Monday, August 07, 2006

Whitney Gould on architect Eugene Liebert

Master of German styles endearing, enduring

But Liebert's work is underappreciated

Posted: Aug. 6, 2006

Whitney Gould

When you think of Old World architecture in Milwaukee, the name Eugene Liebert might not come to mind. But the German-born Liebert (1866-1945) was one of our most accomplished immigrant city-builders, leaving a legacy notable for its stolidity and craftsmanship, elegant ornamentation and enduring materials.

So why isn't he more widely appreciated?

"I honestly don't know," says H. Russell Zimmermann, the well-known restoration consultant. In an effort to boost Liebert's profile, he has just produced a beautifully illustrated book, "The Architecture of Eugene Liebert: Teutonic Style in the American Midwest." It is published by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, where Liebert's 1906 masterwork, the German Romanesque Revival Maria Angelorum Chapel, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Zimmermann thinks one reason Liebert doesn't have the cachet of, say, A.C. Eschweiler or Ferry & Clas is that his client base was so close-knit. "He was the darling of the German aristocracy," Zimmermann says, "and they were sort of like a private club." Of the 44 residential commissions the author has identified, 37 (or 84%) were for Germans: Harnischfegers, Logemanns, Trostels.

Perhaps the best known of Liebert's commercial work is the well-preserved Germania Building, 135 W. Wells St., erected in 1896 for George Brumder, the German-language publishing magnate. With its arched pavilions, three-sided bays and copper-clad kaiserkopf domes, it's an exquisitely detailed composition. And it could teach contemporary designers a thing or two about principles of proportion, street presence and the pleasing counterpoint of solids to voids.

Somewhat simpler than the Germania but equally handsome is Liebert's 1899 Buffalo Building, at Broadway and Buffalo streets in the Historic Third Ward. Its tall pilasters are topped by terra cotta capitals embellished with lions' heads and Maltese crosses - typical of the flourishes produced by European artisans working for Liebert.

Time takes toll

The architect's church designs for Lutheran and Catholic congregations are some of Zimmermann's favorite works - mine, too. Check out the Gothic Revival St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church at the corner of 8th and Vliet streets, its soaring spires visible for blocks. But with a dwindling congregation, the 1889 building is deteriorating.

Ditto, Liebert's jewel-like Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church (1892), at N. 4th St. and W. Meinecke Ave., now King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church. "The metal ribs on the steeple and transept are just rusting away," Zimmermann laments.

And don't even get him started on the Henry Harnischfeger mansion at the corner of W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. 35th St. With its stepped gables, knights-in-armor columns and half-timbering, it is the very essence of the German Renaissance Revival style. But the 1905 house, long ago chopped up for offices, is a lonely artifact on a neglected corner, its future uncertain despite its landmark status.

Other Liebert buildings, many of them designed in partnership with fellow German Herman Schnetzky, with scrolled metalwork by the famous Cyril Colnik, have at least some protection because of historic designations and sensitive owners; six are on the National Register of Historic Places, enabling the income-producing ones to qualify for state and federal restoration tax credits.

But we have already lost some of Liebert gems to the bulldozers, including the South Side Natatorium on S. 4th St.; the August Bergenthal mansion, 1321 W. Wisconsin Ave., an 1895 German Baroque icon whose turret was held up by terra cotta caryatids; and the showplace Albert Trostel mansion at 3200 N. Lake Drive. (After its demolition in 1936, some of the bricks were snapped up by the actor Gary Cooper, the gargoyles by Henry Ford.)

And other Liebert works, including his own 1887 house on N. Holton St. and his charming, bracketed summer home on N. Sunny Point Lane in Glendale, remain unprotected from demolition or unsympathetic alterations.

I hope Zimmermann's book will spark a renewed effort to safeguard what remains of Liebert's legacy. As the city renews itself, his buildings tell the story of our European roots; they enrich our sense of place; and they remind us that real history, in all of its layered complexity, is infinitely more satisfying than the cheap imitations too often erected after the wrecking ball has done its dirty work.

For a slide show of Eugene Liebert's work, click on H. Russell Zimmermann's book, "The Architecture of Eugene Liebert," is for sale ($24.95 cloth; $19.95 soft cover) at Harry W. Schwartz bookstores and the Milwaukee County Historical Society. E-mail to or call (414) 224-2358.

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