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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

The Mystery Behind Walker's Point Giant Metal Boiler

Kendall Breunig standing alongside his giant metal boiler.
Susan Bence
Kendall Breunig standing alongside his giant metal boiler, which is located on South 2nd Street between the river and West Seeboth Street in Miwaukee.

This week’s Bubbler Talk takes us to a nondescript parking lot in Milwaukee’s Walker's Point neighborhood. The lot is across the street from an 1890’s-era agricultural implement building.

Kathy Kercheck’s question brings us here.

What is the rusted metal object sitting across Lindsay Bros. building on South 2nd Street?

The object is big — about the size of one of those storage PODS you see outside some people’s houses when they’re moving. Curved pipes line the face of the 10-foot-tall steel artifact.

Kathy Kercheck standing beside the metal boiler that prompted her Bubbler Talk question.
Susan Bence
Kathy Kercheck standing beside the metal boiler that prompted her Bubbler Talk question.

“On a beautiful sunny day, the light hits the metal beautifully and it’s got deep rivets,” Kercheck says.

She had already done some sleuthing. Her sister helped jog Kathy’s memory about a connection to the nearby Pritzlaff building.

“The owner of the building, my sister reminded me, he had secured it somehow [and] was planning to do something with it,” said Kercheck.

That’s where Kendall Breunig comes in. He owns the Pritzlaff building and the 10,000-pound mystery object.

Turns out, it’s part of a century-old boiler.

Continuum Architects
The boiler in the Nunn Busch Shoe Factory.

“This was inside of a big jacket that was insulated with good-old Asbestos,” Breunig explains. “So this was the inside heat exchanger from inside the boiler.”

Breunig found it after the asbestos jacket had been tended to in another building he bought a few miles north of here.

“The Nunn Busch Shoe Factory, which is at about 5th and Keefe. I actually donated it to MLK Redevelopment. I told them that I wanted to keep a couple of things and they laughed when I said I wanted the boiler,” he says.

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Breunig just plain loves every inch of this artifact, which once included tanks at the top and bottom.

“There would have been water at the bottom of the tanks, and you’d shovel coal underneath and the tank would heat the water and steam would go to the top, collect in that tank and then be piped to the building and then the cold water would return back to the bottom tank and get reheated,” he explains.

Bruenig marvels at its craftsmanship: “It’s all 3/8 inch tube steel. There are 200, almost 300 tubes and they’re all symmetrical. There would have been some guy inside hammering those things into place — he probably swung a hammer in there for months on end."

The boiler has been puzzling passersby, even attracting couples to take wedding pictures, since 2017. That’s when a friend offered this parking space as its temporary landing pad.

A look into the interior of the boiler.
Lawrence Rosen
A look into the interior of the boiler.

While it’s taken longer than he had hoped to do something with the boiler, Breunig says he’s known its destiny since he laid eyes on it.

He plans to artfully place, or rather weld, additional steel to transform the boiler into a sculpture. Picture four to five piled-up cars, Breunig says that approximates the scale of his finished product.

”The idea is to make the additional pieces look as close to this as we can and there will be a little bit of paint on a couple of specific parts to make it,” he explains. Breunig pauses mid-sentence because what remains is a secret.

Breunig thought about placing the sculpture on the top of the Pritzlaff parking structure, but instead settled on a small patch of grass just across the street on St. Paul Avenue — a concrete pad and steel frame stand ready.

This base will one day hold the completed sculpture that Breunig has planned for the boiler.
Susan Bence
This base will one day hold the completed sculpture that Breunig has planned for the boiler.

“I think where he’s going to go is a better spot. People will have a better view of it,” he says.

Did you pick up the clue? Breunig called the sculpture “he.”

The mysterious first-time sculptor hopes to stage the big reveal later this year. “When it’s still warm enough out so we can have a gathering for it,” he says.

Listener Kathy Kercheck says she’s more intrigued than ever. As for what's her guess on its sculptural identity: “I don’t know, I’m going to take a stab and say a large wild animal."

Kathy hopes to see for herself at the big reveal, which, by the way, will take a crane to hoist and gently settle the sculpture in place.

An update:

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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