Today, Harley-Davidson’s heavyweight bikes have hundreds of thousands of devotees. In 2003, more than 250,000 people came to Milwaukee for the final stop of the Open Road Tour and Harley-Davidson’s 100th-anniversary celebration.
Many generations of riders and enthusiasts can experience those 100-plus years of history at the Harley-Davidson Museum, which is fittingly located on the Menomonee River in the company’s hometown of Milwaukee. Exhibits detail the history of the brand, from the oldest Harley-Davidson motorcycle to facts about how current bikes are designed and built.
"The museum showcases an unforgettable collection of motorcycles and historical items from our company’s vast archives," says Stacey Watson, museum director. "It tells the story of the people, products, history and culture of Harley-Davidson. The stories are told through both chronological and thematic exhibits, which are linked together by a chronological procession of landmark motorcycles from the company’s 105-year history."
Choosing a material
When planning the museum, Harley-Davidson needed a material that exemplified its rugged image. "Milwaukee is a city of manufacturing," Watson says. "Harley-Davidson designs and manufactures motorcycles, so we looked to the forms, shapes and materials of factories when planning the museum.
"The exterior skeleton is made of galvanized steel," she continues. "You can see metal featured in big ways and small ways. It portrays the strength and honesty of the Harley-Davidson brand and industrial heritage of the area."
To create this factory look, the museum’s design architect, Pentagram of New York, used architectural metals from Tampa, Fla.-based McNichols Co.’s Designer Metals line, focusing on close-mesh bar grating, perforated metal and carbon wire steel mesh products.
In addition, Pentagram worked with HGA Architects and Engineers, the museum’s architect of record, and Grunau Metals, Oak Creek, Wis., a metal fabricator.
Grunau Metals specializes in metal fabrication and serves a diverse client base, which includes a wide range of companies in industries such as health care, education, industrial and commercial.
"Most of the metals in the interior were fabricated from standard shapes of rolled, punched and fabricated steel," says James Biber, FAIA, of Pentagram, who led the design team.
Expanding bar grating’s uses
"We have seen our architectural metals used in some unusual ways, but this museum took them to another level of creativity," says Herb Goetschius, vice chairman of McNichols Co.
Pentagram is familiar with McNichols’ architectural metals, having used the company’s products in its home office, as well as in other client projects over the years.
"I have been aware of McNichols for more than 20 years. It’s the standard in that whole category of metals for variety and reliability," says Biber.
Grunau Metals has also worked with McNichols, particularly with the company’s grating materials and perforated metal steel or stainless, says Brad Landry, operations manager at Grunau Metals.
And Ray Sachs, HGA’s project manager for the museum, was familiar with McNichols’ off-the-shelf products, which provide a custom look at a lower cost.
"McNichols has a shopping list of patterns they produce that are far less expensive than custom fabrication," he says.
The Harley-Davidson Museum took existing McNichols products and repurposed them in innovative ways.
For instance, McNichols’ GCM-100 close-mesh bar grating is typically used for industrial flooring. Although it’s unusual for this type of flooring to be used in a museum, it can handle high traffic in pedestrian areas while maintaining the look and feel of a factory.
The close-mesh bar grating was used as flooring for the interior pedestrian bridges and stairways and fabricated in an upright position for handrails. The product meets ADA requirements as a walking surface.
Bar grating was also used to cover HVAC vents on the floor and as a hill climb exhibit, where it was installed at a significant pitch and supports several motorcycles that appear to be motoring uphill.
The close-mesh bar grating along the exhibit walking paths is found on the treads and landing of the staircase, as well as on a suspended pedestrian bridge that links the motorcycle gallery to the engine exhibit room.
Many of the fabrications were built in Grunau Metals’ Milwaukee steel fabrication workshop and assembled and welded on-site. Unique to the bridge is the use of bar grating as a handrail to match the walking surface, a design that required the two elements to link like door hinges.
"It was like lacing your fingers together," says Landry. "The bar grating came in 3-foot-wide panels, so we had to piece the bridge together panel by panel."
The vertical bar grating also required a custom-welded handrail cap to cover the raw edge of the upended panel.
Perforated metal accents
In addition to the innovative uses of bar grating, perforated metal is also featured in novel ways. McNichols’ perforated metal panels with a 1-inch border and formed edges were used as a decorative wall covering.
The museum’s cafe, Cafe Racer, features walls of perforated metal panels that are gray powder-coated and wrapped around the elevator shaft that is painted in Harley-Davidson orange. The perforated metal doubles as a backdrop for large photo murals featuring famous Harley-Davidson racers.
Light fixtures in some areas are covered with long cylinders of perforated metal to resemble motorcycle exhaust pipes, where light glows through tiny holes without the need for diffusers.
On the grounds of the museum, carbon wire steel mesh is used as infill panels on the guardrail along the river’s edge for safety and aesthetic purposes. The wire mesh is powder-coated in black, another nod to factory chic.
Some metal components, such as counters, railings and other trim elements, were exposed to a chemical blackening process instead of a traditional paint to fully express the natural roughness associated with a factory setting.
To achieve this blackened appearance, some of the McNichols GCM-100 was hot-dipped galvanized to create an industrial look. It was also zinc-plate coated, which created a dulled-out silver sheen.
"The Harley-Davidson Museum has received so much worldwide acclaim, it will no doubt stimulate the architectural community to view specialty metals in new and different ways," says Goetschius. "The unique metal features in this museum will open the door for architects to consider specialty metal products for their aesthetics, as well as their other qualities, such as sustainability, recycled content and green value." MM