Milwaukee, Wisconsin


This is an excerpt of an article from the Sptember 2008 edition of Architectural Record.

Surrounded by nothing but the dark of night, the red-hot embers of a fading campfire captivate onlookers. Similarly, Johnsen Schmaling Architects’ Downtown Bar, a beacon along Milwaukee’s celebrated Riverwalk, draws you in—its deep orange glow radiating over this emerging stretch of the waterway is at once alluring and menacing. For those who venture inside, that ominous first impression quickly lifts as this chic after-dinner spot offers a casual setting for drinks and dessert.

The 21-foot-high space occupies the ground level of a mixed-use development in the city’s Historic Third Ward. While much of the neighborhood features delightful turn-of-the-century warehouse buildings converted into galleries, theaters, and trendy retail shops, local firm Johnsen Schmaling had to contend with an unexceptional restoration of a former cold-storage building. To contrast with these sterile surroundings, the architects crafted a space rich with tactile experiences and optical pyrotechnics—at the center of it all, a 7-foot-wide light ribbon that spans the two levels, leaving the entire space awash in sultry hues.

“The band of light remedied everything,” explains Brian Johnsen, AIA. “It mediated the skewed geometry of the narrow space and connected the different programmatic elements.” Rising from the ground level’s concrete floor, the ribbon defines the espresso bar, then runs along the ceiling above the lounge area, concealing mechanical equipment in the process. On its way back down, the ribbon wraps up again just past the main bar to form the backdrop for a stage where small jazz ensembles regularly perform.

The exact path of the light band was determined using physical models—an old-school practice this young firm continues to employ with each new project. For its actual construction, the firm evaluated the light distribution of several translucent panels before settling on a cast-polymer, honeycomb-core sheet. The architects opted to polish the edges of the 1-inch-thick panels—tinted a custom red—and have adjoining panels simply butt against each other, enhancing the overall effect of the ribbon’s continuous course. Behind the panels, 48-inch-long, 3000K, T5 fluorescent bulbs arranged in a cadenced, staggered pattern provide the warm, dramatic light and upbeat rhythm.

That rhythm is carried over in a series of mahogany wood slats that form the rail and underside of the balcony above the main bar, and the wall and ceiling of its adjacent mezzanine. Believing the bar would cater to a post-theater crowd in a part of town rich with performance venues, the architects’ heavy-handed treatment of these slats evokes a vertical abstraction of thick stage curtains.


Owner: Megan McCormick

Johnsen Schmaling Architects
1699 North Astor Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
T: 414.287.9000
F: 414.287.9025

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Brian Johnsen, Sebastian Schmaling, principals; Nicholas Woods, project architect

Engineer(s): Arnold & O’Sheridan, Structural Engineer

Lighting: Kristen Roth Briggs, Enterprise Lighting, LTD.

Acoustical: John Yerges, Yerges Acoustics

Other: Jeff Berther, DA Berther, Inc (food service equipment)

General contractor: KBS Construction, Inc.

Photographer(s): Doug Edmunds, Edmunds Studios, Inc., 262.377.7600

CAD system, project management, or other software used:
AutoCAD, SketchUp



Sliding doors: Archispec (Custom Mahogany Doors w/ G-U lift-slide hardware)

Locksets: Baldwin, G-U

Exit devices: Von Duprin

Pulls: Rockwood, G--U

Interior finishes:
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
A.J. Pietsch Co., Inc. (Mahogany wall panels and slats)

Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore, Minwax

Special surfacing: Brickform (Integrally Colored Concrete), BR-111 (Brazilian Walnut Flooring and Stairs)

Floor and wall tile: Atlas Concorde Fibre Mosaico, Main Bar

Other furniture:
Custom Teragren Table Tops and Side Tables

Interior ambient lighting: Tube Lighting Products, Creative Systems

Downlights: Cooper, Juno

Task lighting:  Specialty Lighting Industries, W.A.C.

Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Panelite (custom translucent cast polymer honeycomb core panels)

Klein-Dickert Co, Inc. (custom low-iron glass railings)