Mar­cus Cen­ter re­veals makeover plans for cam­pus

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Mary Louise Schu­macher

The Mar­cus Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts has un­veiled plans for a reimag­ined cam­pus, in­clud­ing a “great lawn” for com­mu­nity events, a new atrium and ter­race on the Mil­wau­kee River, a five-story pro­jec­tion wall where per­for­mances can be seen live from the street and new seat­ing in its main the­ater space, Uih­lein Hall.

With the per­form­ing arts cen­ter near­ing the half-cen­tury mark, the idea is to cre­ate a more open, wel­com­ing and flex­i­ble cam­pus that can gen­er­ate more rev­enue and a wider ar­ray of events, said Paul Mathews, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Mar­cus Cen­ter.

“The plan that we’ve put to­gether is our vi­sion for the next 50 years,” Mathews said.

While the over­all cost is still be­ing fi­nal­ized, Mil­wau­kee County has com­mit­ted $10 mil­lion to­ward the project,

which will be­gin in spring of 2019 and be done over a pe­riod of three to five years, Mathews said. The Mar­cus Cen­ter signed a new, 99-year lease with the county last year af­ter a law that would have trans­ferred own­er­ship of the cen­ter to the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter District was re­pealed.

Specif­i­cally, the plan calls for a mod­est, new struc­ture — a rounded, glassy atrium — to be added on the Mil­wau­kee River side of the build­ing. This will pro­vide an­other en­trance to the cen­ter and cre­ate new event spa­ces both in­side and ona ter­race deck above.

The face of the Mar­cus Cen­ter will be trans­formed by re­plac­ing the dark glass that sur­rounds the lobby to­day, some­times called limou­sine glass, with highly translu­cent glass. A band of win­dows will be in­stalled on the south side of the build­ing, giv­ing the oth­er­wise im­pen­e­tra­ble Bru­tal­ist struc­ture a bit of translu­cency. The new sec­ond­floor win­dows will of­fer the pub­lic peeks in­side the build­ing and af­ford views out to the cityscape, in­clud­ing City Hall and the pub­lic plaza be­low.

“You know they didn’t call it Bru­tal­ism for noth­ing,” said ar­chi­tect Jim Shields of HGA Ar­chi­tects, who is work­ing on the project for the Mar­cus Cen­ter. “There’s no poros­ity, there’s no vis­i­bil­ity, no trans­parency at all in the build­ing now.”

The cen­ter’s main the­ater, Uih­lein Hall, will get all new seat­ing. A new con­fig­u­ra­tion with new aisles will pro­vide greater ac­ces­si­bil­ity, es­pe­cially for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. A to­tal of about 110 seats will be lost. Im­prove­ments will also be made to the tech­nol­ogy and acous­tics in Uih­lein Hall.

The plan also calls for the dis­man­tling of a grove of chest­nut trees, laid out in a grid and set into the ground, de­signed by in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized land­scape ar­chi­tect Daniel Ur­ban Ki­ley. This will make way for a more open and ac­ces­si­ble great lawn on the south side of the cen­ter. Peo­ple sit­ting on the grass, which will be brought up to grade, or seated around its edges will have a clear view to per­for­mances in the out­door Peck Pav­il­ion, where a bar­rier wall that con­tains sound equip­ment and that’s no longer needed will be re­moved, Mathews said.

This pub­lic park-like area along Kil­bourn Av­enue will also in­clude seat­ing sim­i­lar to that found in Bryant Park in New York City, in­clud­ing light­weight chairs that the pub­lic can move, and il­lu­mi­nated foun­tains, wa­ter spilling over sheets of glass that peo­ple can run their fin­gers over. The hope is to broad­cast parts of per­for­mances hap­pen­ing in­side onto a five-story-high wall in real time in this out­door plaza, too.

“We re­ally see some op­por­tu­nity for much greater use of the grounds,” Mathews said.

Shields said Ki­ley’s grove has got­ten lit­tle use in the last decade or so. It was de­signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with ar­chi­tect Harry Weese, who de­signed cen­ter’s 1969 build­ing.

“The gen­eral term around here … is the black for­est and not in a real com­pli­men­tary way,” said Shields, re­fer­ring to what cen­ter staff call the grove to­day. “It’s re­ally dark shade un­der there.”

The out­door trans­for­ma­tion will also make the area more en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive, Mathews said. They plan to im­prove stormwa­ter man­age­ment, for in­stance, he added.

Other changes to the Mar­cus Cen­ter in­clude dot­ting the cam­pus with il­lu­mi­nated kiosks, back-of-house up­grades, im­proved re­strooms and en­clos­ing Fitch Gar­den, an un­cov­ered ter­race that isn’t used in colder months, in glass. The new Fitch Gar­den will be a year-round event space with spec­tac­u­lar sky­line views, Shields says.

The Mar­cus Cen­ter is home to sev­eral res­i­dent arts groups, in­clud­ing the Mil­wau­kee Bal­let, the Floren­tine Opera Com­pany and First Stage. It is fac­ing some added fi­nan­cial pres­sure as it pre­pares to lose one of its ma­jor ten­ants, the Mil­wau­kee Sym­phony Orches­tra, which ac­quired its own venue, the Warner Grand The­atre, last year.

The sym­phony’s de­par­ture cuts about $800,000 from the Mar­cus Cen­ter’s an­nual earned rev­enue, which rep­re­sents a lit­tle less than 10% of its over­all bud­get, Mathews said.

Look­ing to­ward the fu­ture, Mathews hopes the Mar­cus Cen­ter will be at the heart of a multi­block arts sec­tor that in­cludes the newly re­branded, art-fo­cused Saint Kate Ho­tel, slated to open in the cur­rent In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel mid-2019, and a hoped-for re­de­vel­op­ment of an ad­ja­cent park­ing struc­ture, Mathews said.

Mary Louise Schu­macher is the Jour­nal Sen­tinel’s art and ar­chi­tec­ture critic. Keep up with the cul­ture by sub­scrib­ing to her weekly news­let­ter, Art City.


A ren­der­ing of the reimag­ined pub­lic spa­cesaround the Mar­cus Cen­terfor the Per­form­ing Arts.

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