Milwaukee's Most Impressive Architecture

Art Deco to Italian Renaissance

 TripSavvy / Chris Bacarella

Because of its rich history, Wisconsin's largest city is filled with a mix of different architectural designs, from Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings to cutting-edge, more contemporary introductions like the Quadracci Pavilion (designed by Santiago Calatrava) at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Frank Lloyd Wright put his mark on Milwaukee, too, as the Spring Green-born architect worked on quite a few projects here. 

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Milwaukee Art Museum

hallway in the milwaukee art museum with a series of white arches

TripSavvy / Chris Bacarella

The famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s first North American design was in Milwaukee, debuting in 2001 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. TIME Magazine named the Quadracci Pavilion, with its soaring white wings that open and close throughout the day, the best design of 2001. With Lake Michigan’s ribbon of blue in the background, this is one of Milwaukee’s most photographed spots.

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American System-Built Homes

Doors Open Milwaukee

These four duplex-style buildings (Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments) and a modest bungalow (Arthur L. Richards Small House) on West Burnham Street represented architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s nod to more affordable housing than some of his other projects, like Wingspread (the Johnson family home in Racine) or Fallingwater (commissioned by the Kaufmanns near Pittsburgh). They were built between 1912 and 1916 across the U.S., including these in Milwaukee. While 960 drawings were made, not all were built. 

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The Basilica of St. Josaphat

Interior of St. Josaphat Basilica
Chris Bacarella / © TripSavvy

One can spot the ornate, domed basilica from the freeway while driving north or south on I-43. This Franciscan center was built in 1901 for Roman Catholic congregants but is open to anyone for walk-in, self-guided tours provided a mass is not in progress. (Masses are weekdays at 7 a.m., plus a Wednesday noon mass, and Saturdays at 8 a.m., and 4:30 p.m., plus Sundays at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon.) Pro tip: Check the events calendar as choral and musical groups often host performances here, giving you a chance to check out the interiors, and the acoustics.

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Tripoli Shrine

Visit Milwaukee

A near copy of the Taj Mahal in India, and on the National Register of Historic Places, you literally can’t miss this shrine on West Wisconsin Avenue, near Marquette University. It was built in 1928 at a cost of roughly $617,000 and continues to house Shriners International, and is also a popular reception site for brides on their wedding day. On a guided tour you might see examples of the Moorish Revival style that include kneeling camels at the entrance and mosaic tiles throughout, including in one of the domes. 

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Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

Visit Milwaukee

Once you’re past the wrought-iron gates (designed by Cyril Colnik, who worked on some of Milwaukee’s finest homes) at this art museum, you’ll swear you’re in Italy—not Milwaukee. ​Built in 1924 for the Smith family, and based on designs by architect David Sadler, it’s somewhat modeled after a villa in Lombardy, Italy. During the 1960s, the Smithes donated the home to Milwaukee County, which turned it into a museum devoted to decorative arts. In addition to permanent installations, a courtyard that hosts live-music events, and Renaissance-style gardens that are among the best in Milwaukee, there are rotating exhibits.

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Milwaukee City Hall

Interior view of the Milwaukee City hall building looking down from the top floor to the bottom
Chris Bacarella / © TripSavvy

While this is headquarters for Milwaukee’s politicos, it’s also a great example of Flemish Renaissance Revival style. Built in 1895 and designed by architect Henry Koch—and at that time the country’s third-tallest structure, only smaller than Washington Monument in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia City Hall—there’s a stunning eight-story atrium. At the time of its construction, it was familiar to many locals who had emigrated from Germany as it resembled the city-hall building in Hamburg, Germany. During the 1970s this building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Fans of the television show “Laverne & Shirley,” which was set in Milwaukee, might recognize the building’s exterior from opening shots that aired with each episode. Drop by for a self-guided tour and take the time to download this brochure on the city hall’s website about the building’s extensive renovation.

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