It WAS just a bunch of Trees

A while ago I wrote about my admiration of a threatened grove of trees outside the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. I held that grove as something of a sacred space in downtown Milwaukee. Well, we can refer to those trees in the past tense now.


Crews on Saturday cut down nearly 20 trees in a grove at downtown Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, saddening advocates who pushed in recent months to save the space from renovation.


About 15 trees remained in the grove Saturday evening. A Milwaukee Common Council vote last week allowed Marcus Center officials to move forward on their plan to remove the grove entirely and replace it with a lawn fringed by 18 honey locust trees.

So let me dig into the minutiae a bit about what is now fait accompli. Honey locusts? Really?? We can’t find a more decorous tree than that? We have hundreds of them across the city. The city forestry department loves them so they plant them everywhere. But can’t we like…find 18 different native trees to use? That would be beautiful.

And a lawn? Isn’t an urban lawn one of the most environmentally unfriendly landscape choices we have??

And since apparently, we taxpayers, as owners of the building and grounds, have no say in its use or condition…let’s sell it to the highest bidder and use the funds to fix the Domes or move the Museum or improve other county cultural assets. A downtown square block lot on the Milwaukee River must be a pretty desirable piece of real estate…and I mean what good is a 50+ year old brutalist building anyway?

It’s Just A Bunch of Trees @ Marcus Center

This post will be a bit different than my usual rant. But after years of talking about it and not getting any concessions from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Milwaukee Symphony is preparing their own home in the old Grand Theater on Wisconsin Avenue. With the loss of their biggest resident artistic group, the people at the Marcus want to take on some refreshing at the Marcus. I am not going to get into all of it here but I think there is a bit of wrongheadedness over there…and some very good ideas too. BUT:

As part of the exterior landscaping, the architects of the revitalization want to remove a grove of chestnut trees that shelter between the Marcus and Kilbourn Avenue. These trees are planted just below street grade with stone benches for seating and pea gravel underfoot. This grove was designed by renowned landscape artist, Daniel Urban Kiley. And we have another gem by Mr. Kiley, the Cudahy gardens at the Milwaukee Art Museum…so having these bookends in East Town is really quite remarkable.

But that isn’t the only reason to save the chestnut grove. When I worked downtown, I often wandered over there to spend some time decompressing. Although it is right there on Water and Kilbourn, somehow it strains out the traffic noise of downtown. With a little breeze the leaves just seem to whisper their own little organic bit of white noise. To me it is a little sacred space in the city. A secret space where you can imagine yourself in a forest. Meditate. Take a deep breath away from urban stress.

And good golly…we don’t need another lawn anywhere in the city. And there are great expanses of lawn in a number of county parks within walking distance of the Marcus Center including Pere Marquette Park directly across the river.

The Marcus people have come up with some rationales around destroying the grove. It got little use over the last few decades…well that’s not the trees’ fault but the shortsightedness of the Marcus Center. And it has really dark shade under there. Really? Isn’t that what groves of trees are wont to do? And why we plant them? There is a reason that we call them shade trees.

I sympathize with their desire to increase usage of the grounds. I suggest that they do some maintenance around the trees. When I visited there around the holidays it looked like it has suffered a bit of benign neglect. Again that lays on the shoulders of the Marcus Center. And they want to add seating for the outdoor Peck Pavilion and add performances there. That is a great idea, but maybe they can pull the Peck a bit further west or better yet turn it around with it’s back to Kiley’s grove. Haven’t any of these people attended theater in Spring Green at American Player’s Theater? The trees behind the up the hill stage add to the ambience and magic at that theater.

I am going to add a few photos that I took this past December when I visited the grove after enjoying one last Big Boy hamburger at Kilowat before it closed. They give some sense of the majesty of the place even in winter. I retired last summer and I hope that in my intended future ramblings downtown, I will still be able to enjoy the Kiley chestnut grove at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Extra credit reading: From former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art and architecture critic Mary Louise Schumacher: Destroying the chestnut grove at the Marcus Center appeals to Milwaukee’s pragmatic side. But does it make design sense?

and just a little eco-thinking here. Trees are carbon stores…lawns waste carbon every time they get mowed.