Marcus Center unveils plans for reimagined space that can host more performances

Posted by Mary Louise Schumacher from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 7, 2018

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts has unveiled plans for a reimagined campus, including a “great lawn” for community events, a new atrium and terrace on the Milwaukee River, a five-story projection wall where performances can be seen live from the street and new seating in its main theater space, Uihlein Hall.

With the performing arts center nearing the half-century mark, the idea is to create a more open, welcoming and flexible campus that can generate more revenue and a wider array of events, said Paul Mathews, president and CEO of the Marcus Center.

“The plan that we’ve put together is our vision for the next 50 years,” Mathews said.

While the overall cost is still being finalized, Milwaukee County has committed $10 million toward the project, which will begin in spring of 2019 and be done over a period of three to five years, Mathews said. The Marcus Center signed a new, 99-year lease with the county last year after a law that would have transferred ownership of the center to the Wisconsin Center District was repealed.

Specifically, the plan calls for a modest, new structure — a rounded, glassy atrium — to be added on the Milwaukee River side of the building. This will provide another entrance to the center and create new event spaces both inside and on a terrace deck above.

The face of the Marcus Center will be transformed by replacing the dark glass that surrounds the lobby today, sometimes called limousine glass, with highly translucent glass. A band of windows will also be installed on the south side of the building, giving the otherwise impenetrable Brutalist structure a bit of translucency. The new second-floor windows will offer the public peeks inside the building and afford views out to the cityscape, including City Hall and the public plaza below.

“You know they didn’t call it Brutalism for nothing,” said architect Jim Shields of HGA Architects, who is working on the project for the Marcus Center. “There’s no porosity, there’s no visibility, no transparency at all in the building now.”

The center’s main theater, Uihlein Hall, will get all new seating. A new configuration with new aisles will provide greater accessibility, especially for people with disabilities. A total of about 110 seats will be lost. Improvements will also be made to the technology and acoustics in Uihlein Hall, Mathews said.

The plan also calls for the dismantling of a grove of chestnut trees, laid out in a grid and set into the ground, designed by internationally recognized landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley. This will make way for a more open and accessible great lawn on the south side of the center. People sitting on the grass, which will be brought up to grade, or seated around its edges will have a clear view to performances in the outdoor Peck Pavilion, where a barrier wall that contains sound equipment and that’s no longer needed will be removed, Mathews said.

This public park-like area along Kilbourn Avenue will also include seating similar to that found in Bryant Park in New York City, including lightweight chairs that the public can move around, and illuminated fountains, water spilling over sheets of glass that people can run their fingers over. The hope is to broadcast parts of performances happening inside onto a five-story-high wall in real time in this outdoor plaza, too.

“We really see some opportunity for much greater use of the grounds,” Mathews said.

Shields said Kiley’s grove has gotten little use in the last decade or so. It was designed in collaboration with architect Harry Weese, who designed the center’s 1969 building.

“The general term around here … is the black forest and not in a real complimentary way,” said Shields, referring to what center staff call the grove today. “It’s really dark shade under there.”

The outdoor transformation will also make the area more environmentally sensitive, Mathews said. They plan to improve stormwater management, for instance, he added.

Other changes to the Marcus Center include dotting the campus with illuminated kiosks, back-of-house upgrades, improved restrooms and enclosing Fitch Garden, an uncovered terrace that isn’t used in colder months, in glass. The new Fitch Garden will be a year-round event space with spectacular skyline views, Shields says.

The Marcus Center is home to several resident arts groups, including the Milwaukee Ballet, the Florentine Opera Company and First Stage. It is facing some added financial pressure as it prepares to lose one of its major tenants, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which acquired its own venue, the Warner Grand Theatre, last year. The MSO expects to take up residence at the Warner in 2020.

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