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'White Elephant' Resuscitated

A block-square retail complex in Milwaukee becomes an office/hotel/retail development

October 01, 2002 |

For as long as most Milwaukee area residents can recall, a complex of buildings on the south side of Wisconsin Avenue at the Milwaukee River was known as "the white elephant" because of the white paint that covered its upper floor windows. The slumbering giant has now been transformed into a 435,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use development that incorporates 260,000 sq. ft. of office space, retail space and a 131-room hotel. The $51.7 million adaptive-reuse project is a Merit Award winner in Building Design and Construction's 19th annual Reconstruction Awards competition.

Originally the home of Gimbel's department store, the property was taken over in 1986 by retailer Marshall Fields. The Fields store closed in 1997.

Milwaukee developers Bill Orenstein of Williams Development Co. and Mark Irgens of Irgens Development Partners saw possibilities for the abandoned buildings — and even perpetuated the "white elephant" theme by naming their partnership Ivory Tusk LLC. Other primary building team members were design architect Kahler Slater Architects (KSA) and general contractor J.H. Findorff & Son, both based in Milwaukee.

Tenants help seal the deal

After Marshall Fields had indicated it might close the department store, Orenstein considered purchasing the property and hired KSA to develop options for its conversion to apartments or residential condominiums. The firm included schemes under which the Fields store would consolidate on the lower two floors, and apartments or condos would go above. However, the property's long east-west dimension made this concept impractical because the resulting apartment or condo units would have been long and skinny.

The project became feasible when a quality control organization and a hotel signed on, taking more than half the complex's space. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) occupies its southern section under condominium ownership. A Marriott Residence Inn hotel was incorporated at the midpoint of the complex. Ivory Tusk LLC purchased the property for $3 million in late 1998.

ASQ, which has more than 109,000 individual and 1,100 corporate sustaining members worldwide, offers reference, referral and research on quality-related topics. It also administers the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award that is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


Fifty-ft.-tall Ionic columns modeled after Selfridge’s Department Store in London highlight the riverfront side of ASQ Center.

The mercantile buildings were constructed in five phases between the 1880s and 1925. A wood-framed structure, the complex's earliest building, was razed in order to accommodate the new hotel. Its removal provided a courtyard entrance for ASQ Center's hotel and office components. "The remaining building gave us a width we could work with for double-loaded corridors for the office and hotel," says George Meyer, principal with KSA. A lobby that serves both the office portion and leads to the hotel is contemporary in design, with floors of white marble and black granite, and walls of white opaque glass.

KSA occupies 35,000 sq. ft., primarily on the third floor. Coincidentally, ASQ and KSA were both previous tenants in the same building, and are once again under the same roof.

Patience required

Because the project stretched out for seven years from conception to execution, patience was a necessary attribute for members of the ASQ Center building team. But once construction began, it was on a very tight time line, according to John Rodell, vice president with J.H. Findorff & Son. The exterior work included replacement of 490 pieces of damaged terra cotta, requiring 200 individual molds. Nearly 1,400 exterior windows were replaced.

Contractors ran into several undocumented changes to the structure that affected the building's structural integrity. For example, when escalators that had been installed in the 1930s were removed, portions of the floor structure needed to be reinforced. "Once you opened up a space and got through demolition, you found more than what you thought would be one or two layers of buildout construction," Rodell adds.

Underground parking was created by installing an access ramp to the store's former "bargain basement." The columns at this level were optimally spaced for accommodating both vehicles and merchandising operations, he says.

Execution of the project was complicated by the involvement of separate owners. "Every time there was a change in plans, we had to get five partners to agree," Orenstein recalls.

The project represents the largest historic rehabilitation to date in Wisconsin, for which it received an $8.25 million historic tax credit. It also obtained a loan of nearly $50 million from a bank, which was the largest real estate loan that bank had made on a single project. Ivory Tusk LLC raised $10 million in equity. The city of Milwaukee provided a $6.5 million second mortgage loan and a $3 million grant for public improvements.

Because the complex was a certified historic structure, the National Park Service required that it recognize the continuous street façade, of which the razed section was a part. This was accomplished with a two-story-high screen wall that encloses the hotel courtyard. The hotel notes on its Web site that it is located on the site of the first department store in the Midwest, founded in 1842.

Location, location, location

The development's prime downtown location made the adaptive-reuse project a promising proposition for Ivory Tusk. The Milwaukee River is immediately to the east. To the west, a skywalk connects it to The Grand Avenue, a 1982 redevelopment of the historic Plankington Arcade. Wisconsin Avenue, which runs through the heart of downtown, borders ASQ Center on the north.


At the midpoint of the block-square complex, an entrance of contemporary design provides access both for offices and the Marriott.

The actions of two original downtown Milwaukee developers who did not want a uniform street grid to connect their competing developments provide a bonus for occupants of the north end of the ASQ Center. A jog in Wisconsin Avenue gives them an unobstructed view of the mast of the new Milwaukee Art Museum addition several blocks away.

Indicative of ASQ Center's acceptance in Milwaukee is that as of last month only 50,000 sq. ft. of space out of its total of 435,000 sq. ft. remained unleased.

What's the most fulfilling aspect of this rehab project? Meyer suggests it can be experienced as darkness falls and light shines through new windows that are no longer obscured by white paint. This makes the complex "come alive," Meyer exclaims. "It is now lively on the street."

Construction Costs

Retail/office space $23,436,000
ASQ space 10,230,000
Hotel 14,910,000
Remote Parking Structure 3,130,000
TOTAL $51,706,000

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