Historic Milwaukee: East Wisconsin Avenue

© Photographed September 13, 2015
Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin

Historic Milwaukee
East Wisconsin Avenue
The eastern edge of downtown Milwaukee, the lakeshore itself, was very close to this spot until the early 20th century. If you were standing here before 1917 you would be standing very near the water’s edge. Between 1917 and 1937, Milwaukee filled in over 77 acres of submerged land to create the downtown lakefront.

The Chicago & Northwestern Railway Station was a landmark at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue from its construction in 1889 until its demolition in 1968. The Richardsonian Romanesque station, designed by Chicago architect Charles Sumner Frost, was among Milwaukee’s largest structures when it was built, supported by heavy walls of granite, brownstone, and red pressed brick. It replaced the original depot, an unprepossessing wooden structure at the same site, which had been built in 1872-73. For decades, until the land was filled in, the railroad tracks were not far from the water’s edge.

Lincoln Memorial drive, made possible by the landfill, was completed in 1929. Lincoln Memorial Bridge spanned the railroad tracks that ran below the bluff along the lakefront and connected Mason Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

For most of its existence, the downtown lakefront was a working lakefront. A municipal airport built in 1927 and known as Maitland Field was located between the railroad tracks and Lake Michigan. A Nike missile site, built to protect Milwaukee from potential Russian bomber attacks, replaced the airport in the early 1950s. After the Nike site closed, the downtown lakefront was used for auto parking and storage until the early 1980s when redevelopment for recreational use began. Between the 1960s until it was demapped in 1981, a corridor along the lakefront was set aside for a freeway.

The War Memorial Center, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, was completed in 1957. The Milwaukee Art Center occupied space in the upper portion of the building until the lower level galleries were completed in 1963. These were enlarged between 1970 and 1975. In 1980 the name was changed to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The newest addition opened in 2001 and was designed by Santiago Calatrava.

At about the same time, in 1971-73, Wisconsin’s largest and tallest building was built—the First Wisconsin Center (now the US Bank building) at 777 East Wisconsin Avenue. The architects were Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago.

In the early 1990s, the O’Donnell Park complex was developed on the site of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Station, complete with the abstract steel sculpture “The Calling” by artist Mark di Suvero, which is owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The marker is located on westbound East Wisconsin Avenue, where the road converges with North Prospect Avenue, at or near 811 East Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202.

In this 1889 photo, Milwaukeeans stroll a promenade between Juneau Park and the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Station. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society.
A 1920s photo of East Wisconsin Avenue east from Marshall Street, showing the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Station and the Juneau Hotel, both razed in the 1960s. Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library.
Maitland Airport (known as Maitland Field) consisted of a landing strip and a sea-ramp for pontoon planes landing on the lake. It was shut down during World War II (as were all small airports) as a security measure against sabotage. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
This mid 1940s photo shows the downtown lakefront, with Lake Michigan on the left and the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad station and tracks front and center. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

 The back side of the marker.

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