If you’ve visited the Museum recently, you know that we take our 125th anniversary seriously. There was cake for “Barbara Brown Lee Day” on May 2, there are three celebratory exhibitions, including a glamorous salon-style rehang of Gallery 10, and an upcoming publication about the roots of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Layton’s Legacy: An Historic American Art Collection.
An anniversary is an excuse to celebrate and an opportunity to engage the community. It is also a chance for us to dig into our history and learn more about our past.
Research is never done!
For my part, when I was in New England this winter, I made a research diversion to Yale University to delve into their Eero Saarinen Archives to find information we could use about the design, inspiration, and creation of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.
In working with Museum Archivist/Librarian Heather Winters on the 125 Years of the Milwaukee Art Museum (Baumgartner Galleria) exhibition and online timeline, I learned that we have a wealth of documentation about the design and planning stages of the Museum’s 2001 Santiago Calatrava building. But the Museum Archives have relatively less about the equally-important Modernist Eero Saarinen War Memorial Building (1957).
Saarinen’s office, fortunately for us, kept thorough records of the project, and those materials were donated to Yale University, where they are available on site to any visiting researcher and (in part) online in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives Digital Images Database. In 1971, Eero Saarinen’s wife, Aline, donated personal records (letters, journals) to the Yale Archives. In 2002 Saarinen’s successor architecture firm, Roche Dinkeloo and Associates, followed suit to donate their own holdings of the architect’s project files, drawings, photographs, and scrapbooks. Eero Saarinen was a graduate of Yale in 1934 and contributed two significant structures to the University campus: Ezra Stiles and Morse residential colleges and the Ingalls Hockey Rink. Cranbrook Academy and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art also have Saarinen archives.
To share a bit of what I learned about our Milwaukee treasure while spending three glorious days in Yale’s Gothic-style reading room, reviewing box after box, here are four specific items that speak to the importance of exploring the wide variety of materials available in a rich Archive.
First, there was a series of black-and-white photographs of a small architectural model of Saarinen’s site plan for the lakefront War Memorial Center and performing arts center. (The physical model itself was not in the Archive.) This small wood and paper model was photographed against a yard of grass in full sun, for accurate shadows, and then the printed image was cut and pasted over an aerial view of Milwaukee.
I appreciated that this composite image, with its yellowing tape, gave me not only a sense of the soaring concrete building design and Milwaukee’s landscape in the mid-1950s, but also a sense of how an architect prepared and presented information in the pre-Photoshop era. This is very different than the tools that were available to Santiago Calatrava for rendering the Quadracci Pavilion in the 1990s.
Second, my design loving heart pitter-pattered when I opened the Archival box containing Saarinen’s fabric samples for our building! Yale’s Archive included six boards pasted up with interior finishing materials for the War Memorial Center. This particular board (shown above) had fabric samples for the office furniture intended for the Art Center’s second floor.
As many Museum staff do, I keep one of the building’s original Saarinen Executive Armchairs (the version with tubular steel legs) in my office, but they have since been reupholstered with pink or orange wool fabric.
The other five boards (not pictured) showed details of the building’s vinyl floor treatment, the wood baseboard trim, the creamy linen covering the the gallery walls, and the white paint of the ceiling. This information is vital for us in Milwaukee should we ever wish to return part of Saarinen’s masterpiece building to its original appearance. We would have evidence for every little detail.
For the third item, I think we can credit the influence of Eero’s wife Aline Saarinen, an accomplished architecture critic who turned to children’s art education after her marriage.
Included in the Archive are letters between Aline and Mrs. Wyeth Jones, Director of Milwaukee’s CAP (Children’s Arts Program). In 1959, Jones shared children’s drawings of the building, citing them as direct evidence of the inspiration that Saarinen’s masterpiece had on the children that regularly occupy it. I was charmed looking at these drawings, carefully preserved for decades in the office of a great architect. I imagined how magnificent Saarinen’s dramatic concrete building must have seemed to 13-year-old Stephen Rosera when he made the above drawing.
Fourth, I was amazed to find Saarinen’s plans for the scale, location, font, and layout of all the way-finding signage in the building. This reiterated to me what a comprehensive work of art the Milwaukee County War Memorial Building was, and is. The architecture, of course, was represented in the Archive, through hundreds of plans and drawings and photographs, but here there is also evidence of Saarinen’s attention to detail, such as the font of the Men’s Restroom sign and the upholstery on the office sofas. Each one reminded me that, in this building, we have a spectacular example of work by one of the 20th-century’s greatest design minds.
With sensitivity and the reminder that this historic documentation is preserved at Yale for our use in Milwaukee, we can be prepared to stay true to Saarinen’s design vision in the future.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.