A little known fact about Wisconsin: the state has 400 villages. How does one village distinguish itself from the rest? This is the story about how the Village of Waterford, Wisconsin took on the challenge of using public art to create an iconic image of the village that enhances the natural beauty of the Fox River which flows through it.

According to Tom Roanhouse, Village President, “We had to leverage the Fox River, a natural resource we’ve been blessed with. I wanted to inspire folks who drive through to say ‘you gotta see the lights in Waterford.’  We could just put up Christmas lights; however, I wanted to do something with lights and the river that would have a wow effect and bring people to our community.”

Here is Adam Brown’s take: “The Waterford Lights Project is fulfilling because of the team work, collaboration and set of opinions that merge together toward the common goal.  Working with others to achieve that goal is hugely rewarding.  Most importantly, the team approach adds a ton of value to the outcome of the project.”


Mr. Roanhouse made a cold call to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) School of Architecture, where he was connected to Mo Zell and Marc Roehrle.  Both are teachers and registered architects with deep experience working on the development of public spaces, specializing on installations.

Their approach is to translate public art into an economic driver.  Ms. Zell explains, “It’s all about the interaction between Space, Place, Materials and Experience.  The river is underutilized, but could create a stronger draw, enhancing the main retail business area in Waterford. Our goal became how to find a way for public art to draw attention to the Village.”

This project is part of a multiphase installation process on the river.  According to Ms. Zell, “We are working on the signature piece which will be located right downtown.  We envisioned early on that the art would be working in the day and night.  So light became an important part of the project.”

Mr. Roanhouse raised the funds necessary for Ms. Zell’s team to create concepts and rendering.  However, he ran into roadblocks when it came time to raising funds for the prototypes.  Ms. Zell applied for a UWM research initiative grant to fund a student worker, prototype, fabrication and consultations. Additional grant funding will be sought to install the art over the Fox River. The team is happy to talk to anyone interested in accepting a grant proposal or contributing funds.


Sign Effectz, Inc. was recommended to Ms. Zell by Johnsen Schmaling Architects in Milwaukee, WI.   Ms. Zell commented, “Adam Brown brought some reality to the project in terms of what we should consider for materials, costs, etc. His role is to advise on how to make these things. Conversations with Adam helped us determine structure details.  His idea: use hollowed out tubes to run wire through, thereby streamlining it and making it more efficient. He also got us thinking about other critical considerations. How will weather conditions affect this? How are you going to change the lights out? Who will maintain it? Who owns it?”

In the very early stages, Mr. Roehrle reached out to Mr. Brown to request his value engineering approach to the project.  Based on the renderings, they explored potential fabrication methods, illumination source, materials and cost estimates to determine feasibility of the design and reach alignment on the budget.

Mr. Brown commented, “The design elements and plan came from work we did on the Ruach metal sculpture.  I fell in love with a structure and aesthetic quality that is a cross between organic or natural influences and modern design.  Like the artistic quality in the fiber membranes of the leaf on a tree, there’s an organic aspect to the reeds that are represented in the Waterford fixtures.  Combining them bridges the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries when it comes to design.”  Jonathan Coyne Nelson, who was funded through UWM’s student research grant, took these conceptual suggestions and put shape to them.

Waterford has an art history that has largely been lost.  Years ago, the Chicago Art Institute offered its students residencies in Waterford.  Students lived there, learning and practicing their craft.   So it is very exciting to see the artistic heritage revitalized with a major public art project such as this.


The prototypes were approved in early April, 2017.  They feature a tapered torque shape.  The rods in each light fixture are called “vertebrae” because they provide support.  The fixtures resemble tapered grass reeds that have been bundled together and are illuminated at either end.

According to Mr. Brown, “Product design approvals are complete.  Now we’re going to the next levels, which are the foundation, support and structural plan.  We’re going to detail the foundation and determine how to get electricity supplied to the fixtures.  That’s collaboration between the architect, the electrician and Sign Effectz. The challenge is to come up with a well-engineering structure without compromising the aesthetic nature of the fixtures.  The supporting structure has to blend into the background.”

What has Mr. Roanhouse learned from this experience?

  1. The prototypes were way better than he imagined. What was supposed to be an entertainment piece is now going to be a sustainable art form.
  2. He is excited that it is public art, not just a light show. Art forms have sustainability.
  3. It will be an economic driver for the Waterford community.

At the end of the day, he feels “If you don’t dream, how can it come true?”


  • Height: 10’. Diameter: approximately 10”.
  • Lighting source: Waterproof LED fixtures – IP68 rated.
  • Materials: anodized aluminum, two light sources at either end.
  • Shape: ruled surface made up of straight aluminum rods arranged between a series of disks.
  • Installation: Fall of 2018.
  • Digital modeling program: Rhino; parametric modeling.
  • Quantity: 50


  • Tom Roanhouse – Village President
  • Mo Zell – Architect
  • Marc Roehrle – Architect
  • Jonathan Coyne Nelson – UW-Milwaukee Student Designer
  • Adam Brown – Design Engineering
  • Marcus Whitman – Prototype Sculptor


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