Early in the 20th century, architect Alfred C. Clas imagined the riverfront as a European-style destination for recreation and a source of beauty at the heart of downtown.
In 1914, Clas, a proponent of the "City Beautiful" movement to improve architecture, landscaping and urban planning in American cities, advocated narrowing the River to a canal. He proposed building underground subway tunnels covered by broad, leafy walkways and orienting new buildings toward the water. But Clas's dream would not be realized.
The First National Bank building (12 above), designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham, provided the first hint of what a riverwalk system could look like. The building reportedly attracted 10,000 visitors to the riverfront for its opening in 1914. But a comprehensive public plan was still years away.
Subsequent plans for development would have given Milwaukee a very different riverfront. The 1968 Milwaukee River Technical Study recommended demolishing many of Milwaukee's most historic buildings, including Mader's, 1041 N. Old World Third St., and Turner Hall (2 above), to make room for green space and boat slips.
It was not until the early 1990s that Milwaukee business and government leaders finally united to develop the River as a public destination. The Milwaukee Riverwalk District, created in 1992, established a public-private partnership to finally realize the spirit, if not the details, of Clas's original vision. The Milwaukee Common Council approved plans to develop the RiverWalk in 1994 and the project soon grew into the strongest development corridor in the state of Wisconsin.