Urban spelunking: Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Steeple chasing has become something of a hobby and it has led me from St. John's to St. Francis to Trinity to another Trinity and beyond. For a long time I've had my sights set on St. Michael's on the West Side -- and I'm still planning on getting there -- but one day I noticed a sleek little church tower just south and I decided to investigate.
What I found was that in true small-waukee style, the history of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 2466 W. McKinley Ave. -- is entwined, at least initially, with the history of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, 1046 N. 9th St., and other 19th century Milwaukee notables.
The story goes that Trinity sensed a new need for a Lutheran school on the city's growing West Side, in part to relieve overcrowding at its own school and simultaneously accommodate member families who were moving west. (A school history booklet suggests the school was at least in part a competitive response to the fact that new public schools were planned for the neighborhood.)
In 1883, Trinity member John C. Koch -- an attorney and later two-term Milwaukee mayor -- donated land on the northwest corner of Cold Spring and Lipscomb (today's McKinley Avenue and 24th Place, which has also been called 24 1/2 Street) and a 26x46-foot, two-story school was opened later that year.
Within three years, the school became independent of Trinity and began to host religious services. At the same time, $350 was raised with an eye toward building a church for this nascent German-speaking congregation.
Koch and his father-in-law, hardware magnate John Pritzlaff -- the latter had gifted the land for the current Trinity, too -- donated two lots west of the school and plans were drawn up for a church.
Because everyone knows the church must get pride of place on the corner lot, the school -- which already had 186 students by 1888 -- was hoisted up and moved to the middle of the block and in 1887 the cornerstone was laid for Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which was completed the following year.
More interesting than the school building move, perhaps, is the fact that a decade after the church was built, the congregation, led by Pastor Johann Schlerf, decided to expand and solidify the building.
But it did not put on an addition, at least not in the traditional sense. No, workers, sliced the church in half and moved the northern part 30 feet north and a transept was built in the newly open space. Were it not for the photo above, I wouldn't have believed this was the method.
To accomplish the solidification, the wood church was entirely veneered in cream city brick.
That solidification worked, metaphorically, for the congregation for decades and by the 1950s it boasted a congregation nearing 2,000 members. But in recent years, that began to wane.
The school closed in the 1990s and was briefly leased to a voucher school operator. But it didn't shut its doors for lack of enrollment, says Pastor Micah Wildauer, who arrived from his native South Bend, Ind., in 2006 to lead Bethlehem and nearby Hope Lutheran.
"They were at capacity. They just could not seem to balance the books financially without raising tuition too high," he says.
When Wildauer arrived, the church finances were inadequate, he says.
"We were renting out the school at the time and that was basically what we were balancing our budget on. Fifty percent of our budget was renting that out."
But, he says, the school wasn't paying its bills and church finances got worse. A bequest of $167,000 arrived and helped for a little while, but it wouldn't last forever. And the congregation was dwindling.
"(We would get) probably 30 to 40 on a good Sunday," Wildauer estimates as we stand in the sanctuary. "Our roster had over 100, but we were never able to stay on top of that. A lot of people -- even when we said we are revising our roster, we want to know if you want to be a part of this -- still said, 'Yeah, yeah I'll be there.' They wouldn't show up or whatever.
"On Aug. 11, we had a (final) service just for members, at which I saw people who I have never seen before that were claiming to be members. They (said) were sad that it was closing down and they wish they could've done something. Well, they could've shown up on Sundays. That would've been a start."
Wildauer said the closing of the school affected turnout. Also, some families moved away and joined other congregations. He guessed that there was a roughly 50-50 mix of members that drove in and those that lived in the area and doesn't believe that demographic changes in the area led to the church's demise.
"I heard right away when I came that the neighborhood changed," he says. "(But) there were people there, and churches are composed of people, so the neighborhood hasn't changed ... ethnically perhaps, but there are still people and the church is always about proclaiming the message, getting it out there and getting people join them in the ranks.
"The only reason ... the only rationality behind (citing the location as a factor) would be if you had a neighborhood and suddenly it was a field, (and) you had cows and you had a pack of wolves running around. "
So while Trinity soldiers on, Bethlehem shut its doors last year, holding its last worship service in August. Wildauer has accepted a call to go to Togo and leaves for France, to learn French, later this year, before continuing on to West Africa.
Meanwhile the church sits in limbo. And it's a shame.
It's a beautiful building and the architects who worked on the expansion phase, giving the building its current look, were Cornelius Leenhouts and Frank Voith. The Wisconsin Architectural Inventory notes that Charles Kindt built the original church and Charles Tempelmann was the mason that clad the structure in brick.
Inside, a Gothic altarpiece is balanced with the Gothic organ case up in choir loft, which runs the width of the sanctuary. The area beneath it was closed off to create a narthex during a 1955 modernization and redecoration.
Most of the sanctuary is now baby blue and white, with some maroon and gold trim and most of the decoration saved for the tracery above the altar. Early photos of the church, from 105, 1913, even 1938, show stenciled paint decoration throughout the space.
A renovation in 1938 led to the replacement of original chandeliers with hanging lanterns in the sanctuary, and the installation of, what a church history describes as "German antique and English cathedral glass" windows.
The inventory notes that, "Bethlehem Lutheran is a fine example of late 19th century cream city brick churches. Its single spire facade is influenced by German country edifices."
That description seems to ignore the two diminutive spires flanking the central spire, which has a clock and a belfry.
"Three bells remain in the steeple," says Wildauer. "There is a large bell and two smaller, twin bells which reside above the larger. The larger is rung by two external hammers. The other two are on wheels. Only one rings via an electric circuit to the narthex. A small room half way up the steeple and above the organ can be found. In it contain ways to set the clocks, and who knows what else from. A small shaft remains where one could pull the rope which would ring a bell, perhaps when there was only one."
Normally, I could vouch for this personally, but I met my match in Bethlehem's tower. The steps up and the floor of the first level, above the organ room were so deeply caked in bird and maybe bat guano -- as well as a bird skeleton -- that I decided this climb could only be undertaken with a face mask and boots -- neither of which I'd brought along.
But the rest of the church appeared to be in more or less good condition, though there was a staircase in off the narthex that Wildauer suggested should be avoided. And, not unexpectedly, there were some signs of water damage.
A cream city brick parsonage, built to the north of the church in 1889 was demolished.
The school was also expanded a couple times, with the latest change coming in the mid-1950s. At the end of the '50s the unexcavated church basement was dug out and a fellowship hall and offices were constructed, along with a tunnel to the school.
In that basement there are other small tunnels -- more like crawl spaces -- that appear to access the building's foundation and perhaps some infrastructure. The heavy door to the school tunnel is still visible, but has been sealed.
Access to the school, in general, is discouraged because of its condition. But I peeked in and saw the hall upstairs, along with some classrooms and an office on the first floor. The brick boiler room attached to the back of the school was added in 1953.
"Luther Church down in Illinois has come and they just bought an older building and are redoing it and that's why there are pews missing (here)," says Wildauer, noting that some items are being sold, others donated, to other churches.
"We've had an offer or two of folks who are interested in the alter piece and rear windows. Our woodworker in our congregation, he's down in the Harley valley there, he estimated it would probably cost you $400,000 or 500,000 just to rebuild this altar from scratch. Not that we're looking to sell it.
"That 25-rank organ up there," he says, gesturing up at the choir loft, "is another one that is around $500,000 to build it from scratch but we can sell it for maybe $5,000. That's what he said. Most of it would be refurbishing and moving. That's where all the expenses are now."
Though there's no sign out front, the church is available for sale or rent, according to church council member Tyrone Dumas.
"The Bethlehem church property is for sale," he said. "In fact someone could get the church, the vacant lot and the school building -- about one-third of the block -- for less than $100,000. We think someone could benefit from the deal big time. We are currently going to rent it out to a church with an option to buy."
Recently, the congregation opened the 1888/1898 cornerstone to see if there was a time capsule inside.
"You'd be amazed. When we opened it, we didn't think there was a box," says Wildauer.
"It just didn't fall out of it. We really had to dust it off. It looked like there was some mortar right there so we actually cut through to find it. And they had reopened it in 1898 and put more things in there."
The box included, among other things, photographs of Pastor Schlerf and his wife Elizabeth, newspapers of the day and photographs of the expansion of the church.
These treasures are a testament to Bethlehem's long, vibrant past. I hope that the congregation -- or a buyer -- finds a way to build an equally vibrant future on this corner.
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