Milwaukee's FDR-Era Water Treatment Plant: 'A Monument To Civic Majesty'

Apr 14, 2017

This week's Bubbler Talk inquiry takes us to Milwaukee's lakefront. It has just a few buildings, such as snack bars and a place to buy a kite. Yet there's an imposing structure on the north end of Lincoln Memorial Drive, which is a mystery to many.

California native Liam Callanan says the building has intrigued him since he moved here. "It kind of looks Spanish Californian, it's got the Spanish red tile roofs, kind of the beige stone exterior," he explains.

Liam is talking about the Milwaukee Water Works' Linnwood Water Treatment Plant. It's one of two that treat Lake Michigan water before piping it to homes and businesses.

The federal government in conjunction with the city built the plant in the 1930s, in part, to create jobs.

It was the Great Depression and many people were out of work. It was a bleak time, as President Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged in his 1933 inaugural address. He pledged to turn the country around, and launched the Public Works Administration. It funded the Linnwood plant and other big projects around the country, such as railroads and dams. The program gave birth to the broader WPA, which put even more people to work.

The Linnwood Plant being constructed.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

Yet the projects didn't just "create" work. They helped communities make desperately needed improvements, such as to Milwaukee's infrastructure. Jim Draeger of the Wisconsin Historical Society says residents and businesses needed clean water.

"Increasingly there were problems, as Milwaukee became more and more industrial, with industrial contaminants coming down the Milwaukee River into the lake and being sucked up into the water supply," Jim says.

He explains that existing efforts to purify the water weren't doing the trick.

"They would continue to extend the pipe out into the lake further and further to try to get away from the contaminants, and then they tried to add chemicals to the water to make it safe to drink, and finally by the 1930s they decided that they just needed to build a filtration plant for safe water," Jim says.

So construction of the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant began. Jennifer Gonda, superintendent of the Milwaukee Water Works, says residents appreciated both the plant's function and its appearance.

Model of the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

"The Milwaukee News reported back in 1938 that it was a monument to civic majesty," Jennifer says.

The plant was built at a time when people were willing to spend more to create grand public buildings. "The interior has all sorts of beautiful handmade tiles, terrazzo floors. It has lovely bronze doors that are very grand when you walk into the entrance," she explains.

Milwaukee resident Liam Callanan asked Bubbler Talk to tell the story of the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Our Bubbler Talk questioner, Liam Callanan, wishes he could go inside. But the building is closed to the public for security reasons. It seems, though, he's content to enjoy it from the outside.

"I love these ideas that civic projects had to include the ingredient of beauty and I think that's just a marvelous thing. I'm very kind of proud of Milwaukee on behalf of having such great things."

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