A new water tower mosaic sculpture, rising high above the Coakley Brothers Co. building, could serve as a beacon to the redeveloping Walker’s Point neighborhood.
That’s the plan envisioned by Peggy Coakley, the CEO and fourth-generation member of the family that runs the 129-year-old company that specializes in moving, storage and business interiors.
She commissioned Brooklyn, N.Y., artist Tom Fruin to create a 20-foot-tall piece of art in the shape of the old water tower tank that sat on top of the company’s building at 400 S. 2nd St.
Constructed from thousands of multicolored pieces of plexiglass, the structure will be illuminated by sunlight during the day and by interior lights at night. It will be visible from downtown and the south and west sides of the city, including the Hoan and High Rise bridges.
“It’s really like a kaleidoscope,” she said. “It’s joyful.”
Coakley said she first stumbled on Fruin’s work when she saw his 2012 water tower sculpture in Brooklyn Bridge Park last November.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to bring this back to Milwaukee,’ ” Coakley said.
Although the water tank had been removed long ago, the 40-foot-tall platform it sat upon was intact on top of the seven-story Coakley building.
It took months for Coakley’s staff to connect with Fruin — they did so eventually by Instagram.
The sculpture will rise 20 feet above the platform, making it nearly as tall as the building itself. It’s a companion piece to the ongoing $6 million renovation of the 175,000-square-foot building Coakley will use for its headquarters and West Elm office interiors showroom.
Fruin is creating the work in Brooklyn, and it will arrive in pieces in Milwaukee on Sept. 17. It will be assembled and lifted and welded onto the base on Sept. 21. Plans call for a Sept. 26 “illumination” ceremony.
The piece is the sixth water tower sculpture Fruin has completed, he said in an interview. Three are public pieces in New York and two are in private collections.
Fruin said he focuses much of his work on sculptures for gallery shows but enjoys doing occasional large public art pieces. He said the Coakley Brothers project was the largest, by far, of the water tower pieces he’s completed.
“It’s outrageous, it’s so big,” he said, noting that there are about 16,000 “studs” connecting the pieces.
“I think it will look different at different times of day from different angles,” Fruin said.
“It’s meant for everyone, not just for an educated ‘art’ audience,” he said. “I kind of like working outside of that system to reach everybody.”
The tower will be a colorful companion to the Allen-Bradley clock tower at Rockwell Automation a few blocks to the southeast.
The Coakley building is just southeast of the Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St., and northeast of the new Mobcraft brewery and taproom.
Coakley Brothers Co. has about 140 employees, and last year reported sales of about $17.6 million.
Coakley, who had no previous experience dealing with a public art project or the city’s arts community, said she was happy to handle the logistics of the creation, delivery, installation and red tape associated with the project.
“It speaks volumes for this area because of the investment that they’re making,” said Cindy Evinrude, property manager for the Brix Apartment Lofts, 408 W. Florida St., just across the street from the Coakley building.
Evinrude says she shows images of the water tower project to prospective tenants for the 100-unit Brix, and expects it to be appealing to others interested in the rapidly redeveloping area.
“It’s going to be very appealing for our units that face the south,” she said.
“You wouldn’t have seen this 10 years ago.”