The following narrative is a brief history of the Iron Block Building as told by Dental Associates’ Architect, Mark Demsky, AIA. This is a copy our submission that won the Iron Block Building Milwaukee’s Cream of the Cream City Award in 2014.
Milwaukee’s Iron Block Building was purchased by Dental Associates at the beginning of 2012, with the intention of performing a full exterior and interior renovation. The only standing building with a cast iron façade in the state of Wisconsin, the advanced state of disrepair required the resurrection of construction techniques from the 19th century coupled with modern technology to save its rare facades.
The Iron Block (originally Excelsior Block) was constructed in 1860-61 using cast iron from Daniel Badger’s Architectural Iron Works of New York City, which was shipped by schooner from Manhattan to its site near the Milwaukee River. Envisioned by owner James Martin as a gleaming office and bank building on the site of former wooden shacks, the building was designed by Badger’s architect George Johnson in an Italian Neo-Renaissance style. At first decried as “a composite of different styles jumbled inharmoniously together”, the building ultimately won the affection of residents with its graceful arched windows and interesting details- most notably garlands of grapevines emanating from the mouths of lions’ heads on both main facades. The fourth floor housed the Excelsior Masonic Lodge (hence the original name of the building) until around 1880, when it moved to another location. At this time it is believed that offices were constructed on the top floor.
In 1898, fire destroyed the neighboring building to the south and did extensive damage to the Iron Block. The following year, an addition was built to the south on the site of the destroyed building, and much of the roof and cornice of the original building was reconfigured. The addition was designed in Cream City brick by local architectural firm Crane & Barkhausen, who had done other work for the Martin family. In later years, Carl Barkhausen would himself move his practice into an office in the Iron Block. Subsequent renovation projects eliminated the grand entry stairs and moved the building entries to ground level, and reconfigured the storefronts along Wisconsin Avenue and Water Street.
Over the next eighty years, the building was in a state of steady decline. Most of the detail on the facades fell victim to decay, and perhaps by scrap iron drives during the wars. In the late 1970s, the Iron Block was a rusting hulk on the busiest corner of downtown Milwaukee, a shadow of its former self. The building thankfully underwent a major renovation in 1983, which saved it from the inevitable threat of demolition.
The building was again ready for attention in 2012, as the materials used in the 1983 renovation did not stand the test of time. Corrosion had attacked most of the surfaces of each façade, and it was common to see detached ornament lying on the sidewalk. A full, historically accurate renovation was planned.
In order to bring the facades back to their original magnificence, patterns and molds had to be created from photographs and pieces of the original building. Over 4,200 new pieces were cast in Wisconsin foundries to replace the missing acanthus leaves, lions’ heads, columns and capitals, and even the garlands of grapevines. These pieces ranged in weight from a few ounces to over 1,200 pounds for the columns needed to restore the original entrance on Water Street. The entire iron façade was sandblasted down to raw steel, and a three-part epoxy paint system was used to chemically bond with the ferrous surfaces. New cornice and pediments were molded from FRP (fiberglass reinforced polyester) and restored the proportions and grandeur of the original design. The addition, mistakenly painted for the better part of a century, was stripped down to the original Cream City brick.
The exterior renovation was unveiled in June 2013 to an enthusiastic, supportive city that appreciates its architecture. In the summer of 2014, Dental Associates will open the doors of the Iron Block to show off the extensive renovation of the interior spaces; capturing yet again a bit of the magic of historic Milwaukee.
Learn more about the Iron Block Building…
Iron Block Building Officially Unveiled in Downtown Milwaukee
Dental Associates Downtown Milwaukee Dentists