Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Milwaukee, WI

U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Building History

When Milwaukee's Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was constructed in 1892-99, it epitomized the revolutionized mail handling that had followed the introduction of postal stamps in 1847. By the end of the nineteenth century, added postal services included registered mail, street letter boxes, and free mail delivery. When an existing, 1859 post office became inadequate for the postal service's growing needs, Congress was persuaded to fund a new, larger building in 1889. It included multiple federal agencies under one roof -- housing the U.S. Postal Service, Courts and Customs Service. Today, the District Courts are the only original tenant remaining in the building.

The massive granite edifice is a city landmark within the historic district known as Juneautown the first ward organized from land owned by Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee's founder and first mayor. The building is surrounded by notable and contemporaneous historic buildings, including the Milwaukee Club (1883), the Pfizer Hotel (1893), and the Northwestern National Insurance Building (1906). The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse's imposing Richardsonian Romanesque architecture presented a break from the classical style that dominated Government buildings for most of the nineteenth century. Designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, the style was popularized by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson, whose use of the Romanesque Revival began to penetrate the Midwest during the 1880s. Edbrooke's predecessor, James G. Hill, supervising architect during the late nineteenth century, was the first federal architect to abandon classical forms. Under Hill's influence, federal structures often featured lofty towers that were visible from long distances during the period when few buildings rose above ten stories.

From 1929-32, construction of a large addition extended the building southward. The addition was raised to seven stories eight years later. In 1989 -96, GSA completed a major renovation and restoration project, which restored the historic interiors to their original brilliance while incorporating modern office needs.

In 1972, the building was designated a Milwaukee City Landmark, and in 1973, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Milwaukee's Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is a five-story structure, sturdy and picturesque, handsomely detailed, and admirably maintained. Filling the entire city block bound by Michigan, Jackson, and Jefferson Streets, with its facade facing Wisconsin Avenue on the north, the building is an excellent example of Romanesque Revival architecture, featuring a robust display of stone massing and heavy Roman arches. Walls of dark- and light-gray Mount Waldo granite rise to a steeply pitched hipped roof pierced by a variety of gabled projections. A soaring tower framed by pinnacles rises from the center of the facade, terminating in an arcaded belfry and a high pyramidal roof.

The facade is broken into recesses and projections, creating a dynamic composition punctuated by an arcaded entrance on the first level and Roman arches over the second- and third-story fenestration. Massive stone forms are relieved with fine decoration. The first story provides the greatest display of Romanesque ornament, featuring highly carved moldings and decorative stonework surrounding the main entrance. The building's corners are rounded by tall pinnacles with alternating bands of smooth and textured stone and are capped by conical roofs with layered trim. The upper-story walls are smooth, accented with thin, textured stringcourses, rising to gabled dormers that incorporate Romanesque leaf ornament, gargoyles, and finials.

Like the facade, the east and west elevations are ornamented and symmetrically balanced, prominently featuring a projecting gable with a variety of arched fenestration. The 1929-32 addition to the south adds a massive eight-story block at the rear of the original structure. Although its walls are clad in granite and include arched fenestration to match the original building, the extension is distinguished by its flat roof, flattened elevations, and reduced ornamentation.

Interior spaces on the first through fifth floors are arranged about a vast central atrium capped by an iron-and-glass skylight. The illuminated space was originally an open light well and is now used for many public events. Within the atrium's large volume, columns, marble wainscoting, oak crown molding, stenciled designs, and plaster ceiling moldings have been restored to their original finishes and colors. Although the first story's original ceiling was removed to open the room to the light well above, its steel structural members were retained to recall the room's original configuration as the postal workspace. The building's corridors, stair halls, and lobbies are adorned with multicolored marble mosaics, oak paneling, and decorative plaster ceilings. The interiors of the 1929-32 addition match the materials and colors used in 1899, harmonizing with the original interior design.

The two-story historic U.S. District Courtroom, located on the third floor, is richly detailed with carved oak paneling and trim on the walls and ceiling. Historic paint finishes have been carefully conserved to their original hue. Fine Romanesque detailing embellishes the arches over the doors, windows, and the judge's bench. Centered between the two doorways is the room's original ladies' balcony, entirely finished in oak.

A massive seven-year restoration project begun in 1989 revived the building to its original condition. The work involved extensive materials research to determine original paint colors and decorative patterns for the walls and ceilings, including the original hand-painted-and-stenciled designs in a trompe l'oeil effect (an artistic illusion of realism). Interior finishes and fixtures were restored, while the exterior stone and brickwork was conserved and repaired. Renovations created more comfortable work spaces and energy-efficient HVAC systems. Through the effort of many collaborators, the building remains one of the most venerable displays of architecture in the Milwaukee area.

Significant Events

1892-99 The U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Custom House is constructed.

1929-32 An addition to the south substantially increases the building's size. 1940 Two floors are added above the south addition.

1972 The building is designated a Milwaukee City Landmark.

1973 The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1989-96 The building is extensively restored and renovated.

Building Facts

Architect: Willoughby J. Edbrooke

Construction Dates: 1892-1899; 1932; 1940

Landmark Status: Milwaukee City Landmark; listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 517 East Wisconsin Avenue

Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival

Primary Materials: Pale gray Mount Waldo granite

Prominent Features: Tower; atrium; Romanesque detailing; oak-paneled courtroom

U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Federal Building and Court House is a five story granite structure constructed in 1892-99, in Romanesque style, with a seven story addition, constructed in 1932/1940, abutting its south edge. The building fills the entire city block bounded by Wisconsin, Michigan, Jackson and Jefferson Streets. The primary elevation, the building's north facade, fronts Wisconsin Avenue. The primary feature of the building is its massive tower, rising directly above the main entrance to the building. The recessed center bay of the north elevation provides for the one story vaulted loggia, whose north wall consists of five massive Romanesque arches supported on six carved stone columns. Each corner of the original building features a round tower with a conical roof. The original building’s east and west elevations are symmetrical about its gabled center bay. The fourth floor fenestration of the center bays differs between these elevations, reflecting the original two story courtroom behind the west façade. The walls are clad in Mount Waldo granite. The lowest story of the building alternates in coursing from rock faced to smooth dressed stone. The upper stories are primarily smooth dressed stone, accented at the fifth floor belt course, fourth floor arched window heads, dormer finials and other locations with carved stone decoration. The addition approaches in size the mass of the original structure. The addition is also constructed of granite and makes reference to the original building with its arched windows at the third floor and smaller windows at the fourth and fifth floors. The addition, constructed in 1932, was originally five stories tall above the partially raised sub-basement and raised basement. The sixth and seventh floors were added in 1940. The profile of its perimeter walls is predominately flat, with relief offered only in the window detailing and the recessed areas which adjoin the original building. The plan of the original building is generally square, with a skylit atrium at its center. Elevators and a monumental stair are located off of the marble tile vaulted main lobby at the north edge of the atrium. A wide corridor, with original marble mosaic tile flooring, lines all sides of the atrium on the second through fifth floors, except at the south side of the second through fourth floors, where the openings have been enclosed with windows and the corridors converted to tenant space. Like the atrium, the corridors have marble wainscot, decorative plaster and stenciled painted finishes. The atrium is roofed with a double glazed glass skylight over steel structure. The enclosure over the first floor laylight has been removed; however, the primary members of the original decorative steel framework and supporting columns have been retained. Between this corridor and the exterior wall are the offices and courtrooms of the building. The wood wainscot on the original interior partitions and interior side of the exterior walls remain. One original courtroom, District Court, Room 390, remains substantially unaltered, with its intricately carved oak paneled walls, ceiling and trim. The addition is also generally a rectangle in plan, with an open air light court at its center, extending down to the roof of the first floor. This portion of the building has a double loaded corridor, connecting to the corridor of the original building. The offset caused by the geometry of the connecting corridors creates a wide space where the elevator lobby and stair towers for the addition are located. The interior spaces of the addition are generally simply detailed, without extensive decoration. While the overall plan of the building remains predominantly as originally constructed, the tenant areas generally have undergone significant and ongoing modification.

U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Milwaukee was constructed in 1892-1899 to house the U.S. Postal Service, Courts and Customs Service, replacing its predecessor which had been constructed in 1859. In 1932, a 5 story addition over a raised basement and partially raised sub-basement extended the building southward. Two floors were added to the top of the addition in 1940. The expansion of the post office in the mid nineteenth century, for which this structure was built in Milwaukee, was a result
of the introduction of postage stamps, free urban delivery, and registered mail programs by the U.S. Postal Service. An act of Congress, approved in 1889, authorized the construction of this new Post Office building. In addition to serving its functional purpose, post offices at that time served as the key link between communities and the Federal Government, oftentimes housing courts and other federal offices in addition to the post office.

The Historic Structures Report (HSR) indicates that James G. Hill, supervising architect of the Treasury Department in the late nineteenth century, played an influential role in the design of this structure. His tenure marked the first abandonment of the classical forms of Federal architecture in favor of buildings with lofty clock towers similar to London's Big Ben. The Romanesque Revival style became a model for many public facilities throughout the Midwest in the 1890's. Willoughby J. Edbrooke, supervising architect of the Treasury Department until 1891, is listed as the architect for the building. His design of the building was inspired by H. H. Richardson's Romanesque Revival style Allegheny County Courthouse and jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition to the exterior image, the building design included an enclosed central atrium, originally equipped with a laylight over the first floor post office workroom as well as a skylight at the roof above the fifth floor. Gracious and highly detailed corridors circle the atrium on the second through fifth floors of the square floor plan. Groundbreaking for the building took place on April 18, 1892, and the building was occupied seven years later, on April 22, 1899.

Description Architect
1892 1897 Original Construction Edbrooke, W.J.
1892 1899 Publish manual on historic significance Edbrooke, W.J.
1906 Stamp Room Screens
1920 Added incandescent lighting
1929 1932 5 Story Addition to the South
1933 Heating system conversion, original building
1940 1941 Sixth and seventh floors, South Addition
1957 Courtroom alterations
1964 Fluorescent lighting, fire alarm system
1965 Added air conditioning
1971 General interior rehabilitation
1980 Terrazo repair, paint corridors and exterior
1980 Window repairs
1981 District court, third floor
1986 Misc. alterations, window transoms
1992 Courtroom construction, east side, 4th floor
1992 Atrium restoration Plunkett, Keymar, Regina
1992 US Attorney offices, South addition, 3rd floor
Last Reviewed: 2018-09-04