Architectural History of the Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Museum is an architectural landmark, comprising three buildings, each purposefully designed. Explore the buildings and their rich histories.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum Campus (2016) by John Magnoski Photography/Milwaukee Art MuseumMilwaukee Art Museum

One Home for Art

Home to a rich collection of more than 30,000 works of art, the Milwaukee Art Museum is located on the shores of Lake Michigan and is made up of three unique buildings, plus an addition. Its campus includes the Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, annually showcasing three feature exhibitions, the Eero Saarinen–designed Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, and the David Kahler‒designed building. The Museum’s collection spans from ancient times to the present day. About 2,500 artworks are on display at one time. The artworks on view are always changing—a reason to visit often!

Eero Saarinen-designed Milwaukee Art Center (1970) by Eero SaarinenMilwaukee Art Museum

The Saarinen Building

The War Memorial Center, completed in 1957, was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen was tasked with creating a new home for two previously separate art collections and a veterans’ memorial. It is the oldest building of the Museum and houses its oldest works.

Aero Willys sedan outside the Milwaukee County War Memorial (1961-01-20) by Brooks StevensMilwaukee Art Museum

Saarinen BuildingMilwaukee Art Museum

The modernist building is shaped like a floating cross, with wings cantilevered from a central base. Saarinen’s innovative design won praise for its dramatic use of space; Time magazine called it “one of the country’s finest examples of modern architecture put to work for civic purposes.”

The interior of the south entrance (1970) by Milwaukee Art MuseumMilwaukee Art Museum

Saarinen GalleriesMilwaukee Art Museum

The Saarinen building is home to the Museum’s European art galleries (pictured here).

Milwaukee Art Center's Kahler addition (1980) by David KahlerMilwaukee Art Museum

The Kahler Building

In the late 1960s, Mrs. Harry (Peg) Lynde Bradley offered her entire collection of more than three hundred Modern works of art to the Museum. She challenged the community to support adding a building to the Museum to house her extensive collection; she donated $1 million toward construction. The challenge was met: in 1975, the Kahler building opened with vastly enlarged galleries for the Museum.

Milwaukee Art Center's Kahler addition (1980) by David KahlerMilwaukee Art Museum

Kahler GalleriesMilwaukee Art Museum

The Kahler building is home to the Museum’s American, Contemporary, Design (pictured here), Folk and Self-Taught, Haitian, and Modern art galleries, as well as the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts.

Kahler GalleriesMilwaukee Art Museum

The Kahler building is home to the Museum’s American (pictured here), Contemporary, Design, Folk and Self-Taught, Haitian, and Modern art galleries, as well as the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts.

Kahler GalleriesMilwaukee Art Museum

The Kahler building is home to the Museum’s American, Contemporary (pictured here), Design, Folk and Self-Taught, Haitian, and Modern art galleries, as well as the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts.

Quadracci Pavillion by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

The Quadracci Pavilion

The Quadracci Pavilion is the iconic sculptural addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. The Spanish architect was inspired by the “dramatic, original building by Eero Saarinen...the topography of the city” and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style architecture.The 142,050-square-foot structure was completed in 2001 and houses a grand reception hall, an auditorium, a large exhibition space, a store, two cafés, and parking. Both cutting-edge technology and old-world craftsmanship went into creating the graceful building, which was made largely by pouring concrete into one-of-a-kind wooden forms.

Burke Brise Soleil by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

Burke Brise Soleil
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Unprecedented in American architecture, the Burke Brise Soleil is a moveable, wing-like sunscreen that rests on top of the Museum’s vaulted, glass-enclosed Windhover Hall. While the Burke Brise Soleil has a wingspan comparable to that of a Boeing 747-400, its two ultrasonic wind sensors automatically close the wings if the wind speed reaches 23 mph or greater. Unlike an airplane, the Museum prefers to remain on the ground.

It takes 3.5 minutes for the wings to open or close. The brise soleil is made up of 72 steel fins, ranging in length from 26 to 105 feet. The entire structure weighs 90 tons.

Windhover HallMilwaukee Art Museum

Windhover Hall
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Windhover Hall is the grand reception hall and among the pavilion’s many architectural highlights. Complete with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and a central nave topped by a 90-foot-high glass roof, it is Calatrava’s interpretation of a Gothic cathedral. An average-sized, two-story family home would fit comfortably inside it. The hall’s chancel is shaped like the prow of a ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over Lake Michigan.

East End by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

The East End

The East End is the newest part of the Milwaukee Art Museum, built in 2015 as part of a larger renovation project. The Milwaukee architectural firm HGA designed the addition. Featuring a long wall of windows facing Lake Michigan and an oculus to the floor above, it provides a lakeside entrance to the Museum and houses an exhibition space and café.

East End by John Magnoski PhotographyMilwaukee Art Museum

In partnership with Milwaukee County, the Museum restored and renovated the Saarinen and Kahler buildings, beginning in 2014. The project allowed the Museum to reinstall its collection galleries and reimagine the visitor experience, which included the addition of the East End. The Museum reopened in 2015.

Landfall Press: Five Decades of Printmaking (2019) by John R. Glembin/Milwaukee Art MuseumMilwaukee Art Museum

The East End is home to the Museum’s Bradley Family Gallery (pictured here) and the East End Café.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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