HMI January Panel Discussion

The East Side Commercial Historic District: From Controversy to Catalyst

The HMI panel discussion on Thursday night, January 17th talked about many recent issues and changes that have happened in the East Side Commercial Historic District. This locally designated historic district, under the jurisdiction of the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is shown here:

The controversy which spawned this discussion began in 2010 with plans by Wave Development to build a new 200 room Marriott Hotel in place of five historic buildings within the district. The developers fought the HPC rejection of their initial plans. Those plans ran counter to preservation guidelines put in place for the district in 1987 as well as the Preservation Ordinance. The ensuing battle between the developer’s public relations firm, the City HPC, and preservationists became a media event for weeks. When the dust settled, the developer revised their plans to save the Noonan Block on Wisconsin Avenue. The Preservation Ordinance was subsequently put in the spotlight with promises to be gutted by Alderman Witkowski because it was viewed as anti-development. It was amended in December of 2012 by the Common Council but with changes that made it stronger and not weaker. The final consensus was that preservation “makes good economic sense”.

UWM Professor, Matt Jarosz presented the history of the district and its importance as the virtual heart of Milwaukee since the first settlement. It is unique among similar American cities in not continuously redeveloping the land as time progressed. Many of the buildings within the district are 19th century interspersed with a few early 20th century buildings examples. Professor Jarosz went on to give a multitude of examples from his students on how this district could be improved to take advantage of the current impediments. Some of the best concepts took advantage of underutilized surface parking to build modern buildings that connect to historic buildings and offer updated access to those buildings. These new buildings would add larger entrances, elevator service, and other improvements to modern standards and codes without requiring expensive retrofits to the older, historic buildings. One example showed how a new structure to the south of the Iron Block could add features to it and the Zimmermann Block next door. Infilling adjacent to the Button Block would encourage re-use of the upper floors. Another interesting proposal was converting the public alleys into shared space that could be used as a semi-covered pedestrian space or for extended outdoor seating. His common theme was that intelligent, planned new development could reinvigorate the district and encourage property owners to invest in building rehabilitation.

Some of the other presentations of the evening included an overview of the work done by architect Mark Demsky of Dental Associates with the restoration of the Iron Block Building. Dental Associates took unprecedented steps in restoring features that had been removed from the building over 100 years ago including decorative cast iron urns above the Water Street entrance and intricate grape leaves on the columns. He researched the history of renovations and found a trove of information that would be overlooked by architects doing a basic renovation. When the building is unveiled in March it should be a showpiece of preservation in Milwaukee.

Steve Schwartz, CEO of the First Hospitality Group talked about his company’s work renovating the Loyalty building on Broadway and Michigan. They faced many challenges in converting the Solomon Spencer Beman designed masterpiece from an office building into a hotel with modern conveniences. As with many 125 year-old buildings, it had been remodeled many times over the years, removing or hiding some of the notable features. The First Hospitality Group has been involved in several adaptive re-uses nationally, this building being the sixth. The first was in Indianapolis, converting a former 16-story bank building into a Hilton Garden Inn in 2003. Adaptive re-use preserves details of historic buildings that couldn’t be done economically in a new building and creates an “experiential” space encouraging participation and use.

The final talk was given by Josh Jeffers, owner of the Mitchell Building with the work he has been doing the past few years in stabilizing the foundations of his building as well as the facade and roof renovations. The persistent problem of a dropping watertable downtown have resulted in the exposure of old wooden piles under building foundations to wood rot. In the Mitchell Building, it was found that many of the footings were unsupported because of the advanced state of decay of these pilings. The exterior of the building shows some effects of the settlement over the years. The work to repair the problem has been time consuming because nearly all of the excavation has to be done by hand in tight spaces in the basement. Great care must be taken to avoid further damage to the building. The area under the stone pile caps must be removed manually, the rotted piles must be cut out and a new concrete pile cap was poured in the excavated area. In addition, a new technology of using the building’s wastewater in a sub-basement drain system was used to keep the deeper wooden piles wet and free from future rot. This major investment in the building will keep it standing firm for many years to come.

The Sisters of the Divine Savior convent

Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Inc.  posted a link to an article (unavailable unless you subscribe to the news outlet) about this old convent on 35th & Center St.

their comment:

“What’s wrong with this picture and why can’t the City of Milwaukee see it?
Has the city advertised this building to developers?
Where is the leadership from elected officials?

Milwaukee scours coffers for costly demo job | The Daily Reporter

It would cost Milwaukee an entire year’s demolition budget to tear down the former St. Mary’s convent on West Center Street, but vandalism and the fear of squatters setting fires this winter have pushed city officials to scour their coffers and schedule demolition for December.”


Taken from The Sisters of the Divine Savior  website:

“The Sisters of the Divine Savior opened their convent school at 35th and Center Streets to lay students in 1948. Three years later Divine Savior High School moved to a new building on 100th Street near Capitol Drive. Holy Angels Academy was founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 12th and Cedar Streets in 1892. In a spirit of cooperation and good will, the two schools affiliated in 1970 and continued the mission of both by joining together their names, traditions, students and alumnae.”

So we can trace the 35th & Center location to 1948  (which they moved out of in 1951).   So has this complex sat vacant for  61 years?   Does anyone know any stories, or have older pic of the complex?


Judging by the Google Streetview, at least the exterior looks like it’s in decent enough shape.

Milwaukee Bookmobile

Hello,  I am looking for a color photo/postcard of the Milwaukee Public Library bookmobiles, as painted in the 1970s or perhaps the later 1960s. As I recall, these were light blue with other trim colors on them. Maybe brown or yellow.

Does anyone know of a site with an image or perhaps could post one or share one with me?



The images that I have found of the bookmobiles are much older than that and don’t have the aqua blue paint.

Thank you.

1948 Westown Milwaukee Aerial View

This is a great aerial view of the Westown section of downtown looking west along Kilbourn Avenue. It is from sometime in the late 1940’s before the Arena was built and after the area east of the Courthouse was cleared out in 1941. It gives an interesting view of an area of downtown that was already past its peak and was succumbing to an urban renewal frenzy that eventually nearly cleared it into oblivion.

Note: This link will take you to the Gigapan page with a high resolution view.

A comparable view from 1967 is shown here with many more buildings magically turned into parking lots. This view was before MECCA was built in 1974.

Milwaukee Public Schools leading to some other questions

One of my long term projects is on the Milwaukee Public schools.   This is going much slower than I thought, only because there is so much interesting material that diverts me away from where I am supposed to be working.

I have been given a copy of an image that is of unknown location, year, and significance, but thought that someone could give me some information on it.

The picture is attached and shows children and their teacher wearing cold weather coats, hats, and blankets on their laps.  In the background, there are two men just right of center in the photo.

It appears to me that the classroom does not have a wall in the back, but the print quality is pretty poor.

I am going to guess that the picture was taken in the 1890s or so.

Does anyone know anything about this photo?  I cannot find a copy of it on the Internet and because of the two men in the background who look like they are of some import, I do not think that this is the normal photo showing children undergoing horrible conditions to inspire the public to act, such as the famous Breaker Boy photos of children working in the coal industry or pictures of street orphans in NYC.

When I attended John Marshall High in Milwaukee, I vaguely recall our senior history class text stating that schools in the 1890s in some of the eastern coast region had enrollments of up to 10,000 or 12,000 students!  I don’t know if I am remembering that anywhere near being accurate, as Marshall’s enrollment when I was there was over 3,900 and it seemed pretty big.

The photo makes me wonder if this was taken at one of those schools where the numbers of children were rapidly increasing and this was the temporary solution to that, while walls were going to be added or a room was being built elsewhere.

Could anyone enlighten me on the photo, including a source for a better copy? I would also love to hear whether those gigantic schools did exist.

Thank you.


Book News – 1950s Radio in Color

A new book written and put together by Christopher Kennedy brings to light a series of photographs taken by Cleveland DJ Tommy Edwards during the late 50s and early 60s. Tommy Edwards hailed from Milwaukee and worked several years for WOKY prior to his new job at Cleveland’s WERE.

The archive of more than 1,700 photographic slides was discovered by the author 5 years ago and sheds light on the disc jockey’s work with a huge number of music and Hollywood celebrities as they passed through the midwestern city. It documents through 200 original photographs and press releases a view of what it was like working with these classic artists and how the industry was transformed during the birth of Rock ‘n Roll.

This is a great book for those interested in the cultural heritage of the music industry.

The book can be ordered through Kent State University Press:
1950s Radio in Color

Happy Fourth!

It is a great day to remember our nation’s history! It is important to not only remember and celebrate the Declaration of Independence but also all of the history which has made America the country it is. Take time to educate yourself on the history of your country and city!

Sorry about the lack of a Monday mystery today. Holiday activities have delayed getting a mystery question posted. Check back again soon!!

Hotels of Milwaukee – December 14, 1890

Here is an abridged portion of an article from 1890 talking about some of the hotels in Milwaukee.

December 14, 1890 – Milwaukee Sentinel


Inns Which Have Been Famous In Their Time.


An Indian’s Life Saved By His Sweetheart on the Site of the Pfister Hotel-Abner Kirby’s Arrival In Milwaukee and His First ventures-The Cottage Inn and the Milwaukee House-The More Modern Hotels.

The northwest corner of Jefferson and Wisconsin streets, from which a year from now the Pfister will rise up in all its grandeur, presented a curious appearance one day in 1841. It was a small clearing, surrounded by a thick growth of underbrush. In the midst of the clearing a young and stalwart Indian lay, motionless and with his eyes closed. On top of his body lay prostrate a squaw, moaning and lamenting. Near them stood a number of Indian braves, patiently waiting for the squaw to abandon the body beneath her. It was that of a young chief who, the night before, had killed and scalped two Indians, belonging to the Pottawatomie tribe. He had been pursued by friends of his victims and was about to be dispatched by them when his sweetheart , the fair Unacanana, leaped between him and his pursuers and threw her arms upon him. That saved him for the time being, for the squaw knew full well that no one would harm him as long as her body was in the way. The brave girl kept up her lamentations through the night and all day following. She and her lover were destined to be saved. After sunset an unusually heavy fog began to envelop everything with its misty and impenetrable shroud, and under cover of it the loving couple managed to make their escape, the close watch of the bucks notwithstanding. The Pfister corner is also associated with other historical occurrences. According to Indian traditions two bloody battles between red men were terminated on that spot, and it is possible that evidence therof will be found while the work of excavation is progressing. It was there on Oct. 13, 1844, that the last Indian dance was held, witnessed by many of the settlers, some of whom doubtless remembered it.

Milwaukee has always been blessed-if you please-with inns and hostelries. In 1844 one could find board at almost any of the houses, not to speak of the several regularly established hotels, and the rates at the latter were not so different from those of today as one would suppose. Of course, there was no clerk with the proverbial diamond pin; nor were there a host of colored boys who responded quickly to the call of “front;” there were no electric bells in the rooms, nor bath tubs; the beds were not supplied with spring mattresses, but had a good straw tick resting on a few stout and elastic ropes stretched out underneath them; Brussels carpets would have been scoffed at by the landlord and boarders alike, rough pine floorings being good enough for those days. But there was plenty to eat at all times; a numberless army of bed bugs had to be fought with then just as to-day, and, last but not least, the landlords knew how to charge for their accommodations, the same as their successors are in the habit of doing. “Es ist alles schon dagewesen” applies here. When Abner Kirby first came to Milwaukee in 1843 the vessel which brought him from Buffalo anchored at the foot of Huron street, and he and the other passengers were transferred to the “Trowbridge,” a little steamer which conveyed them up the river to Chestnut street. “I jumped ashore, “Mr. Kirby relates, “and requested one of the Indian loafers that stood around there to call a carriage for me. He looked at me with utter contempt, and walked away. I finally flung my trunk over my shoulders and started to find a boarding house. Of course, runners were already in existence, and I was presuaded to try the Cottage Inn. the first night while there I slept on a table in the dining hall, wrapped up in a buckskin blanket. The next morning I kicked up a row, but as it didn’t do me any good I left and transferred my patronage to the Bellevue house.”

“The Cottage inn” had before that been called the “Triangle,” because of the triangle which served for a bell. It was built by Jacques Vieau, in 1835, at the corner of East Water and Huron streets. In 1836 John and Luther Childs enlarged it and called it the Cottage inn. It was more noisy, if possible, than ever before. The “hotel” was always crowded, although a miserable structure in every respect. While under the management of Spurr & Taft, it burned to the ground, on April 6, 1845. The entire district was built up with frame houses and barns, and everything melted away before the flames. James B. Cross soon afterwards erected the United States hotel on the old site. A large business was done within its walls, until the railroads caused the newcomers to patronize the west side more and more. At the second “great fire,” on Aug. 24, 1854, the United States hotel was destroyed, and it was never rebuilt. The first real hotel on the east side was the Bellevue house, later on called the Milwaukee house, on the corner of Broadway and Wisconsin street, the present site of the old library building. It was erected by Solomon Juneau and Morgan L. Martin. Elisha Starr and Sidney A. Hosmer occupied it for hotel purposes in 1836. The last landlord was Peter Jones.

Mr. A.C. Wheeler furnishes the following sketch concerning the Milwaukee house:
“In 1841 it fell into good hands. Caleb Wall (the father of E.C. Wall) came from springfield, Ill., with the determination of starting a temperance hotel. After considerable dickering he bought the hotel from Hurley and Ream and commenced his operations for the establishment of a hotel on ‘moral principles.’ The place was refitted and replenished. Before opening the doors a code of laws for the government of the establishment and its happy inmates was made out. This code, among other excellent things, stated that ‘all guests of this hotel shall be in at 10 o’clock every night,’ it being a maxim with the host that those who could not comply with so simple and judicious a condition, were unworthy the hospitality of the institution. the starting of a hotel on such a plan attracted considerable attention. The proprieter, undeterred by insinuations that his plan was folly and that the venture would not pay, pushed forward his project, posted his code conspicuously and swung open his doors. He was firm in his resolve, and punctually at the appointed hour locked and barred the doors. But the guests, while they admired the system, were unable to comply with its demands. Unable to enter by the doors they had recourse to ladders and ropes at night, by which they got in at the back windows. one night, while looking out of his window, the worthy Caleb was so astonished to see half his boarders at work raising a heavy ladder against the piazza, that he modified the code and agve them another hour. This one modification in regard to the hour led to others, and by insensible degrees the house underwent a transit from one extreme of temperance to the other extreme of intemperance, until it became the most notoriously jolly and reckless institution in town-the boarders doing just as they pleased-and the old building itself reeling night after night with the mad revelry of gay parties and gushing music. The temperance hotel at last rejoiced in a regular bar with decanters, and then it was discovered that a majority of the guests had suddenly reformed in one particular, and evinced a decided reluctance to being out late, and some of them were opposed to being out at all.

“In 1849 the structure was moved down into the Third ward, and a small portion of it is still standing in a fair state of preservation.”