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Milwaukee, WI: New Plans for Garfield Theatre Include Destroying Auditorium, Keeping Lobby and Facade

Posted on Tuesday, September 21, 2021 4:32 PM

Rendering by JLA Architects

The former Garfield Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the site of yet another redevelopment plan, according to recent news reports.

Located on North King Drive just north of Locust Street hasn't shown movies since 1965. Originally opened in 1927, the former grand movie theater has most recently been used as a church. A plan to convert the theater building into a library and commercial space was announced in January 2019, only to be dropped that May.

According to a recent article published on Urban Milwaukee, the new plan would keep the lobby and facade of the building, but the 1,800-seat auditorium would be destroyed:

A partnership of Emem Group and General Capital Group is moving forward with a proposal to develop 93 apartments and a new 17,000-square-foot library.

The proposal would create two new buildings and lead to the redevelopment of another. It would also result in a historic theater at the rear of the site being demolished, while a two-story commercial building and theater’s former lobby would be restored. 

“We believe this is a much cleaner, much more feasible development plan than what was proposed before,” said Michael Emem on Monday during a briefing of the Bronzeville Advisory Committee.


The Garfield Theatre building, 2933-2957 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., would be redeveloped. The two-story commercial building that faces the street would be redeveloped while the theater structure, located along the alley at the rear of the site, would be demolished. 

“We are really restoring the true gem of the Garfield Theatre, the portion that is architecturally significant,” said Emem. The exterior facade, including the marquee, would see new life. The 1,800-seat theater opened in 1927 just a few months after the similarly-designed Oriental Theatre. The two theater complexes were designed by the same architectural team for Saxe Amusement Enterprises

The auditorium space itself is in “rough shape,” said the developer. He said restoration costs would be in the millions and a new use would still need to be found. All of the seating has been removed, water damage from a roof leak is evident and the acoustical plaster is in disrepair. “There was a ceiling installed at some point that really damaged a lot of the architectural quality of it,” said Emem, describing a fate that has befallen a number of historic theater auditoriums.

Construction is expected to begin in Spring 2022 with completion in Summer 2023. Click the Read link below to view the full article.

The previous plan appeared to use the theater building for the library, but this plan places the library in the same location as the current library building on the corner of North Martin Luther King Drive and West Locust Street. The theater facade (which can be seen to the right of the new library building in the rendering above) would be kept, and the commercial spaces would be converted to live-work, two-story apartments where storefronts are combined with residences. The current auditorium space would be turned into a parking lot.

It's sad to see something that was once a grand movie theater turned into a parking lot. Keeping the facade seems to be just that, a facade that covers up the fact that a historical building has been demolished so that cars can be parked on asphalt instead. At that point, does it really matter? It's hard to say that it does.

Rendering by JLA Architects

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