Case Study: Germania Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A historic building on a large street corner
The rehabilitation of the Germania is a major milestone for development in the City of Milwaukee and the Central Business District.

Courtesy of Cardinal Capital Management

History and Downtown Context

The Germania has been a Milwaukee landmark since it was built in 1896. German bookstore owner George Brumder constructed the Germania as the headquarters for his growing newspaper empire, which printed multiple papers in both English and German to meet the needs of Milwaukee's large German population for books, newspapers, and magazines in their own language. The steel-framed, eight-story, brick-and-terra-cotta, Beaux Arts style-building was designed by architects Eugene Liebert and Paul Schnetzky. At the time, it was the largest building in Milwaukee and has endured as a regional landmark with its copper pickelhaube (the Prussian spiked army helmet) domes and terra-cotta cherubs adorning the pediments above both the entrance and rooftop. As WWI approached, with anti-German sentiment on the rise, the building’s name was changed to the “Brumder” Building and the 10-foot bronze statue of “Germania” representing the German tribes that resisted Roman rule, along with the sculpted eagles, were removed. Eventually, Milwaukee’s first underground parking garage replaced the printing presses in the basement and the name was changed back to the Germania Building in 1981. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Scope of the Rehabilitation

In 2016, Cardinal Capital Management and their development partners began rehabilitation of the Germania to convert the building into mixed-income housing that would appeal to residents who work downtown. Unemployed and underemployed city residents were hired for the project and trained in construction to work on the building. The rehabilitation to adapt the building for the new uses sought to retain its historic character in order to receive the tax credits, while bringing the building into compliance with code requirements and other residential needs. On the exterior, terra cotta and limestone features that were damaged were repaired and brick was repointed where necessary. The historic wood windows were retained and repaired. Significant character-defining features were also retained on the interior, including the first-floor lobby with its marble floors, wainscoting, decorative pilasters, and staircase. The marble wainscoting, wood chair rails, and wood door casings that still remained in the corridors were refurbished, as were the historic wood window and door surrounds and wood floors in the apartments.

The HVAC system was designed with an innovative and cost-effective means of supplying the heat and air conditioning to the 90 units. City-generated steam, through a new heat exchanger, provides the heat and hot water for the building via ten stainless-steel, indirect water heaters, and four rooftop chillers provide the air conditioning. The heat, hot water and air conditioning are all included in the tenants’ rent. The 90 apartments are a mix of 44 affordable units and 46 market-rate units. Additionally, the Germania includes approximately 7,000 square feet of street-level commercial space.

Role of the Historic Tax Credit

All sources of financing were critical to this project. Without the Historic Tax Credit, the rehabilitation of the Germania Building would not have been possible. The tax credit equity generated by both the state and Federal historic tax credits filled a critical financing gap for the project.

Economic Impact on Downtown Milwaukee

The rehabilitation of the Germania is a major milestone for development in the City of Milwaukee and the Central Business District (CBD). The need for additional affordable housing in the CBD and greater downtown area is acute, and the Germania demonstrates that high-quality rehabilitations of historic buildings can help fill this need. Well executed, this dramatic revitalization of a long-neglected Class “C” office building is an inspiration to other developers, as it demonstrates that affordable housing is not only viable in Milwaukee’s CBD, but can play a vital role in fulfilling the workforce needs of the expanding downtown marketplace. By involving unemployed and underemployed city residents to work on the building, the project also was important because it created jobs and trained people to start new careers.

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Additional Case Studies

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  • Case Study: Thomson-Lyons Implement Company Building (Crowley, Louisiana) Rehabilitating the Thomson-Lyons Implement Company Building is a vital step in catalyzing more downtown development in Crowley (pop. 12,839). The value of this historic building has significantly increased as a result of its rehabilitation, and the City has invested in public infrastructure, as well as main street events and other amenities, to enhance the appeal of the downtown. Due to the growing downtown appeal, new businesses have started locating in downtown Crowley, and residents are looking for places to remodel in order to live downtown.
  • Case Study: Cheney High School (Cheney, Washington) School House Lofts’ rehabilitation of the former Cheney High School now provides contemporary and fun living spaces within a cherished historic building and a community icon. It not only provides much-needed student housing at Eastern Washington University, but also reduces automobile use and alleviates parking on-campus, given its close proximity. The project also breathed new life into the vacated high school and supports continuity in the neighborhood by blending a large historic building into a residential section of Cheney (pop. 12,446).

Last updated: March 30, 2023