Architect’s passing ends an era of Milwaukee depots

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Milwaukee Road's 1886 station in its hometown was a great pile of iron and brick that served for nearly 80 years. It formed a distinctive backdrop for countless photos, like this 1947 view of a streamlined Hudson on a westbound train. James G. LaVake
An obituary last week in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel caught my eye: “Architect Who Designed the Milwaukee Domes Has Died.”

The name of Donald Grieb won’t mean much to most readers of Mileposts, but his passing a few weeks ago at the age of 99 is noteworthy for his connection to Milwaukee’s longtime train station. A station that, thanks to the strong performance of Amtrak’s Hiawatha corridor service, remains one of the most vital in the Midwest.

To Milwaukeeans, Grieb is better known for his work on a number of other prominent civic buildings. His crowning achievement is probably the place mentioned in the headline, the Mitchell Park Domes, a popular tourist destination that features three distinct natural environments inside giant glass conoidal domes, fronted by an entrance topped off by what looks like a giant oscilloscope sine wave. The futuristic conservatory opened in 1967 after a nearly 10-year construction period.

There were other Grieb monuments around town, many of them torn down: a large annex to the county courthouse, a number of local school and commercial buildings, and a tall, incredibly kitschy clock tower in the city’s MacArthur Square, just a block from Kalmbach’s old headquarters at 1027 N. Seventh Street. Grieb’s trademark was the use of futuristic curves and arches, accents that would become dated and derided in the years to come. 

A futuristic design by local architect Donald Grieb, who died recently at age 99, replaced the classic old Milwaukee Road depot in 1966. Classic Trains coll.
This city has always had a soft spot for kitsch, exemplified by the statue of “the Fonz,” actor Henry Winkler from Happy Days, placed a few years ago along the Milwaukee River. The word also applies to Grieb’s train station, built by the Milwaukee Road and opened in 1966 as a sort of “union station” that included tenant Chicago & North Western.

Many of you probably saw the Milwaukee station before its extensive remodeling in 2007. The “before” station was, in my mind, a clunky box accented by rows of arches just below the roofline, accented by another one of Grieb’s distinctive towers. When it opened, Trains Editor David P. Morgan celebrated the fact that a new train station had been built, but called it “essentially an office building with a waiting room on the first floor.”

The station as remodeled, now called the Milwaukee Intermodal Station because of its intercity bus component, is still a box. But in its dramatically reimagined form it’s also a light, airy space set off by a jumble of angled steel beams and acres of glass.

Milwaukee preservationists still mourn the loss of the Chicago & North Western's lakefront depot, demolished to make way for a freeway, just as the Milwaukee Road station had been. Classic Trains coll.
The journey to Grieb’s original station on St. Paul Avenue is a story as typical as it is sad. Like so many large cities, the collapse of traditional passenger service in the 1960s doomed the city’s traditional stations, especially when both ended up standing squarely in the way of freeway development. Milwaukee’s nascent preservation movement was powerless to stop progress.

The North Western’s station was the more distinguished of the two. Opened in 1890 and designed in the Romanesque style, the station and its graceful train shed stood at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, right at the edge of Lake Michigan, a stirring monument to the C&NW’s standing as a powerful Midwest institution.

Nearly the same could be said about the Milwaukee’s castle-like building to the west, on Everett Street, not far from the current station. Opened in 1886, the building was a hybrid (some might say a dog’s breakfast) of Romanesque, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne styles. The main line entered both ends of the train shed on dramatic curves.

Both stations were great backdrops for pictures, as borne out by the number of big-name photographers who made regular visits and saw their work published in Trains. Among them were Al Kalmbach, Wally Abbey, Jim Scribbins, Bill Middleton, James G. LaVake, and Henry J. McCord.

A classic view of the Milwaukee station is the one shown at the top, by LaVake, depicting a streamlined F7 4-6-4 on an unidentified train, photographed from the observation car of the Afternoon Hiawatha in September 1947. Impatient drivers on Clybourn Avenue can barely wait for the crossing gate to rise.

All that came to an end when Grieb’s new gleaming white station opened for business. The move to St. Paul Avenue enabled the C&NW to get off the Milwaukee lakefront and abandon most of its passenger line through the city’s east side. That line is now — what else? — a popular bike trail.

Although most of Milwaukee architect Donald Grieb's buildings have been razed or significantly altered, including his Milwaukee Road station, his crowning work remains: the three-domed conservatory in the city's Mitchell Park. Robert S. McGonigal
Meanwhile, the razing of the Milwaukee Road station made possible the Interstate 794 freeway that leads to the lakefront. The site of the depot is now a large, bunker-like office annex for WE Energies, the state’s largest utility.

Ironically, Grieb’s original replacement station lasted nearly two-thirds as long as the two predecessor buildings. When the architect’s façade was removed a few years ago, the building was already more than 40 years old, and although it was grubby and faded, I suppose you could say it had done its job, faithfully serving passengers in the Amtrak era.

To be fair to Grieb, he was successful in his time, an influential architect who definitely left his mark on his hometown. In a 2016 article, the Journal-Sentinel quoted Minneapolis architect Vincent James as saying, “Donald Grieb was a self-styled visionary, as idealistic as he was idiosyncratic. I am confident the Jetsons would have loved some of his buildings.”

Sure enough, when the Milwaukee station opened back in 1966, the Jetsons cartoon series was a fixture on Saturday morning TV. Grieb’s Milwaukee Road station would have made the perfect headquarters for Spacely Sprockets.

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