Once a proud outpost in a farm tools empire, a midcentury factory in West Allis, Wisconsin, is now part of a second Milwaukee-born company’s story.
Last year, Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) took over the 130,700-square-foot building, which was a factory for the Allis-Chalmers tractor company. Though the sturdy, timber-frame building began its life as a munitions manufacturing plant during World War II, Allis-Chalmers churned out tractor parts and other farm implements for decades beneath its burly wood trusses. (The site handled uranium, and may have been built for work on the Manhattan Project.)
JCI hired Milwaukee’s Eppstein Uhen Architects to retrofit the space, which became a department store during the 1990s after Allis-Chalmers dissolved.Suburban West Allis was a company town, whose name was changed from North Greenfield when Edward P. Allis’ business set up shop there in 1901. More than a century later it is a working-class, mostly white suburb. The JCI move brought 800 jobs to West Allis in a hurry—they urgently needed the space for a special projects team. The firm had to design, document, and build out the new office in a single phase in less than seven months.
The architects were given two guiding ideas: breakdown hierarchical barriers between managers and lower-level employees, and marry the building’s contemporary needs with its historical character. Eppstein’s first move was to remove much of the floor separating the office’s upper and lower levels, leaving a double-height atrium and central gathering space visible from most of the office.
Capable of accommodating the entire staff for meetings and events, the central “Unity Space” also features a two-story, video display wall, framed with salvaged steel beams and clad with reclaimed barn wood. When not in use the video display’s black, back-painted glass panels are a sleek monolith playing off the organic textures of the repurposed wood.