BuildMO

Milwaukee’s Kahler Slater adds another glass tower to the city’s changing skyline

Architecture Midwest News
The new BMO Harris Financial Center 
will take the place of an unsightly parking garage across the street from Milwaukee’s Historic City Hall. (Courtesy Kahler Slater)
The new BMO Harris Financial Center will take the place of an unsightly parking garage across the street from Milwaukee’s Historic City Hall. (Courtesy Kahler Slater)

Downtown Milwaukee is going through what could only be called a renaissance. Along with the proposed revitalization of the multi-block Grand Avenue Mall, a slew of towers from the shore of Lake Michigan to the west end of the downtown are changing the skyline of Milwaukee. It has been decades since Milwaukee has seen such a building boom. With construction starting later this year, the 25-story BMO Harris Financial Center will be one of the next to join what will be a transformed downtown.

Designed by Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater, the new tower will sit immediately next to the current BMO Harris Building, home to the Chicago-based bank’s main Milwaukee office. Once complete, the bank will move to the new office tower and open a new branch in the building. The Irgens development firm, which is overseeing the new tower, will also lead the redevelopment of the older building. The current BMO Harris Building, a 20-story modernist block, was built in 1967.

Currently, BMO Harris’s own five-story parking structure sits on the site. Just across from the site is the Flemish Renaissance revival–style City Hall, a National Historic Landmark and one of the most iconic structures in the city. This site is also in the heart of the city’s historic financial district. While much of the latest development has shifted to the south and east, closer to the lake, the area has continued to see more and more traffic, as theater and entertainment spaces have come to the area.

(Courtesy Kahler Slater)

(Courtesy Kahler Slater)

“The project is on one of the most desirable parcels in town, just kitty corner from the City Hall,” said Glenn Roby, vice president at Kahler Slater and the principal in charge of the project, said. “What an opportunity to replace such an unfortunate use of the corner as a parking deck. So, we were really excited from the start.”

The new tower’s massing will make reference to its modernist neighbor, while also implying slenderness through its split form. The base of the tower will be a 10-story podium of parking and public-facing amenities. Retail and the bank’s retail branch will make up the ground level. The facade will also add to its vertical reading by stretching down over the podium and up past the roofline.      

This is not the first project that Kahler Slater and Irgens have completed together in recent history. Notably, the two worked on the newly completed 833 East tower, which sits on the lake side of the downtown. “The relationship with Irgens is fantastic. It has really evolved over the years,” explained Roby. “They do this often. They are very sophisticated. They know what they want. We understand what they value, and that helps shape what we deliver.”

Besides the few surviving late 19th-century structures, Milwaukee’s downtown is a milieu of parking structures and second-string postmodern towers. When the BMO Harris Financial Center is complete in 2019, glassy towers—a typology that is only now making its way to the city—will dominate the skyline. Add in the new bikeshare program and forthcoming streetcar, and Milwaukee’s downtown will be unrecognizable.

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