesterday, with the scaffolding gone, I noticed how attractive the actual fire escape is up close.  It doesn’t even look like a fire escape.  So ornate!

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One thing I didn’t take a photo of—because I was worried about being late for my appointment and because seeing it was kind of sad—was some of the flaking, gouged and pitted stone around the large Romanesque-looking archways at the front entrance.  (But, actually, I just now noticed that some of the stone up near the fire escape’s second level in this photo is flaking at the corners 😦 )

I love Milwaukee’s City Hall.  And I fear it is doomed.  Here’s a New York Times article from last June that lays out the whole depressing scenario pretty well.  We’ve no sooner finished (for now) all the exterior repairs than we now have to turn our attention to the fact that it is slowly sinking into the swampy soil that underlies our entire downtown.  Downtown Milwaukee’s buildings rest on pilings—mostly wood, in the case of older structures—so dry rot is a major concern.

I have occasionally taken student groups on tours of Northwestern Mutual Life’s massive complex, and NML’s strategy is to measure the water level of  “Lake Emily” and refill the marshy substratum with water when it gets too low.  Lake Emily was an actual lake in downtown Milwaukee a long time ago before it was filled in with dirt and built over.  The soil is so saturated that “Emily” may still exist as a subterranean lake in some form.  (Here is a great feature article about Lake Emily, with lovely photos of Northwestern Mutual’s marble halls, steps to a long-ago outdoor garden, and the basement piling-management system.)

How much is a building worth?  At what point should we stop throwing good money after bad?  City Hall is such a beautiful piece of architecture.  An instantly recognizable landmark.  An icon, really.  Kind of like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House.

It’s hard to put a cash value on something that has a greater intrinsic worth than merely the sum of its deteriorating parts.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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