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Milwaukee: Something's Brewing

Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum -- his first completed work in the United States -- is not only an architectural standout but a feat of engineering. A pair of enormous, angelic white wings spread for the opening of the museum at 10 a.m. and close when the museum does. Like a preening peacock, the building also shows off its steel and concrete wings, flapping open and shut each day at noon.

Light streams inside the wide, open foyer of Calatrava's addition. The filtered light reflects off Lake Michigan outside and bounces off the white marble floors inside. In the end, it's as if outside and inside have merged, and you feel a bit as if you're walking on water.

The building is so impressive that it wouldn't even matter if there weren't any art to speak of. But there is. It boasts a major collection of works by Georgia O'Keeffe, German expressionists and Haitian artists, among others.

The museum is also the perfect vantage point for gazing at the waters of Lake Michigan. I stop to watch the high masts of the tall ship S/V Denis Sullivan pass by, loaded with tourists, sailing along some of the 60 miles of Milwaukee coastline.

A walking tour and driving tour takes me to other sites of history and high culture. My second favorite, after the art museum, is the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, designed in the style of a 16th-century Italian villa in 1923. In 2002, the extensive gardens around it were renovated and an outdoor cafe was created in one of the courtyards, where live classical concerts are performed in summer.

The villa sits high atop a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. The decorative arts inside are the furniture and art a person of taste would buy at the finest European auction houses, if money were no object.

It's one of the city's cultural treasures that may have continued to be widely overlooked, were it not for the attention Calatrava's work has focused on Milwaukee.

In fact, his addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum has brought the city its first recent taste of international acclaim. As Calatrava's reputation grows, even more eyes will be turning to his Milwaukee masterwork. City tourism officials believe that Americans' awareness of his work here will grow once he completes his commission for a glass and steel building at the site of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.

Once the iconoclastic winged building on its perch along Lake Michigan is widely known, I'm guessing it will be to Milwaukee what the Opera House is to Sydney or the Parthenon is to Athens.

With that thought in mind, I start thinking I could use some beer and polka.

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