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01.10.2014
A Higher Level
Northwestern Mutual's Milwaukee headquarters goes vertical.
Pickard Chilton designed a 32-story tower to anchor an insurance giant's lakefront headquarters.
Courtesy Pickard Chilton

Having amassed a slew of buildings in both the suburbs and city center of Milwaukee, insurance giant Northwestern Mutual made a big bet on downtown when it decided to locate its new flagship building along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Renderings show a new 32-story tower at the corner of North Cass and East Mason streets, curving in a structural gesture toward the lake while tying into the company’s historic South Building with glassy skywalks.

Northwestern Mutual said the new building, which replaces the existing East Building, will keep 1,100 jobs in the city and make space for 1,700 more. That promise won the company more than $73 million in city incentives, including tax increment financing (TIF) and infrastructure improvements toward the $400 million construction project. Under the deal, Northwestern Mutual fronts the money for all the work, and the city will repay 70 percent of the increased property taxes on the new building for 25 years, or until Northwestern Mutual recovers $54 million—the amount of its TIF funding.

   
 

New Haven, Connecticut-based Pickard Chilton’s design bends along its eastern edge, opening up the glassy tower to views of Lake Michigan, as well as the park below, and allowing the infiltration of daylight. Jon Pickard said the intent was to stitch together an urban campus, integrating the new tower with its neighbors and the updated “commons” area at its base.

“Up until the new project,” he said, “they had these disparate buildings connected with what some were calling ‘gerbil tubes.’” Skyways crisscrossed the downtown blocks. Most of those will go once the new building comes along, but Pickard Chilton will preserve and update two, including a connection to the neoclassical building that has housed Northwestern Mutual since 1914. That entrance, converted from an exterior courtyard to an interior atrium during the early 1980s, has begun to leak. The new project will preserve the glassy enclosure that bridges the wings of the original building’s U-shaped plan.

The columns of that building speak to Northwestern Mutual’s corporate logo and its publication, Columns, but also to the company’s values, said Pickard. At 155 years old, the company is more interested in longevity than flashiness.

 

 
Landscape architect James Burnett's office worked on the three-acre commons and garden area.
 

“I think the new building, too, reflects their values of stability, beauty, understated elegance,” he said. “We didn’t want to shout too loudly. We wanted sophistication.”

The new tower, however, is nearly column-free. Instead, it opts for an abundance of natural light and open space that its designers hope will encourage interaction. An open, multi-level dining area seats 2,000. “They found that by dining together, their people are talking,” said Pickard. “What’s almost more important than the office space is how you bring employees together.”

The tower is tall and somewhat striking for Milwaukee’s skyline, even among a recent flurry of interest in development along the city’s lakefront. The rising motion of its steel and glass form beckons to Santiago Calatrava’s celebrated Art Museum just two blocks east, said Pickard.

   
 

The building’s airy top floor, which reaches 50 feet high along the southern edge, is dedicated to conference rooms, kitchens, and open space for events. The team took pains to hide mechanical equipment, extending the open feeling conveyed in the lower floors. By turning the standard 5-foot-wide curtain modules on their side and stacking them, the design replaced the aluminum grid that clutters some floor-to-ceiling glass towers with expansive windows.

Landscape architect James Burnett’s office designed the three-acre commons and garden area, which is crisscrossed with pedestrian walkways and gathering spaces. The building’s lower levels will contain public cafes. And while entrance to the tower will be guarded by security, pedestrians are free to pass through a reopened Cass Street connection that will now feature massive windows 50 feet across.

Construction is set to begin next year and could be complete by 2017.

Chris Bentley