Urban spelunking: Eighth Street School
On the second floor of Eighth Street School, 609 N. 8th St., there is a collage constructed by a New School for Community Service student out of photographs of the facade of the 1884 building designed by architect Henry Koch.
The effect is one of the building collapsing in on itself.
"That's a picture of what the building used to look like," a school staffer quipped as he hurried past.
What he could have said was, "that's what the building looked like before Diane Rosado got here in 2010."
Rosado is principal of Project STAY, an alternative MPS high school serving 251 at-risk teens, that occupies three of the building's four floors (New School, another high school with an enrollment of about 150, occupies the other).
Rosado, who previously worked at South Division High School and MPS' central office, knows every one of her students by name and she uses those names without fail. To see her roam the halls is to see her in love with her job.
When she gave me a tour of her building this week, it was also clear she adores the schoolhouse her program occupies. Rosado will be there when the building is open for tours on Saturday, Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. as part of Doors Open Milwaukee.
"When I was assigned to work here I leaped for joy," she told me recently. "The building has what I call a well-seasoned feel, like old wine."
That Rosado welcomed me so heartily came as a relief. You see, she picked the paint scheme that I wrote about in a blog a few months ago, and I'd heard she wasn't happy with what I had to say. But, it turned out not to be entirely true.
"I appreciate your candor," she wrote me in an email, "but as you critique, many others love the new look. I don't think I will please everyone as the building principal."
And, she added, "I am excited that you will come in."
Not, it turns out, to her credit, because she wanted to read me the riot act, but because she sensed a kindred spirit; one who would love seeing the attic and the woodwork and the brass door hinges just as much as she does.
I've seen the building countless times from the outside, so it was great fun to finally get a chance to see it on the inside. It was also nice to visit a high school that was quiet and orderly and chugging along like a fine-tuned engine. Rosado is kind and welcoming, yes, but she also does not mess about much. Her students know she's warm but means business.
Like some old schoolhouses, Eighth Street still has its hardwood floors and most of its interior woodwork – moldings, cabinets, etc. Most of the doors still have decorative brass hinges (often painted over), though many other interior finishes have been altered over the decades, including the door knobs and the transom windows.
In the first-floor Project STAY office, there are still chalk rails along the walls where there once were blackboards (which may survive underneath; the wood framing is there), decorative heating grates, an original porcelain sink and a lamp globe with the words "Fire Alarm" painted on it.
Rosado has fought to keep or restore as much as she can. But the funds for the work come straight from her school budget, so she has to weigh the value of preservation with the needs of her students.
In the basement, where Rosado has utilized most every available square foot of space, many brick arches remain and so do some hardwood floors and some other elements, like a vintage Johnson Controls temperature control and the old "Repair Dept. Bulletin" board, with its aged oak finish.
Interestingly, I discover in the "boiler room" that, unlike any other school I've visited, there are no boilers. Eighth Street School gets its heat free from the city's steam system.
On the third floor, the old "exhibition hall," or "German gym," as some call this tall, wide open space, has been somewhat restored. The stage is still there, as are the gorgeous tall, narrow windows that distinguish Eighth Street from all other schoolhouses here, but the ceiling has been dropped a few feet. Rosado says that when she arrived the space had been divided up into classrooms and she opened it back up to create an area where students can meet, read and relax.
Up in the attic – somehow Rosado had a feeling I'd want to see that – there is some graffiti. Not nearly as much as at a school like Maryland Avenue, but most all of it is interesting. There is a chalk signature dated 1926 on the south end of the building, where you can also find a chalk note that declares, "Attic cleaned Dec. 1969" and a nearby one that notes, "Needs cleaning June 1982."
Sometime between then and now, someone got busy up there because Eighth Street has just about the cleanest, emptiest schoolhouse attic I've ever seen.
On the wood stairs up to the attic space above the former gym, another chalked note reads, "Frank Passage, 1969, Janitor Supreme."
Up above the stage, there's a ladder that leads up to the old air intake tower. I did not ask to climb it, but I wanted to. In a dormer facing west, there was enough light for me to notice that the joists were charred and reinforced with new beams. The char from a fire that occurred at an unknown date, covered the joists for much of the area above the gym. This reminded me of the similarly blackened attic in Koch's now-shuttered Garfield Avenue School.
Back down a few stairs, we're in the attic space along the north end of the building and out the round window here we get a great view of the Milwaukee Public Library. Toward the west wall, we find a small piece of metal, maybe three or four inches square, nailed to a joist. On it, is scrawled, "Carl M Schwanke 885 - 34 Str." and a couple dates, "December 11 1922" and what looks like "July 11 1918 (or 1928)."
Rosado is eager to show me a wooden table in one of the third floor classrooms. She and a classroom teacher move aside some boxes on the tabletop to reveal Koch's drawings for the building, copies of which were shellacked into the tabletop. That effort and Rosado's eagerness to show it off are a testament to her love for her building. And it's reassuring to know that one of Milwaukee's real landmarks is in good hands.
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