The Story Behind The Giant Ladybugs On The Milwaukee Building

Mar 31, 2017

Almost 20 years ago, Milwaukee was 'invaded' by three six-foot-tall ladybugs. They latched on to a downtown building and have been there ever since. 

For years, Nancy Leafblad of Brookfield has wondered about the enormous bugs, so she turned to Bubbler Talk to learn more.

Wendy Burke with the ladybugs.
Credit Riva Treasure, Burke Properties

The ladybugs are hard to miss, crawling down the west side of the Milwaukee Building at 622 North Water Street. The key to understanding them, though, is to know the mastermind behind them: John J. Burke.

He's the founder of the property management company Burke Properties, which also owns and manages the Milwaukee Building. 

“They’ve been hanging there since about July of 1999," Wendy Burke explains. "My father had a signmaker... make those ladybugs. They’re about 6 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep.”

The ladybugs were John's brainchild. He designed them and had the bugs built to his exact specifications, right down to the paint and their placement on the building.

Made of fiberglass, they’re durable, yet light enough for a three-person crew to install – and Wendy Burke should know, she was one of them. “Early one morning in July, he and I – well, he had a friend on a cherry-picker down in the street – we were hoisting those things up from an open window on the sixth floor, and then securing them to the building…It was a ‘do-it-yourself’-er!" she explains.

But why create them in the first place?

"[John] just thought they were cool."
Meditation by Marc Sijan.
Credit Rachel Owens

“At the time in the city, there was some conversation going on about what is decoration and what is art?" Wendy explains, "And there were some artists who were very much opposed and were very verbal about how much they did not like the ladybugs…and my father was adamant that art is in the eye of the beholder…and he just thought they were cool."

The ladybugs aren’t the only art on – or in – the this building. Take the elevator up to the second floor, and you walk into a modern art gallery, which also houses the offices of Burke Properties, which Wendy now runs.

One of the most stunning pieces, by world-renowned Milwaukee artist Marc Sijan, is a life-like sculpture of a young woman kneeling with her eyes closed, titled Meditation.

Still, the ladybugs loom large – literally. The lowest of the three hangs just outside of John's office, who is now retired.

It’s not hard to imagine him enjoying the unique view from his desk - of the inside of a bug.

A view of one ladybug from inside's John Burke's office.
Credit Rachel Owens

But what did he think about how they appear to most of us - from the outside?

Wendy Burke recalls his reaction upon first viewing his completed work: “There was a restaurant called Mannequins across the street, in the floor of the Chase Tower, and he was sort of like Christo, sitting back and admiring his handiwork. And I think probably that same day, Mayor Norquist walked by, and said, ‘Hey John, like the bugs!’ So he was very pleased with his art – his public art.”

"They just make me smile when I go by there... it's just fun to know why they're there."

Question asker Nancy seems to agree. “They just make me smile when I go by there, and I do it a lot, and it’s just fun to know why they’re there.”

Before wrapping-up our conversation, I asked Wendy Burke if there was anything else we should know about the ladybugs?  

“No, just enjoy. And give us a call if they’re not lit – we try to stay on it.”

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