The history of MSOE's Grohmann Museum & the bronze statues that turn
In downtown Milwaukee on the northeast corner of Broadway and State Street, massive bronze statues of workers line the top of the building that houses the Grohmann Museum on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Kelly Dugan has been driving downtown for years and would always pass by the building. She noticed at different times of the season that the statues would at times face inward and sometimes would look out towards the street.
This lead Dugan to submit her Bubbler Talk question:
"What is the history behind the MSOE Grohmann Museum? The statues at various times throughout the year appear to shift positions."
Before we learn about the statues, let’s learn about the museum itself starting with the man it’s named after: Dr. Eckhart Grohmann.
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"Doctor Grohmann is a Regent at Milwaukee School of Engineering and has been for decades now," explains Grohmann Museum director James Kieselburg. "Formerly he was an industrialist in Milwaukee [and] ran an aluminum foundry on Milwaukee’s south side. He bought the foundry in 1965 and in 1968, as he tells the story, he found the wherewithal to start collecting art. [His first painting] was a small 17th Century [Dutch] blacksmith’s forge and he says at the time he was bitten by the collecting bug."
Grohmann would build a collection that became the foundation of the museum. By the turn of the 21st Century, Grohmann had collected over 450 pieces of art with no real home for them.
"He resolved to give the collection to the university and to also then subsequently provide the funding for the purchase of this building and the renovation to open the museum in October 2007," says Kieselburg.
The theme of Grohmann’s collection and the overall museum is all dedicated to work, and today its collection has more than 1,700 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from 1580 to the present.
"Being that he was an industrialist himself, he started collecting these things, mainly starting with the blacksmiths and with hot metal. He moved into forge shops, foundries and the like. Even into areas of construction, agriculture, everything tied together with the theme of work, with labor, industry and human achievement," explains Kieselburg.
This theme remains central to the Grohmann Museum and is present as soon as you walk into the main entrance atrium — both in a mural above you and a mosaic at your feet.
However, before it became the Grohmann Museum, the red brick building had a couple of different lives. Built in 1924, it was first an auto dealership, then in the 80s it was a check processing facility for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The facility closed down around 2000 and the building sat vacant for a few years until Dr. Grohmann made a bid to purchase the building in 2005.
Scott Ramlow is the current president of Ramlow/Stein Architecture + Interiors and was the lead architect for the Grohmann Museum project when renovation began in 2006. The firm was then known as Uihlein-Wilson Architects.
Ramlow says the main challenge of the renovation was to open up the building to become an inviting environment after it was modified to be an inconspicuous checking facility.
"It was very introverted. It didn't want to be noticed, it didn't want to invite the public, and it didn't want invite light in and there was no identifiable entrance," he notes.
To make an entrance, they cut out the front corner of the building to make room for the atrium and the 32-foot diameter glass cylinder, and fully opened the circulation in the building to the street to welcome light and show building activity on all of its levels.
While it was a massive project, Ramlow says that the structural composition of the building was a "big benefit."
"Because the building was built as an auto dealership originally, it has a very stout concrete structure that had a really high live load, and so it was easy for us to manage the load of the changing displays, and we worked out a system of movable panels that are hung from the ceiling or the floor structure above on each floor," Ramlow says.
"It's also all cast in place concrete... and that nature helped us with cutting in the atrium into the corner of the building because you're able to replicate the concrete structure in a way that made that change look much more natural and original in the end," he explains.
Ramlow notes that most of the design elements you see in the museum is all thanks to Dr. Grohmann’s vision, who the firm worked closely with.
"Eckhart would challenge us to do things that either hadn't been done before, or we hadn’t done before. An example would be the statues on the perimeter of the roof," he says.
There are 12 nine-foot-tall bronze statues that line the perimeter of the roof, and six life-size figures in the rooftop sculpture garden. They’re all inspired by original pieces from the museum’s permanent collection according to museum director James Kieslberg. Continuing the theme of work, the statues lining the perimeter include: "Iron Miner from the Siegerland," "Master Forger," "Foundry Worker With Ladle," "The Stoker," "Steel Worker," "Glass Blower," "The Old Miner," "Tanner," "Railroad Worker," "Glass Blower," "Female Mine Worker," "Field Worker," and an additional "Master Forger."
The statues do indeed move, but it’s about more than just display.
"We did not want the roof lined with green figures and so they maintained their bronze surface by regular maintenance [and] the turning of them was originally designed to provide for that maintenance," explains Kieselburg.
Ramlow designed the statue mounts that are a two-piece turntable system with a base plate that was cast into the top of the concrete bases on the roof. A top plate has 36 one-inch ball bearings that rotate, and each statue is held in position by three three-quarter-inch bolts. To move the statues, the bolts are removed so that the statues can be manually turned, and once in their new position, are secured down with the same bolts.
Once the museum opened, Kieselburg recalls that they soon realized rooftop maintenance can be difficult in the winter months. So, while the weather is cold and the rooftop is not in use, the statues face out front for people in the street to see.
"Then in the spring, what we do is when the weather is agreeable ... we turn them into the garden," he explains. "And that's the queue to those passersby and those folks in our patronage that the museum rooftop is open again for the season… much like the first Robin in spring."
Next time you’re walking by the Grohmann Museum, take a moment to look up. If the statues are facing inward, head on up to the rooftop for a great view among the bronze sculptures.