Built 1897 in the Flemish Renaissance Style, Milwaukee City Hall has endured the hardships of time and weather. Restoring City Hall to its inherent architectural glory underscores the remaining function of masonry as an art form. The building’s exterior restoration includes terra cotta and sandstone repair, replacement, and preservation, as well as fixing or replacing hundreds of thousands of deteriorating bricks.
Terra cotta, a building material that saw its heyday in the 1920’s, is the lion’s share of the architectural skin and detailing that covers City Hall. The terra cotta’s existing condition ranges from well-maintained to advanced deterioration. Since 2002, pieces have been falling off the building and onto the sidewalks and streets below. Cullen’s first major task was to completely net the building during the preliminary exterior study phase to deter the falling pieces from hitting cars and passersby.
While carefully preserving existing pieces, Cullen craftsmen anchored and installed new terra cotta sculptures and reliefs, which were recreated to identically match the original design. In some cases, replacing terra cotta elements that had been missing for decades was accomplished by reference to historic photographs of the original design. The 13,000 pieces of terra cotta that needed to be repaired or restored required additional technical training of onsite masons. To create or refurbish the hand-carved details, specially formulated mortars that perform like terra cotta were used to restore to the original appearance and physical characteristics of the building.
The condition of the existing sandstone included cracks, spalls (i.e., chips/flakes), erosion, and severe deterioration. After a thorough chemical cleaning, Cullen craftsmen replaced severely compromised sandstone with a ‘dutchmen’ – a piece or wedge inserted to hide the fault in a badly made joint – that matched the unique color, texture, and profile of the original design. The sandstone’s cracks and spalls repair required specialized training for masons. The correct mixing and deft patching of the sandstone mortar was critical to creating the desired color and texture of the building’s European flair. Additionally, Cullen craftsmen rounded out the sandstone repair with re-tooling of heavily eroded areas to recreate the crisp lines of the original design.
Masonry expertise is central to achieving the restorative goals for the Milwaukee City Hall project, slated for completion in 2008. Then as the seat of municipal government, City Hall will again shine with the elegant stonework and fine detailing which defines this distinctive Flemish style renaissance architecture.