The Mackie Flats incorporate historic architectural elements–inside and out. In this unit, the Clock Tower is visible through the skylight.

Rehabilitating, renovating and re-envisioning an architectural gem like the now-138-year-old Historic Mackie Building presented Continuum the opportunity to truly flex the firm’s problem-solving muscles.

The project had a dual purpose: one physical, the other economic, both equally important. Those purposes were:
1) To revive and rejuvenate the historic Mackie Building and thus restore to physical glory and magnificence this architectural gem in Milwaukee’s jewel box of nationally important historical buildings.
2) To position the Mackie Building to once again be an economic contributor to and even a catalyst for the downtown economy.

One purpose could not have value or be impactful without the other. The building was already glorious and commanding because of its sheer mass and remarkable architectural features. But, in fact, it was seriously deteriorating physically and was also functionally—and in some cases, dangerously–obsolete. The building was in jeopardy of a catastrophic collapse due to the rotting foundation pilings. The extraordinary clock tower was long broken. One of the most striking architectural features—the double skylight soaring above the Grain Exchange Room—had been obscured over time and used as a mechanical space!

Due to these physical issues, the building was largely empty and not functioning at optimal tax base. The vacancy in turn was having a dampening economic impact on the surrounding area. The building needed to be restored to splendor as well as become a modern-functioning facility in order to return to being a contributing factor to the downtown economy and be the Catalytic Project the Department of City Development and Milwaukee Downtown deemed it could be.

Highlights of the renovation include the following:

The top three floors were turned into the building’s first-ever residential units. Twenty-five units of market rate housing offer unique floor plans that best take advantage of the views of Milwaukee’s East Side Commercial Historic District. Residents of the “Mackie Flats” enjoy the highest Walk Score (98) of any apartments in the City.

• The second floor was remodeled to hold offices for The Daily Reporter, Milwaukee’s only publication for publicly bid projects.

• The first floor was remodeled to upgrade the finishes in the Grain Exchange Room. Specifically, a spectacular double-height and double-layered skylight that had been obscured with mechanicals was uncovered and restored to be viewed from inside the Grain Exchange Room. Additional offices for the Bartolotta management group that runs this event space, as well as a bridal suite were added. Offices for the development firm of J. Jeffers & Co were also designed for this floor.

• Most critically for the Grain Exchange room, an independent vital life safety exit stair for the discharge of the 450-capacity patrons was added to bring this space up to current code. An additional freight elevator to serve the suite was installed to allow for resetting the event space with ease and without traipsing through grand lobbies of the building with chairs and tables, etc.

• On the ground level, the interior grand lobby was renovated to connect patrons to Broadway Street and the Third Ward. New modern chandeliers in this space and Grain Exchange lobby bring LED lights to glow and shine up the decorative textured historical elements. All existing commercial, restaurant, and retail spaces with existing and new tenants were all modernized with new mechanicals and lighting systems.

• The iconic bell tower was stabilized and the clock faces restored to functional use, a huge undertaking in and of itself.

• In addition, the entire building’s infrastructure was upgraded to improve its energy efficiency including the installation of a VRF system. These improvements follow the energy efficiency guidelines for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) funding.

• Continuum Architects + Planners functioned as the designer architect of record and the historic consultants on the project. Their teams of sub-consultants, under their direction, completed the construction documentation of the project based on Secretary of Interiors Standards. Continuum handled the historic approval process with the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and National Park Service (NPS), and successfully submitted the multi-layered Historic Tax Credit submittal packages for Part 1 through Part 3.

A Modernist Approach to Historic Rehab 

Continuum brings a purist approach to historical renovation. The firm does not attempt to replicate what was, especially in cases when what was is not documented properly. Instead, the approach is to maintain the historical integrity of the fabric of the building and use the existing historical structure and envelope as context for modern interiors that make their own history.

This shows up particularly in what we call the North Section of the Mackie Building, where the most distinctive residential units are now located. The 40-foot-deep North Section fronts Michigan Street. This long and narrow section is supported with compartmentalized load bearing walls. There are seven compartments that symmetrically unfold about the central and the widest bay, on which the Clock Tower soars up to 170 feet above grade. The Clock Tower is one of the most imposing elements of the Mackie Building. The wood piles under these walls were the most affected by the sheer weight of the clock’s mechanical systems, bell, and pulleys.

Cell-like closed historical bays drove the design of the residential units in the North Section. Only so much of the bearing walls could be removed without compromising the structural integrity of the historical building or devastating its historical fabric. Unable to create the large open concept spaces popular today, Continuum instead capitalized on the historic architectural detailing as unique, showcase elements in the Front Section residential units.

These include 10-foot tall arched double hung original historical windows, coved 14-foot ceilings, plastered walls, tall wood bases, historical tongue and groove wood flooring and exposed arched bearing walls. The North Section houses three floors of residential units, 4 to 5 units per floor. Each has a unique and different layout and exudes the feeling of living in very elaborate historical setting. Views of other historical structures from these spaces, including the historical Mitchell and Loyalty Buildings, make one feel as if they are living in Prague, lost in time. These structures create such three-dimensional art work and unique urban views that one does not feel the need of placing art work on the walls.

The South Section building is 120 feet deep, three times that of the North Section, and includes the Grain Exchange Room. Residential units only appear on the 5th and 6th floor in the South Section, because the three floors below are the volume that the Grain Exchange occupies.

The unit layouts in this South Section were more conducive to an open concept floor plan. The 6th floor was endowed with additional skylights flanking on either side of the central skylight. These smaller skylights do not open to the Grain Exchange Room, but rather to the space on Level 6 under the flat roof area, and are captured in the living room spaces of these residential units. The 6th floor had been an attic space containing the trusses that provide the open clear span for the Grain Exchange room. Exterior windows on this level are smaller; therefore, these skylights provide additional light deeper into the space. Both east and west skylights show the same platform dimensions of 15’9″ x 10’6″.

All these historical features such as wrought iron trusses also have been captured and exposed into the units as architectural features. They become part of the decor of the room, which essential and functional structural elements of the building. Nothing is faked, or created as eye candy; rather the existing details are brought to life by incorporation into the spaces. Designing in this setting is not easy and existing limitations play tricks when one has to incorporate life safety code, modernization, and desirable spaces to live and play in!

In recognition of this complex project requiring expert problem-solving, the Historic Mackie Building project was awarded the WCREW 2017 Vision Award for Ingenuity.

See all the photos of the spectacular renovation here.