History of Milwaukee Government & City Hall

The Early Years

The City of Milwaukee arose from a collection of scattered settlements on a site familiar to the Native American tribes in what is now eastern Wisconsin.

Local historians attribute the name to a word derived from the Potawatomi Tribe. The Potawatomis pronounced it Mahn-ah-wauk, meaning council grounds.

The first written mention of a word closely resembling Milwaukee was recorded in 1761. A British officer stationed in Green Bay, Lt. James Gorrell, transcribed the name of the area as Milwacky. A traveling companion of the French explorer LaSalle, Father Zenobe Membre, wrote in 1697 of a river called Mellioke.

The first immigrants to Milwaukee were French and French Canadian traders and trappers. During the 1830s, settlement occurred rapidly, and in earnest. Families established themselves here, bringing the population to several hundred by 1837.

That year, under a mandate from the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature to incorporate, Milwaukee and other settlements in the state became villages.

A City Charter was adopted in 1846, and Solomon Juneau was elected the first mayor. Juneau was a French Canadian trader who had settled his family in Milwaukee. The original aldermen numbered 15, from 5 districts, and received no salary.

The first Common Council met in a Methodist church at the corner of what is now Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues. After two years there, it moved to the second floor of a livery stable. Fire leveled the stable in 1850. The Council then met successively in a hotel, a produce market, two commercial buildings and the old courthouse.

Another fire ravaged city quarters. So, until 1889, City offices were scattered around town in rented rooms. Then, on January 22, 1889, the Common Council authorized the sale of $1.25 million in bonds to finance the land acquisition and construction of a permanent city hall on Market Street, the site of the present building.

In 1891, Council members held a design contest, which drew 11 applicants from around the country. After considerable controversy over cost and aesthetics, the plans of architect Henry C. Koch and Company were selected, and the contracting firm of Paul Riesen was chosen.

The cornerstone was laid on February 24, 1894, but dedication ceremonies were not held until nearly two years later, on December 23, 1895. The cost of the building itself totaled $945,311. An additional $71,624 was spent on fixtures and furniture.

City Hall

The building is designed in Flemish Renaissance style. The basement and first two floors are constructed of granite. The remaining six floors consist of pressed brick and terra cotta. Approximately eight million bricks went into the building's construction. Of those, almost half were used in the bell tower alone.

City Hall contains 107,270 square feet of office space. An open well, 20 by 70 feet, occupies the center. The balcony of the bell tower rises 320 feet above the sidewalk; the flagpole atop the tower stands 393 feet above the street level.

The tower bell is named Solomon Juneau, in honor of the City's founder. It was cast from spare fire bells produced for the City by the local firm of G. Campbell and Sons. Solomon Juneau first chimed on New Year's Eve, 1896.

The clock in the bell tower contains numerals of opaque glass that measure two and a half feet high and eight inches wide. The face of the clock is 18 feet in diameter. It was designed and installed by the Johnson Electric Company in 1896. At its completion, the clock was believed to be the third largest in the world.

The flagpole astride the bell tower stands 40 feet high, and measures one foot across the base. It is topped by a copper ball three feet wide.

City Hall Continues Its Restoration

The City Hall fire of 1929 partially destroyed the bell tower. At the time, the City did not own fire equipment which could reach the tower from the adjoining roof. The damage was repaired from the architect's original blueprints.

Before World War I, auditorium facilities on the fifth and seventh floors were converted into office space. The third floor Council Chamber was remodeled in 1931. A wrought iron balcony was removed, and a stencil design for the ceiling created. The design decorates the anteroom and adjoining chambers. The stencil is the work of a former alderman, Carl Minkley.

Interior Renovation

Between 1973 and 1974, a thorough exterior renovation was completed at a cost of $1.8 million. The repairs included replacement of the roof, gutters and downspouts, flashings and deteriorated masonry and structural steel. The exterior surface was cleaned and sealed. The wood and copper in the north tower also were renovated.

Interior restoration was begun in 1974. Some of the wire meshing of the central well was removed. The remaining wire mesh was removed in 1988. Walls, ceilings, balconies and decorative grillwork were restored. While interior and exterior maintenance continues, the integrity of the building itself is always preserved.

The 1976 renovation of the Council anteroom coincided with the nation's Bicentennial celebration. The repairs were designed an official Bicentennial observance by the Milwaukee American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, which assisted in the planning. The renovation was a joint venture of the Mayor's Beautification Committee, the Office of the City Clerk, and the departments of Public Works and City Development. The Henry Uihlein mansion contributed most of the furniture, plus all the wainscoting and chandeliers. Gretchen Colnick donated the wrought iron plant stand, candelabra and brass candlesticks. She is the daughter of noted Milwaukee metal artisan, Cyril Colnick, whose work was popular in the early 1900s.

Two magnificent stained glass windows, created as a WPA project in the 1930s, were restored and installed in the Council Chamber in 1978. One window incorporates an image of City Hall and the City Seal, while the other portrays the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin. These windows were acquired through the cooperation of the boards of trustees of the Milwaukee Public Library and the Milwaukee Museum.

As City Hall neared its 100th birthday in 1995, the Common Council decided that the meeting room complex on the 3rd floor needed a complete overhaul, to enhance its utility and make modern technology more accessible. The renovation is a skillful blend of 21st Century technology and 19th Century architecture, giving the complex the look and feel of City Hall at the turn of the century. The space includes two large hearing rooms for Common Council committees, a conference room for use by various city departments, spacious waiting areas and increased city office space outfitted with state of the art telecasting and recording equipment for City Channel 25.

Current Renovations

In 2005, City Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark. Shortly thereafter, an extensive 3-year restoration of the exterior of the building began. External renovations included upgrading 1,900 windows, repairing sandstone, replacing hundreds of thousands of deteriorating bricks and replacing the copper roofing on the building's two spires. The biggest challenge was repairing the bricks, as the original bricks were shaped and constructed differently than those used today. Also, near identical replications of terra cotta sculptures on the building were created to replace those that have deteriorated. All restorations were completed in December of 2008 and a Restoration Celebration showcased the historic building with a series of events open to the public.

View a list of Common Council members dating back to 1846

Click on photo below to open full size photo w/caption.



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