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360° View: Urban legend falls, Solvay Plant no more

The Milwaukee Independent was given access by The MRD Group to document the last stage of the site’s demolition. Full safety gear was worn on the location with supervised escort, because the area remains off-limits to the public and is very dangerous. The facility and its land are private property, and entering the grounds is illegally trespassing. In addition to being contracted for the demolition, The MRD Group also provided asbestos abatement, which cleared the buildings of cancer causing fibers that can be easily inhaled.

Demolition has come to the popular urban spelunking site, one of the last remaining locations of Milwaukee’s industrial decay.

A thriving production center that once supported manufacturing in Milwaukee, the former Solvay Coke Plant now resembles a post-apocalyptic clubhouse. Just down the road from UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, and the $49 million Freshwater Plaza apartments, the 47-acre area that overlooks the mouth of the Kinnickinnic River has been eyed for rejuvenation of the Milwaukee inner harbor for years.

What began in recent times as a rare destination for explorers to visit an industrial relic, has become a homeless camp of crime, and a trendy place where suburban moms bring their high school kids to take senior photos like they were members of a rock band. Visitors have taken little notice of the highly toxic asbestos littered on the ground they walk over, some in high heels, or the lack of physical safety in the area due to squatters.

According to building inspection records, the condemned buildings had defective walls, roofs, foundations and other problems that made them uninhabitable. As sad as it is to see the structures disappear, it is for the public good. Aside from the hazardous building conditions, the swath of land around them has become a tribal enclave that resembles a “Lord of the Flies” situation in Milwaukee.

Fences that were erected to cordon off the area were stolen by vandals, and locks placed on surviving gates are routinely cut. In the two weeks since demolition preparations began, fresh graffiti still appears overnight. Police patrol the area routinely, but the area easily hides criminal activity.

Here are a few 360° images that documented what the site looked like a few months ago. They are part of an unpublished visual walkthrough series that mapped and explored the location. This virtual experience is also as close as many people will ever have now to explore the spot. These immersive images of industrial decay are mixed with past views of the site, and new pictures from the demolition process.

About Milwaukee Solvay Coke Company

In 1905, Milwaukee Solvay Coke Co. began producing the natural gas that heated most of the homes in the city and supplied gas lighting. By the 1920s, the plant was one of six companies that employed 75 percent of the entire black population of Milwaukee. At its peak, 200 coke ovens burned around the clock every day except Christmas, turning millions of tons of coal into coke and gas. At the turn of the 20th century, coke was an essential ingredient for the steel-making industry. A byproduct of coal, it helped furnaces burn hot enough to melt iron.

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, with a background in publishing, advertising, and design, to the Milwaukee Independent. His list of awards include three consecutive top honors from the Milwaukee Press Club. Lee proudly uses MCTS as his exclusive mode of transportation, other than walking, for all the news stories he reports about in Milwaukee.

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