The battle over a war memorial.

War Memorial building designed by Eero Saarinen. Photo: Ezra Stoller, ca. 1957

On the shore of Lake Michigan, two buildings are at the heart of a custody battle. One of them, the War Memorial building designed by Eero Saarinen in the 1950s, is in need of repairs. The other, the Milwaukee Art Museum with its stunning pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava in 2001, would like control of the project to better ensure that the outcome is in keeping with the Museum’s plans.

The west-facing wall of the Memorial building features a mosaic by Edmund Lewandowski. The Roman numerals represent the dates of WWII and the Korean Conflict.

Saarinen’s floating cruciform design was inspired by the work of Le Corbusier whose affinity for abstract geometry can be seen in this cantilevered structure and freeform façade. In the center is a memorial court with a pool that is “surrounded by polyhedron-shaped piers, which support the building and also make frames for the breathtaking views of the lake and sky,” wrote Saarinen. “The superstructure is cantilevered outward thirty feet in three directions, and contains the meeting halls and offices of the veterans’ organizations.”

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Archival photo of the War Memorial building.

A $15 million overhaul has been proposed for the original Saarinen building and 1972 extension by David Kahler (the Calatrava wing will remain untouched), and while all parties agree renovations are necessary, the brewing battle is ultimately about control. The Calatrava Wing is owned and operated by the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Saarinen War Memorial building and Kahler extension are owned by Milwaukee County and operated by the War Memorial Corp. The Milwaukee Art Museum would like full-control of the entire complex.

However the veterans, County and museum work this out, it will hopefully result in the preservation of Saarinen’s iconic structure, which is crumbling, leaking and at risk of further deterioration.