Urban spelunking: Pevnick Design's tech wonders wow during old school tour
For a long time, I've been quietly trying to nudge my way in to see the former Clybourn Street School, 527 N. 27th St., between Clybourn and Michigan.
This week I finally got a tour and my visit was a surprise, but not for the reasons I expected.
Built in 1878 as District 16-2 annex (16-2 was the old Wisconsin Avenue School, whose building was replaced with the currently closed one in 1919), the school was renamed Clybourn Street School in 1912, when many MPS schools were renamed for their locations. It was also briefly called the Grand Avenue Annex, and for eight years, from 1931, it was called Mary Hill, in honor of a district principal.
The school closed in 1931. But that seems almost hard to believe. It's tiny vestibule, short staircases and four classrooms with soaring 13-foot ceilings still shout "schoolhouse," thanks to nine-foot-tall windows, wainscoting all around, hardwood floors and tongue-and-groove planked ceilings.
Of course, I asked to see the attic – you know me by now, right? – but the bulbs were out, so I didn't see anything beyond what I could make out from some random flash photos I took. There's a ladder up to the old bell tower, but the tower fell into disrepair and was removed for safety reasons.
The school's entry staircase (visible in the 1892 photo above) was, at some point, replaced with the current porch. A large warehouse structure was added to the back, apparently in the 1940s, and that space was later enlarged, too.
The basement is exactly what you'd expect: rusticated stone foundation topped with cream city brick walls, with a small boiler room, though when it was built the school was likely heated by stoves. By 1894, it had a boiler for steam and hot air heating.
The building is owned now by Stephen Pevnick, who runs his Pevnick Design company out of the back. In the old building is a range of tenants, including musicians and dance studios.
The big surprise for me was to hear about Pevnick's work and to see it in action.
Pevnick, an art professor at UW-Milwaukee, began looking into ways to intertwine rhythm and water in the 1970s and created technologies to make those explorations reality. He started his company, Pevnick Design, Inc., and began creating graphical waterfalls and other water features and selling them around the U.S. to malls, office buildings, casinos, trade shows and the like.
He pretty much had the sector sewn up until success propelled him to Europe, at which point larger companies with the financial wherewithal were able to copy his work. But Pevnick and his Milwaukee-based company are still in demand.
Just look at the map on the shop wall. Each pin denotes a job completed. The map – from the U.S. to Asia to Europe to the Middle East to Central America – looks like a pincushion.
Pevnick did many trade show exhibits – really, really elaborate works – for the likes of Kohler, Daimler Chrysler and Jeep. In 2006 he did an amazing display in Bangkok for a huge party thrown by the king of Thailand. He designed a water feature for the Atlanta Olympics.
More recently, his work is what doused the band Fun. on the Grammys telecast.
Earlier this summer Pevnick created a fountain for Nestle that responded to questions posed by passersby.
Pevnick will throw open the doors to his studio and to the former Clybourn Street/Mary Hill School this weekend as part of Historic Milwaukee, Inc.'s Doors Open Milwaukee event.
The building will open on Sunday only, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with the final admission at 4:45.
Not only will you get to see a piece of Milwaukee schoolhouse history, but you can see a hometown technology business that quietly thrives on the near-West Side.
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