A newly restored Art Deco theatre in Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has moved into the former Warner Grand Theatre. Courtesy Kahler Slater

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Moves into a Restored Movie Palace

Led by architects Kahler Slater, the conversion of Milwaukee’s Warner Grand Theatre was years in the making, requiring a suite of upgrades and restoration work.

Milwaukee’s Westown neighborhood is undergoing a spate of redevelopment after decades of decline. One such project breathing new life into this stretch of downtown is the Bradley Symphony Center, which saw local firm Kahler Slater’s methodical restoration and conversion of the former Warner Grand Theatre movie palace into a new home for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The Warner Grand Theatre dates to 1930, and typical of movie palaces of the time, it is an amalgam of architectural styles, which range from an Art Deco facade and lobby to a Neo-Baroque concert hall decked in historicist murals and a riot of plasterwork. The theatre passed hands to the Marcus Theatres chain in 1964, who divided up the interior to accommodate two screening halls, but ultimately closed the doors for good in 1995.

Exterior street view of Kahler Slater's renovation of the Warner Grand Theatre, now the Bradley Symphony Center. On a street in Milwaukee at dusk the Art Deco building sits next to a modern glass addition.
Courtesy Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra began evaluating the Warner Grand Theatre as a concert hall back in 2000, and at that time collaborated with Kahler Slater to determine whether the historic building was suitable for orchestral performances. To that end, they removed the first seven rows of seats at the front of the theater to build a wooden platform stage and secretly brought in the orchestra to validate the acoustic quality of the space. The results were positive, but the dot-com bubble and housing market meltdown put those plans on hold.  

In 2016 the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra announced plans to move into the space and construct a new adjacent welcome center. Work began two years later. For the design team and client, the primary objective was to increase accessibility and contemporary amenities across the theatre; elevators were threaded through the structure, and new bars and bathrooms were added to the symphony hall. Several of the infrastructural components are tucked away in the new glass-clad welcome pavilion, which, in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s drive to establish a more engaged relationship with the public, will host a number of programmed and community events.

Interior view of the Bradley Symphony Center with a grand white spiral staircase and modern seating areas near windows looking out on the street.
Courtesy Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers

“Getting the acoustics right in the theater was a big piece, and we have to give credit to our acoustician, Akustiks, who provided clear parameters and insight into how we could make this historic theater work,” says Christopher Ludwig, associate principal at Kahler Slater. “We had to design the stage volume so that it would project the right amount of acoustic pressure from the orchestra, and there are areas of tempering that can, say, calm the space by deploying various surfaces that are more absorptive.”

Though the former owner kept the building in good repair, there were several aspects of the interior that required work. Architectural art expert Conrad Schmitt Studios—the firm also managed the restoration of the West Baden Springs Hotel and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre—was brought on at the early stages of the project to lead the restoration. For the most part, the job consisted of addressing water infiltration, the subsequent damage and mold, as well as the removal of grime (decades of cigarette smoke didn’t help). Particular attention was paid to the murals that line the symphony hall and the grand stairwell.

The interior lobby of a grand Art Deco style symphony hall with a large hanging chandelier, mezzanines, and mirrored and marble surfaces.
Courtesy Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers

“For mural paintings, conservators tested small areas of each to identify the gentlest and most effective means to remove years of dirt and grime,” notes Eileen Grogan, director of historic preservation at Conrad Schmitt. “It was so exciting to see the brilliant colors emerge as the painting was cleaned, and the final steps included the application of a reversible barrier varnish, infill painting at areas of loss, and a final varnish to protect the surface of the conserved paintings.” Similar care was applied to areas damaged beyond repair, and the team developed creative solutions that matched original materials and fabrication techniques.

The conversion of the theatre into a symphony hall also required the construction of a new stage to accommodate the orchestra and back-of-house infrastructure. However, blowing out any of the elevations would have jeopardized the project’s $12 million in historic tax credits. Instead, contractor C.D. Smith moved the 625-ton east-facing elevation 35 feet with the help of four hydraulic rams and a unified hydraulic jacking machine, to make way for a new stage surrounded by infill concrete to the north and south.

The symphony began hosting virtual performances from their new digs back in February and is now set to open its doors to the public later this month. “One of our first events on September 26 will be open to the public,” concludes Erin Kogler director of communications at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. “It is important for us to be an integral part of the community, and we look forward to being a larger catalyst in the Westown neighborhood.”

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