Milwaukee's Never-Built 'Tourist Tower:' A Landmark in Memory Only

Mar. 20, 2017
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Milwaukee’s ‘Tourist Tour,’ A landmark that never was.

I have written before about Milwaukee’s proposed “Tourist Tower,” both briefly on this blog and in Milwaukee Magazine, but I never felt like I was able to tell the whole story of the tower. With so much construction presently taking place in the city, particularly downtown, I figured it was a good time to revisit the never-built structure that could have become the city’s defining feature.

The tower was the brainchild of architect Robert Rasche, whose projects included the iconic arched-front Kohl’s shopping centers, the Marine Plaza Building (now the Chase Tower), and the 1962 addition to the Pfister. The early 1960s had seen a veritable building boom in downtown, where the skyline had remained mostly stagnant since the early 1930s. Rasche’s grandest vision was to build something that could stand as both a work of art and a monument to the city. Essentially, he wanted a structure that would itself become a tourist attraction – very much in the way that the Space Needle had when it opened for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

The plan for Milwaukee’s “needle” was unveiled in 1964 and was, to say the least, quite ambitious. The “Tourist Tower” was to be 875 feet tall, taller than any building in the world outside of New York City. A slender center core would be fitted seven circular “exhibition areas” with an external, iron latticework helping to support the weight of each floor. Inside the core, glass elevators would zip from the ground level to the rooftop observation deck in two minutes. Other exhibition levels would include a revolving beer garden, an artificial stream where guests could go trout fishing, a complete and working dairy farm, and a restaurant where food would be served to guests on trays as they sat in airline seats, facing out at the landscape – “to give those persons who have never flown in a plane an opportunity to sample airline service,” explained Rasche. Backers of the project estimated it would draw as many as 1 million people to Milwaukee every year.

A model of the original tower design.

Throughout 1964, Rasche retooled the design in an effort to secure proper funding for the project, tinkering with the tower’s height and platform arrangement. To help support the project, the city of Milwaukee had given Rasche a steeply discounted price on a plot of land on the North side of Wells Street, between Milwaukee Street and Broadway. In order to keep his claim on the property, he was required to break ground by the end of the year. But some local business leaders felt that the tower would better serve the city west of the river, nearer to the theater and shopping districts. Meanwhile, Rasche’s design for the tower was now topping out at 999 feet – nearly three times the height of City Hall, at the time, Wisconsin’s tallest structure.

With his original deadline to begin construction now extended, Rasche spent 1965 trying to convince the city to allow him to build the tower on the North Shore Rail Road Depot site, on 6th Street between Michigan and Cylbourn. He also unveiled, despite previous assurances that 1/3 of the tower’s space had already been leased, a significantly altered plan for what he was now calling the “Diamond Tower.” The new design called for a busy, three-story base to the sleek, tube-like 832-foot structure, and six levels of space at the top. The base would include a massive whale aquarium, a German-style beer garden, a three-story glass-enclosed artificial jungle, a movie theatre, and an indoor Civil War battlefield on which daily reenactments would be held. At the top, revolving restaurants and bars would be paired with observation decks and a “flying saucer ride” that dangled guests over the side of the tower in glass “saucers” from a set of rotating arm at the tower’s peak.

The Diamond Tower, which would have included a whale tank and Civil War battlefield at its base.

Rasche still struggled to raise the $3.5 million that it would cost to build his tower. He compared those who decried the feasibility of the tower to the people who “loudly opposed the Eiffel Tower when it was proposed in France” and bristled at the comparatively easy process of moving forward with the downtown music hall (now the Marcus Center), which had just broken ground. “The tower is designed for the masses,” he said, “not for the few that the music hall will serve.” To meet a city-imposed deadline on the project, Rasche reluctantly broke ground on the project in the summer of 1966, digging a hole and laying a partial foundation at the Wells Street site. The tower still had no final design and still lacked complete financing.

A cross-section of the top of the Diamond Tower, featuring the “flying saucer ride.”

And it was there that the project stalled. In the spring of 1967, Rasche unveiled yet another version of the tower, this one called the Star Spire, that featured a 160 room hotel. Meanwhile, the city was so convinced that the project would never materialize that they moved to seize the plot of land if Rasche did not fill the hole or begin construction. Rasche secured an injunction against the order and, by 1970, the deed to the land was being held in escrow. Over the next decade, the city and Rasche battled over the land in court, the city wanting the plot back and Rasche insisting he could still build on it. The piece of property was now estimated to be worth about a half-million dollars. The city had sold it to Rasche in 1963 for just over $11,000.

In June 1979, Rasche died of cancer. He was only 54 years old. He insisted until the very end that the tower project was a winner, but his long and very public battle with the city had ruined his once sterling reputation. He kept working through the 1970s, but was forced to do so anonymously, submitting his work unsigned, lest the movers and shakers he served realize they were dealing with that man who dug the hole on Wells Street. Shortly after his death, the city reacquired the lot and filled in the infamous hole. Today, a parking garage occupies the site.

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