Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corporation
Through the creative efforts of developers, architects, contractors, and consultants, and cooperation with city staff, the historic Warner Grand Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been rehabilitated into a new performance and administrative home for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. To help generate the equity needed to convert the theater into the Bradley Symphony Center, MHA Chicago consulted on federal and state historic tax credits for the nearly $100 million project’s rehabilitation work. The complex adaptation of the historic theater simply would not have been possible without historic tax credits and the guidance of the National Park Service and the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office.
The Warner Grand Theatre, with its 2,431-seat theater and its 13-story office block, was designed by the noted Chicago-based theater architects Rapp & Rapp for Warner Bros. Theaters, the exhibition division of the Warner Bros. film studio. The theater opened to the public in May 1931 and operated as one of Milwaukee’s largest movie theaters for over six decades.
While the building’s exterior facades changed little since the building’s 1931 opening, the original fan-shape Wisconsin Avenue marquee was removed in the early 1940s and replaced with a smaller marquee. Additionally, the original “Warner” blade sign was removed in 1966.
The building’s interior saw major changes starting in the 1970s. In 1973, the theater was renamed the Centre Cinemas and the auditorium’s first and second floors were horizontally divided into two separate movie theaters. In 1995, the theater and offices were closed.
The Warner Grand Theatre remained vacant for more than two decades until 2021 when it reopened as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new Bradley Symphony Center.
As a part of the theater’s rehabilitation, the non-historic subdivisions in the auditorium were removed, returning the space to its original 1931 volume. To accommodate a stage large enough for a symphony orchestra, project partners designed and coordinated a move of the auditorium’s 650-ton east wall 35 feet east out into adjacent Second Street. For the building to maintain its historic integrity, an aspect critical to the historic tax credit application process, the wall had to be moved, rather than demolished and rebuilt. The retention of the wall undoubtedly helped the project ultimately qualify for nearly $20 million in historic tax credits.
Inside, ornate details, including original 1931 murals, fixtures, and wall and ceiling finishes, were sensitively repaired and restored in the historic, Art Deco style auditorium and lobby. On the exterior of the building, historic masonry was restored, and the original 1931 marquee and blade signs were replicated.
To accommodate the needs of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s administrative and operations staff, the building’s 12-story tower was rehabilitated to house new staff offices, amenities, and practice rooms. Two new additions were also added to the historic theater to house modern event spaces, elevators, restrooms, and other MEP and accessibility requirements that could not be accommodated in the historic theater building.
- AIA Wisconsin | 2021 Honor Award
- Wisconsin Historical Society | 2021 Board of Curators Historic Restoration Award – Historic Restoration Award
- City of Milwaukee | 2021 Mayor's Design Award
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