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Below the Fold: Digging deeper into the design of Journal Commons

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An exterior view of the former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper headquarters. EUA worked with developer J. Jeffers & Co. and general contractor CG Schmidt to convert the building into a mixed-use residential and commercial space.

When our team first visited the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel building at the outset of our Journal Commons project, it still housed the newspaper staff. The printing presses were gone, but the offices buzzed with journalists. Our team felt the weight of the building’s history, imagining all the news that hit the presses over its decades of service. As we walked through the office, industrial and storage spaces of this building, I could only imagine the challenges ahead to create a successful residential development – but often, the most challenging projects turn out to be the most rewarding.

Across the country, mixed-use and senior housing developers are turning to adaptive reuse to stand out in a competitive rental market. As Milwaukee looks to attract more residents and employers to the city, the need to provide new – and unique – living environments only grows.

Developer J. Jeffers & Co. saw the opportunity to bring new life to the former headquarters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper and worked with our team at EUA and contractor CG Schmidt to convert the building into a vibrant mixed-use residential and commercial space. This development, which will house more than 200 students and young professionals, breathes new life into an entire block of vacant buildings while maintaining traces of the newspaper’s history.


A view of the renovated lobby of the 1924 building. The project team preserved two of the lobby’s original phone booths, visible in the background just behind the stairs.

Preserving History

Journal Commons comprises two of the newspaper’s former buildings, a 1924 Art Deco building and an addition built in 1962. The development took advantage of historic designations through the National Park Service and the City of Milwaukee, which come with tax benefits to offset some of the construction costs. But these designations also dictate how much of the original buildings must be preserved – much of their exteriors could not change.

Journal Commons consists of 83 living units in the 1962 building and 141 units in the 1924 building. Above: a view into one of the 1962 building’s apartments.

The north face of the 1962 building included a screen wall that hid mechanical equipment. While the wall had to remain in place, our design team could use this existing feature to add more living space; we added two stories of student housing behind the wall, replacing louver openings with windows for the new units.

We tried to preserve as much of the buildings’ interiors as possible, leaving historical touches – literally – around the building where we could. Some of the structural columns in the former press room, now the parking garage, show handprints of ink left by the paper’s press operators. A few columns also feature identifying stickers with a code like “F2” that helped workers know where they were on the press room floor.

Some press-room floor columns, now the parking area, are stamped with inky handprints from the press operators. The project team preserved the feature for residents to enjoy.

Other historical features create unique experiences in common areas, like two phone booths that residents can enter from the Journal’s former lobby. Another prominent historical amenity is the fourth-floor editors’ suite of the 1924 building, which boasts its original wood paneling, floors, and murals depicting the history of printing. 

The former editors’ suite, now a commons area on the fourth floor of the 1924 building, features preserved murals of the history of printing.

Structural Changes

One of the trickiest parts of the Journal Commons project was transforming an industrial building’s footprint to accommodate living spaces. Industrial and office buildings are typically much deeper than residential buildings, which limits the number of living units that can fit within the existing envelope and have access to natural light.

To overcome this challenge, our team cut a light well through the building to create a "second skin” on its interior. This light well essentially turned the existing rectangular floor plate into a donut; we could now create a double-loaded corridor with apartments on both sides facing either the street or the new internal courtyard. This one big gesture allowed us to maximize the number of units in the building to meet the developer’s proforma while providing comfortable and right-sized apartments for prospective residents.

The new residential use of this building also presented our team with challenges around circulation and emergency egress, which we solved by cutting new stair and elevator shafts in the 1962 building. We also removed a large portion of the former loading dock floor to create a ramp to the parking area below. These major structural changes were necessary for the adaptation. They required careful planning with our engineering and contractor teams to ensure the adequate reinforcement of the new openings through varied conditions.

This section of the 1962 building shows the new stair and elevator shafts the team cut into the building’s structure. The large open space in the lower right of the image is the former press room that was converted into parking.

Adapting for a Sustainable Future

Adaptive reuse projects can create unique, charming apartments and mixed-use communities. They also attract millennial and Gen Z residents who prioritize environmental sustainability in their lifestyles – or, in the case of senior housing developments, value sustainably-minded employers. The emerging generations of renters and employees want to feel good about the places they live and work, and adaptive reuse projects fit the bill. Compared to new construction, these projects take advantage of the embodied carbon of existing structures, capitalize on existing urban infrastructure, and make a stronger case for improved public transit and walkable cities.

And sometimes, as with Journal Commons, these projects preserve the city’s most iconic buildings and give them a new life.

The first-floor community room doubles as a co-working space – an attractive amenity for students and young professionals.

Adaptive reuse is a win-win for project stakeholders and the community at large – plus, they are just plain fun. As architects and stewards of the built environment, it’s exciting to save these buildings, find creative ways to fit new programs to their floor plates, and highlight their quirks and histories through thoughtful design.

Mike Oates, RA, CDT
Senior Project Manager

Mike Oates, RA, CDT, is a Senior Project Manager at Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA), working out of the Milwaukee office with the Living Environments Studio.