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Milwaukee City Hall in line for makeover

A Milwaukee committee wants to increase the appeal of City Hall as a destination for residents and visitors.

The Milwaukee City Hall Historical Exhibit Work Group has proposed building a museum in the basement of the building, turning an abandoned first-floor phone booth into a display cabinet and making improvements to a park between City Hall and the 809 Building.

The Common Council is scheduled to consider the group’s suggestions Tuesday, as well as whether to let the work group raise $100,000 for the project. No tax money would be spent on the improvements.

“This is very important and long overdue,” Alderman Willie Wade said. “From time to time, we have young people from all over come to visit City Hall, and it would be nice if we had a place we could start them off and show them the history of (the building).”

Milwaukee in 2008 completed a $75 million restoration of City Hall, but Alderman Jim Bohl said the city had failed to give its government headquarters the showcase it deserves. Unlike the state Capitol, for instance, Milwaukee does not offer regular tours of City Hall, and its most recognized rooms — such as the council chambers — remain locked except during meetings.

“We get groups from time to time, but I’ve been to other city halls in other cities that have historic museums,” Bohl said. “And the fact that this city doesn’t have that for people who come in is a shame. We have wonderful artifacts and there is something magnificent about this building.”

The City Hall work group wants to build a museum, which would include a theater, in the lower-level space once occupied by the Legislative Reference Bureau. The basement mostly has been vacant for years, said Paul Jakubovich, a preservation planner for the city and a member of the City Hall committee.

“Some of the large terra cotta pieces that have been removed from City Hall, which are really quite grand and very interesting to see up close, the floor load there can handle these very weighty pieces,” he said, “and it’s one of the few places in City Hall where that can actually be done.”

The theater, Jakubovich said, would be used to show a video on the history of City Hall. City staff members could create the film, he said, as an example of one of many low-cost amenities Milwaukee could provide.

Bohl said he did not know how long it would take to raise $100,000, but added several groups and individuals had offered verbal support.

“I think this is an idea that is ready to go,” he said.

Milwaukee City Hall, which was dedicated in 1895, was the tallest habitable building in the United States until a New York City building went up in 1899. It remained Milwaukee’s tallest building until 1973, when the U.S. Bank Center was constructed.

Despite City Hall’s history and its 2005 designation as a National Historic Landmark, Bohl said, Milwaukee has done little to make the building an attraction.

“Our ability to tell that story in a way that provides additional knowledge,” he said, “and to do so without costing the taxpayers any money, to me is a win-win.”

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