Thursday, September 17, 2015

Public Service Building history on display

Public Service Building
At one particular grand structure, doors not only will be open during Doors Open Milwaukee this weekend, but they will lead you to a powerful impression of Milwaukee’s heritage. Many buildings have come and gone, while some are still standing from the early 20th century. Few have the history and grandeur of the Public Service Building.

We Energies and Historic Milwaukee, through its fifth annual Doors Open Milwaukee event this weekend, will offer an opportunity to tour The Public Service Building (PSB) – one of Milwaukee’s treasured buildings. Historic Milwaukee is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing awareness of and commitment to Milwaukee’s history and architecture.

Stained-glass window symbolizing
 the buzz of activity in the PSB
As visitors approach the PSB, they note the operating clock that adorns the center of the lintel above the main entrance. Inside, attention is drawn to the marble lobby walls that came from an Italian quarry and include a curious but prophetic architectural detail: a stained-glass window above the main entrance, symbolizing PSB activities as a swarm of bees buzzing around a hive.

“When people first walk in the door, their mouths drop open at the sight of the lobby,” said Tim Brown, We Energies’ coordinator for the event. “We have received positive feedback every year since we started participating in Doors Open Milwaukee. We are happy to show this architectural gem to the community who would not normally have access to it.”

The Public Service Building was originally built for The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company (TMER&L) main headquarters by architect Herman J. Esser. TMER&L later became We Energies. Esser’s design was a neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style which was very popular in the early 20th century. The four-story building is an architectural treasure, both outside and within. In 1902, the foundation work for the building commenced on Michigan Street.

PSB in the 1940s
The PSB was the center of transportation for the interurban streetcar system. The ground floor of the structure served as the depot for the system. A series of 11 tracks ran completely through the building. Trains entered the east end from Second Street, picked up their passengers and then exited onto Third Street. As time went on, buses replaced streetcars and Greyhound used the depot as their main Milwaukee terminal until 1965.

In the early days of the building, the second floor featured facilities for entertainment. These included a 1,200-seat auditorium, bowling alleys, dining rooms, library, billiard rooms, lockers and even a barber shop. The auditorium still is used as a corporate meeting space.

The PSB was remodeled many times over the years to accommodate the needs of its occupants, but in 1995, great efforts were taken to restore the building to its original glory. Prior to that restoration, the lobby chandelier was missing, and ornate ceilings were covered with plastic panels.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The PSB will open its doors from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19, and Sunday, Sept. 20. Visitors will tour the ornate lobby and auditorium. We invite you to relax in the grand, Art Deco-style auditorium while you enjoy a presentation about the building and company history. You also can view historic photos in the adjacent hallway.

If you plan to visit the PSB, please be aware of construction on Michigan Street in front of the building. Access the building from the fenced sidewalk area that begins at the Second Street and Michigan Street intersection.

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