Art Curatorial

A bit of Milwaukee in the Saarinen Archives at Yale

Milwaukee Art Center, Saarinen building, 1957. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives.
Milwaukee County War Memorial Building, Eero Saarinen, 1957. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives.

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.

20th and 21st Century Design American Art Collection Curatorial Modern

Lewandowski’s Mosaic Mural at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center

Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Image courtesy
Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Image courtesy

Though the soaring wings of the dramatic Santiago Calatrava building sometimes steal the show, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion is just one of two internationally significant architectural gems here on the Museum campus.

The other is the bold Saarinen masterpiece 1957 Milwaukee County War Memorial Center.

Modernist architect Eero Saarinen (American, b. Finland 1910–1961) is known for dramatic design accomplishments like the St. Louis Gateway Arch (1965), JFK Airport’s TWA Flight Center terminal (1962), and the iconic “Tulip chair” (1955). He took over the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center commission at the death of his father, Eliel Saarinen (Finnish, 1873–1950). The designs called for an arts complex that would “Honor the Dead by Serving the Living,” including a museum, performing arts center, and veterans’ memorial.

On the western facade of Saarinen’s Modernist concrete, steel, and glass floating cruciform is a purple and blue tile mosaic. You probably see this mural best when driving toward the building on Mason Street.

I had been working in this stunning building for several years before I finally paused to ask: What is that mosaic? What do the letters mean? Who is the artist?