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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Old 5th Street School was designed by Herman P. Schnetzky and built in 1888.

In Arts & Entertainment

Behind those big windows in the facade is the third floor gym.

In Arts & Entertainment

Some doors in the building still hang on beautiful hinges.

In Arts & Entertainment

Though the building was converted to a health center after it closed in 2007, some details remain.

In Arts & Entertainment

The alterations turned classrooms into small offices and exam rooms.

In Arts & Entertainment

The corridors at 5th Street still pretty much look like school hallways.

In Arts & Entertainment

No matter how I tried, I couldn't quite capture the soaring space in the walk-in attic.

In Arts & Entertainment

Unlike its twin Siefert, 37th Street School still has all its windows.

In Arts & Entertainment

It also has an unusual open concept bathroom in the lower level kindergarten classroom.

In Arts & Entertainment

Traces of school life are still everywhere at 37th Street.

In Arts & Entertainment

In an upstairs corridor, flags still hang from the ceiling.

In Arts & Entertainment

A carpenter's "measure twice cut once" approach leaves us this century-old pencil marking for what appears to be a bird's mouth.

In Arts & Entertainment

Bethune Academy replaced 37th Street School in 2005.

Urban spelunking: Endangered old schoolhouses

Photo Gallery Gallery: Former Fifth Street/Isaac Coggs School

When visiting a shuttered old schoolhouse, it's hard not to imagine the patter of little feet, the vibe of a classroom full of kids or a lunchroom bustling with activity and alive with chatter.

When visiting schools that are part of sets of twins or other "multiples," it's even harder to avoid comparisons.

Take, for example, 37th Street School, a couple blocks east of Washington Park, which was replaced with a new building nearly a decade ago – Mary McLeod Bethune Academy, around the corner on 35th Street.

Built in 1903 and designed by architect George Birnbach, 37th Street School is virtually identical to Auer Avenue and Siefert, which were constructed the same year (though, curiously, those buildings are credited to architect George Ehlers). Those schools are all riffs on Brown Street, which was put up about five years earlier and designed by the firm of Mollerus and Lotter.

Those schools are also still open. Inside, colorful examples of student art line the walls, coats hang on hooks in cloakrooms and voices and the rhythmic patter of dribbled balls echo around the third-floor gyms.

But not at 37th Street School, which wears a coat of baby blue paint. Most of the lower windows are protected with grates to prevent breakage and to prevent unlawful entry, which has been a problem.

What seems to be a bigger problem, when you go inside are foundation problems and water damage. But those problems aren't new, it seems, and the building's issues were a large part of why Bethune Academy was built as a replacement.

According to the Bethune website, most of the staff that arrived from 37th Street School is intact even now. So, the community really did simply move around the corner.

Maintenance doesn't account for problems at the old school. After all, Brown is older and Auer and Siefert are the same age and they seem to be holding up pretty well. And I've met some of the folks who maintain these closed buildings and they clearly take their work seriously and you can tell they feel ownership of these old places.

But, regardless, emptiness hasn't been friendly to 37th Street School – thanks to the constant attack of the elements, an empty and aging structure, and troublemakers who make upkeep difficult.

The problems are worst in the basement, where a sprawling old kindergarten room with an open-concept bathroom (the only one I can remember seeing anywhere) has a great tile floor to match gorgeous tile work in all the school's restrooms. In the kindergarten room – with its "Laverne and Shirley"-style sidewalk-level windows, you can see water damage along the lower parts of some walls and on the floor.

Part of the basement is painted in what might be described as almost Packers colors: bright yellow and green, although a somewhat more teal-ish version than you see at Lambeau. Fortunately, that garish scheme didn't make its way upstairs, which is in better shape than the lower level.

The third floor gym makes me want to do laps. Though you'd have to lots of laps in these so-called "German gyms" to get exercise. They're never very large (which explains, in part, why the district bought lots adjacent to schools in the 1920s to expand outdoor playgrounds).

As is the case with most closed schools, there are traces of occupancy that feel a little eerie; as if, on one Friday, everyone went home and simply forgot to return the following Monday.

A sign in the corridor welcomes parents. A chalkboard message advises, "sit tall, eyes on the book, answer on signal." An obsolete computer monitor serves as a doorstop.

Inside the old main entrance is a big sign celebrating the Neighborhood Schools Initiative that led to the construction of Bethune and signaled the demise of 37th Street. And posted above, in a glass encased bulletin board, are architectural drawings of the replacement building.

Even more prescient is the chalk-written note on another blackboard: "School is out: Any questions?"

To the northeast, just above Center Street, sits 5th Street School, which was last known as Isaac Coggs School. Built in 1888 on a design by Herman P. Schnetzky – one of the architects of the Germania Building – 5th Street was a larger version of Walnut Street School, built the same year and lost to fire in 1978.

This Romanesque school is, in my opinion, an unheralded treasure in the city, with its prominent peaked section on the south end counterbalanced by a long wing stretching north up 5th Street. There is some lovely brick detail and wonderful arched windows (that, like the painted bricks, are currently covered).

Though there is a buckled spot on the hardwood floor on the main level, 5th Street is actually mostly in good shape. That's because it's been in almost continuous use since it was erected almost 125 years ago, most recently as a public health clinic.

MPS transferred the building to the City for that use after Coggs closed in 2007 and the latter subdivided classrooms into smaller, carpeted offices, exam rooms, etc. Much of the building was similarly altered. So, while it's still plain to see that it was once a school, it would take a lot of work to rip out the changes and return it to a functioning school.

Now the neighborhood is served by the MLK Health Clinic on nearby King Drive, and the Coggs clinic has moved into new digs up on Silver Spring Drive. Recently, the City returned 5th Street to the MPS portfolio. We can speculate on the reasons they'd opt to do that, but I'd be digressing.

As always, I especially enjoyed visiting the attics of the two buildings. In these old schools, you can see the carpentry work up close – at 37th Street Street there's even a beam that bears a carpenter's pencil marks from a century ago. It really gives you a sense of the craftsmanship that made these buildings stand so solidly for so long.

Barring some unforeseen development, neither of these buildings will likely ever be home to a school again. And for that reason, I call them threatened.

While 5th Street is in good shape, and could potential be redeveloped as apartments, the explosion of new development all around it – on all sides, right across the street – feels ominous in terms of its future.

As Bethune was being built, there was talk of converting 37th Street into apartments – a la Mound Street and Jackie Robinson – but folks at MPS tell me almost no one even asks for tours of 37th Street anymore, which means interest in it has waned.

That, plus its condition, make me fear for its future, too.


Bobby Tanzilo | Jan. 14, 2013 at 8:47 a.m. (report)

Hi Paul, The district shows these and other vacant buildings to potential buyers, lessees, renters quite often. When I talk to the crew that oversees them, they talk about having given tours way more frequently than I'd expect. The problem with Fifth Street was that it was no longer an MPS building for a few years. When it became vacant again the city returned it to MPS, which doesn't appear to have much use for it, especially since it's no longer configured to house classrooms anymore (thanks to the city's conversion of it into a health center). Although I haven't investigated the return of the building to MPS, on the surface it sure appears that the city wanted to shift the cost and work of maintaining the building off its ledgers and onto MPS', but I'm not sure of that. I can't see why else they'd have done it, since it's only a school now in historical terms. MPS did recently sell off part of the school's playground to the folks building the homes all around it. I'd guess they'd entertain any serious offer for the entire thing. Same for 37th Street, which, because of its condition and location, is similarly unlikely to reopen as a school in the current economic climate. The district also recently sold the old Jackie Robinson Middle School to developers, who built apartments in it. It recently attempted to sell Garfield Avenue and Dover Street schools to community groups who wanted to open cultural/arts centers but those groups couldn't get funding and the deals fell through. MPS also apparently finally sold Lloyd Street and 38th Street Schools to MCP, to which it had been leasing the buildings with the plan to sell. There had been talk when Robinson was sold of selling the old Fulton/Malcolm X Middle School to developers for apartments, but I think the real estate market at the time was not conducive and I haven't heard anything about that recently. So the district does sell and is willing to sell more, it seems, but it is also cautious about selling off buildings without carefully analyzing demographic changes. Selling a building off now only to find the demand in the same neighborhood has boomed a few years later means expending a lot more money to build new. Happy Hill on the far NW side has been closed for a few years, for example, but is expected to reopen next year as home to a non-instrumentality MPS charter called Banner Prep. 38th Street had been closed before it was leased, and then sold, to Milwaukee College Prep. Long-winded answer, I know... Bobby

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PaulK | Jan. 12, 2013 at 3:44 p.m. (report)

Just wondering -- why aren't these buildings put up for sale? Anyone know?

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