The Aquatarium is a round building housing aquariums and Great Lakes history. At the top is the Pilot House, where visitors can get a 360-degree view of Lake Michigan and the surrounding area. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

Grunau Metals installed the steel substructure for "The Challenge," a 100-foot replica of an 1850s schooner. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

What better place to learn about the Great Lakes than on the shore of Lake Michigan?

That's part of the idea behind Pier Wisconsin, a $63 million attraction that rises off Milwaukee's lakefront.

The 120,000-square-foot complex, which had its grand opening Sept. 8, is home to all things nautical. Visitors can check out four large aquariums filled with Great Lakes and tropical fish, or board a replica of a 1850s schooner.

But Pier Wisconsin is not just about the Great Lakes. It is also the new home of Discovery World, a building filled with hands-on technology exhibits.

Pier Wisconsin seamlessly joins modern technology with the natural sciences. And much of that effect was thanks to architects and designers, as well as the project's sheet metal contractor.

The work of Oak Creek, Wis.-based Grunau Metals can be found throughout the interior and exterior of the attraction. From staircases to steel structural supports, the company has left its mark on this long-awaited project.

To make sure that specifications were accurate, Grunau had to put this helical staircase together at its fabrication shop. The staircase was then taken apart and shipped to the job site for installation. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

Long time coming

Brian Zwiebel, project manager for Grunau Metals, said Pier Wisconsin has been in the works for more than a decade.

The finished product was the vision of Michael Cudahy, a Wisconsin philanthropist and a co-chairman for Discovery World. It was Cudahy's idea to breathe new life into Discovery World by taking it out of its former downtown Milwaukee location. Besides exposing young people to technology, Cudahy also wanted them to learn more about the Great Lakes and life on its waters.

As a result, Pier Wisconsin is two connected buildings. The large rectangular building is devoted to technology, computers and robotics. The circular building, known as the Great Lakes Aquatarium, is devoted to sea life. These two separate structures are connected by an enclosed breezeway called the Connector Link.

It took years to get the Pier Wisconsin project started due to design and location problems. Grunau's work to supply the complex with all of its steel supports and architectural metals took close to 15 months.

Bob Antczak, project foreman for Grunau, said Pier Wisconsin allowed for some unique fabrications and installations, as well as some difficulties.

The location of Pier Wisconsin was a challenge all by itself.

"There was access to the jobsite from only two sides," said Antczak. "The complex is on a ‘finger' that sticks out into the lake."

A view of the helical staircase from the second floor of Discovery World. The staircase was fabricated to look like a DNA strand. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.
Upscale restaurants, as well as the Milwaukee Art Museum, share the area. These businesses stayed open during construction, and workers had to get to and from the job without affecting the other existing buildings.

Timing was another challenge. Zwiebel said that much of Grunau's work was done in tandem with other trades. Last-minutes changes were common. On one occasion, Zwiebel said that some steel work needed to be completed on a Friday, and adjustments were still being made the day before.

One more unpredictable situation was weather. Wisconsin's winters can be hard enough, but add the cold wind off of Lake Michigan, and the resulting temperatures can be bone chilling.

Zwiebel said that during the construction of the Connector Link in December 2005, temperatures dipped down to eight degrees below zero. The winter months also brought its share of snow and ice.

During the construction of the "floating" amphitheater, a frozen Lake Michigan slowed progress.

Grunau fabricated a steel structure for the amphitheater, which stretches out over the water. The company installed structural steel framing. Columns were driven into the lake, cut down and capped.

"If waves got too high, work got shut down," said Zwiebel.

These sunshades were fabricated and installed by Grunau Metals. The sunshades provide an ornamental design to the Pilot House while also helping to shade visitors from the sun. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

A step up

One of Grunau's first responsibilities on the job was the installation of stairwells.

"When we first got there, we had to start putting in stairways so trades would have access to floors," said Antzcak.

In total, Grunau made and installed eight different stairways. Two of these staircases are elaborate centerpieces for both Discovery World and the aquarium.

One such staircase is a double-helix design. The 22-foot staircase runs between two floors of Discovery World, and is meant to look like a DNA strand. A large piece of artwork that looks like a human genome - the DNA sequence of a set of chromosomes - runs up and down the center of the staircase.

To make sure that the double-helix staircase was just right, Grunau fabricated the pieces and assembled it in the shop. When everything fit to specifications, the staircase was taken apart, shipped to the jobsite, and reassembled inside Discovery World.

Another twisting staircase was placed inside the aquarium. At the center of these stairs is a 100-foot replica of a Great Lakes schooner named "The Challenge." Visitors to the Aquatarium can walk under the schooner, thanks to a steel frame made by Grunau.

They can take the stairs up to the second level and actually climb aboard the schooner. The schooner provides a glimpse of what a boat on the Great Lakes would have looked like over 150 years ago.

Besides making and installing all of the staircases, Grunau also placed all of the stainless steel cables. These cables can be found throughout the museum as staircase railings or to section off balconies and other spaces. More than six miles of the stainless cables were installed throughout the two buildings, Zwiebel said.

Grunau fabricated and installed four large tanks for the Aquatarium. Each tank is 12 feet high and 20 feet in length, and connected by view panels. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

Under water

Below the Great Lakes Aquatarium, visitors can walk over, under and along four large aquariums. One tank holds several varieties of fish found in the Great Lakes, while sea life from the Florida Keys, the north Atlantic and other exotic species are found in the others.

Each tank is 12 feet high, about 20 feet in length and approximately 8 feet wide. The tanks are connected together and separated by a large view panel. For Grunau workers, making each of the tanks was the easy part. It was getting them to their underground location that proved a challenge.

An opening was created in the concrete and a crane was used to lower the tanks into position. The first crane selected for the project was too small. A larger crane needed to be found and brought to the jobsite.

With the right crane, the tanks were set into place and connected one by one. Grunau also fabricated a metal walkway that is suspended from the ceiling and hangs 18 feet above the aquarium. This allows visitors to look down on the fish swimming in their new habitats. The aquarium is also designed to allow guests to walk under the tanks.

This helical staircase can be found inside Discovery World. It is meant to look like a strand of DNA and represents the museum's focus on science. The staircase was fabricated and installed by Grunau Metals. Image courtesy of Grunau Metals.

Topping it off

While the aquariums offer one view of sea life, the top of the Aquatarium offers a completely different view. Guests can wander up to the Pilot House, an observation deck measuring 90 feet in diameter and offering 360-degree views of Lake Michigan and its shores.

Grunau Metals topped off its work at the Pilot House with some ornamental designs. The company fabricated and installed several halo-shaped sunshades. The shades are made out of aluminum and tube steel. The structures are 11 feet high and approximately 7 feet wide. The shades not only provide an elaborate and unique look for the Pilot House, they also shield guests from the sun.

With all of the ornamental and structural work finished, Antczak and Zwiebel say they believe Pier Wisconsin will have a lasting effect on Milwaukee visitors and residents.

"It's really an educational thing for kids," said Antczak. "I think it will be a big hit with schools."

He added that besides learning about the Great Lakes, Discovery World could have an impact on young people's perception of the mechanical trades. Not only does Discovery World offer robotics and labs for chemistry and physics, it also has a lab with three computer-numeric-controlled machines. The machines are programmed to perform various tasks. One manufactures toys.

Antczak wishes such attractions were available when he was younger.

"It might spark some kid to be an engineer or an architect," he said.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail