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After Four Years Of Renovation, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Ready To Unveil Its New Home

The Warner Grand Theatre opened in 1931 and immediately became Milwaukee’s fanciest movie theater. Its art deco lobby was meant to portray luxury and glamour for every Milwaukeean who stepped inside.

After 64 years, in 1995 the building, then owned by the Marcus Corporation, closed its doors. The theater sat vacant until 2017, when the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) purchased it and began plans to renovate. Now, four years later, the MSO is ready to welcome audiences back into the newly renovated performance space, renamed the Bradley Symphony Center.

Mark Niehaus is the president and executive director of the MSO. He says the process of renovating the building was a meticulous one. The cleaning process, he says, often involved cotton swabs rather than brushes in order to preserve as much of the original paint as possible.

Credit Joy Powers
Facade of the Warner Grand Theatre.

“The vast majority of the work, from what I can tell, was getting nicotine off of the surfaces. Because for decades and decades, people smoked cigarettes and cigars and pipes in the theater and all of that built up on the surfaces,” he explains.

Niehaus says the building has also kept its feeling of escapism. The Warner Grand was designed and built during the Great Depression and was meant to offer people the feeling that they were escaping from their everyday lives into somewhere spectacular.

“They knew what they were doing, this predated Disney World and Walt Disney’s idea of people want to escape to a fantasy and they want to get out of their normal, daily life and the theaters were designed to do that,” he says.

The biggest change made to the building was moving the 2nd Street wall by 35 feet.

Because the MSO received about $19 million in historic tax credits, there were specific constraints the project had to work around. Niehaus says this meant instead of tearing down the wall and rebuilding it in its new location, a construction crew had to remove the wall and then move it.


He says while at first the task seemed overwhelming, after a large amount of planning — the actual move went smoothly. “We had a week set aside for the move and we moved the entire wall in, I think it was six hours,” he says.

Now that the entire project is complete, Niehaus says he can’t wait for the day when he can welcome the Milwaukee community back inside the doors.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.