Formerly occupied by an underused freeway spur, the Park East area of Milwaukee, a vacant urban desert, is being transformed by a large-scale redevelopment that includes a series of mixed-use projects connecting the downtown to adjacent neighborhoods. In December 2007, Gatehouse Capital, a national real estate investment and development firm located in Dallas, hired Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects (JSA) to transform an abandoned one-story warehouse on the edge of the Park East redevelopment corridor into a welcome center that would introduce the public to the investor and design team's vision for the area. JSA was charged with designing an interactive hub that would attract and connect investors, business owners, and future residents, and the architects had to accomplish this on an extremely limited budget, working with tight deadlines and the constraints of the existing warehouse structure.

The Palomar Welcome Center, which opened in May 2008, includes a public lounge, offices, a gallery, and a model condominium for the Hotel Palomar and Residences, a 22-story luxury tower to be operated by the Kimpton Hotel chain. JSA worked on the project's architecture and lighting, taking a minimalist approach to creating a corporate identity that is neutral and elegant without forcing a prescribed aesthetic. “The goal was to create an architecturally significant addition to the city that would be unexpected and leave room for imagination,” says JSA principal Sebastian Schmaling. As soon as they began their design, it became apparent to Schmaling and his team that they needed to address the windowless façade of the building. Their solution was to have it become the design's focal point, a gesture to welcome visitors to the center, given the rather foreboding and bare landscape that surrounds the building. “Incorporating signage and lighting into the façade was something that the client was immediately interested in,” Schmaling explains. “We quickly began thinking of the façade as a billboard that could communicate a sense of excitement.” The façade design also conveniently serves as a clever cost-saving solution, combining marketing and architectural budgets.

To create the glowing billboard effect, the windowless brick wall on the south façade is wrapped with a long translucent glass scrim that is backlit with two rows of T8 linear fluorescent striplights. By strategically incorporating simple off-the-shelf products into the façade's design, JSA produced an inexpensive yet memorable first impression. Applied supergraphics spell out the name of the project and are silhouetted against the illuminated scrim as light from the façade emanates out into the surrounding neighborhood. The building demands attention in a bold yet sophisticated fashion. Additionally, the façade design acts as a thermal buffer throughout the year by reducing solar impact on the building envelope and serving as a secondary protective layer during the cold winter months.

The interior spaces of the Welcome Center were designed with flexibility in mind. To conceal the raw appearance of the warehouse, JSA introduced three ceiling bands that wrap in and around the various areas to create spatial definition. Depending on the programmatic needs of each space—reception area, lounge, and conference room—appropriate luminaire types are recessed into each of the bands. Visitors first encounter a wooden ceiling ribbon that runs the length of the entry and then turns down to create a backdrop for the information desk. Continuous recessed lensed linear fluorescent fixtures stretch the entire horizontal and vertical length of this band and create “a line that literally draws people into the space,” Schmaling says. In a second ceiling band, this one made of gypsum, recessed halogen downlights help define an open lounge space adjacent to the entry vestibule. A fireplace anchors the seating area that is used for informal gatherings, adding another layer of warmth and illumination. The third ceiling band delineates a conference room that can be closed off from the rest of the space with large sliding glass panels. When meetings are not taking place, the panels can be opened to extend the space of the adjacent gallery, which relies on low-voltage halogen tracklights to illuminate temporary exhibits. Offices are located along the east wall where windows provide daylight, a feature that is unavailable in the rest of the warehouse.

Despite the hope that this redevelopment project would be a jump-start for growth and building in the Park East neighborhood, the reality is that it has become another victim of the devastated real estate market. Open for only 10 months, the doors of the Palomar Welcome Center closed in February 2009 when plans for the Park East redevelopment were suspended. The building now sits unused as it awaits the fate of the market. Although its closing may be an unavoidable sign of the times, the Palomar Welcome Center is an inventive and enthusiastic reminder of the power of design as a catalyst for urban reinvention.


Project Palomar Welcome Center, Milwaukee
Client Gatehouse Capitol, Dallas
Architect and Lighting Designer Johnsen Schmaling Architects, Milwaukee
Gallery Lighting Consultant Lang Lighting Design, Dallas
Project Size 17,000 square feet
Project Cost $1.4 Million (Includes Landscape Improvements)
Watts Per Square Foot 0.8
Photographer John J. Macaulay, Milwaukee; Images courtesy Johnsen Schmaling Architects
Metalux, Cooper Lighting: Façade scrim and super-graphic signage backlit with two rows of 48-inch-long T8 linear fluorescent striplights
Portfolio, Cooper Lighting: Low-brightness 6-inch-aperture recessed downlights in gallery area Pinnacle: Linear slot-lighting feature with T8 lamps at entry canopy and reception desk
WAC Lighting: Low-voltage halogen tracklighting in gallery area


Metalux, Cooper Lighting: Facade scrim and supergraphic signage backlit with two rows of 48-inch-long TB linear fluorescent striplights
Portfolio, Cooper Lighting: Low-brightness 6-inch-aperture recessed downlights in gallery area
Pinnacle: Linear slot-lighting feature with T8 lamps at entry canopy and reception desk
WAC Lighting: Low-voltage halogen tracklighting in gallery area