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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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When I bought a home down there, I didn't expect the valuation highs and lows that followed.
When I bought a home down there, I didn't expect the valuation highs and lows that followed.

Rollercoaster ride of assessments upsets my stomach

Living in the City of Milwaukee has provided a rollercoaster ride of assessments since I bought my house a decade ago. You've likely experienced the same.

For the first few years, assessments went up, up, up. Because I had no plans to sell, that wasn't especially beneficial, so I didn't worry too much initially when they stagnated, dipped and stagnated again.

But on Saturday, we got our new assessment in the mail and found it had dropped another 8 percent and our home is now assessed at less than we paid for it 10 years ago. That's just depressing.

City-wide, residential assessments are down 3.13 percent. Condo owners took a hit half that.

Of course, we all know that despite assessments our taxes never really go down, so while some argue that's an upside of a lower valuation, I've yet to really see that "benefit" pay off.

It worries me. And I was already nervous about Madison tinkering further with Milwaukee's own business by outlawing the residency requirement that has helped keep the city relatively stable through the good times and bad.

My quiet, green, friendly neighborhood is full of police, fire, school and city workers and I fear that an explosion of for sale signs on neighborhood lawns will send housing prices tumbling even lower.

Like my parents, I always thought homeownership was a road to financial stability. I never expected it to pay major dividends or be a get-rich-quick scheme, but I'd hoped it would keep us afloat.

Now I'm not so sure anymore.

Firefighter Sebastian Brand designed this and many other firehouses in 19th century Milwaukee.
Firefighter Sebastian Brand designed this and many other firehouses in 19th century Milwaukee.
A ghost sign survives on the north wall, along Irving Place.
A ghost sign survives on the north wall, along Irving Place.
Inside, many original details remain, like this wainscoting.
Inside, many original details remain, like this wainscoting.
Kortsch added a freight elevator (right) and some storage units (left), but didn't change much else.
Kortsch added a freight elevator (right) and some storage units (left), but didn't change much else.
The curved molding on this staircase are my favorite detail.
The curved molding on this staircase are my favorite detail.
The roof has nice views of the neighborhood but made me a bit nervous.
The roof has nice views of the neighborhood but made me a bit nervous.
The elevator is powered by this Milwaukee-made Allis-Chalmers motor.
The elevator is powered by this Milwaukee-made Allis-Chalmers motor.
There is at least one surviving gas jet. This one is on the first floor.
There is at least one surviving gas jet. This one is on the first floor.
The weathered hardwood floors speak to well over a century of use.
The weathered hardwood floors speak to well over a century of use.
There are three ceiling holes. This round one likely had a brass pole running down through it.
There are three ceiling holes. This round one likely had a brass pole running down through it.
Taking decent photos in the dark staircase was challenging.
Taking decent photos in the dark staircase was challenging.
The steps down to the basement.
The steps down to the basement.
They warned of bats in the cellar, but I didn't see any.
They warned of bats in the cellar, but I didn't see any.

Urban spelunking: A Sebastian Brand firehouse

Who doesn’t love an old firehouse? Like you, I once thought it would be cool to live in an old one. You know, big open-concept place with high ceilings, history inscribed in every detail. Plus, you could slide down the brass pole to get to breakfast quickly.

The decommissioned Milwaukee Fire Department Fire House, Ladder Company No. 5, at 1945 N. Bartlett Ave., is one of those old places I’ve long suspected was ripe for such a conversion. For decades it’s been used by Kortsch Storage, which is headquartered in an awesome building at 2403 N. Maryland Ave.

Thanks to our recent office move, we had some stuff at Kortsch and yesterday, while onsite to sort through our things, I got an impromptu tour of the firehouse. (Because it was unplanned, I didn't have a good camera with me, so I apologize that some of the pictures are grainy.) Hey, it pays to ask.

German-born architect – and Milwaukee firefighter – Sebastian Brand designed the two-story firehouse that was built in the High Victorian Italianate style in 1886. It’s a cream city brick structure sitting on a rusticated limestone foundation. There is eye-catching decorative brickwork just above the doors and near the eaves.

The building doesn’t appear to have changed all that much over the years, thanks in part to the fact that no one ever converted it to a residence.

On the north exterior wall, a ghost sign advertising Kortsch Storage can still be seen. Engine Co. No. 5 moved up Bartlett to a lovely old house on Park Place in 1914 and after a string of tenants – including an MPS social center (presumably like one named for the Beulah Brinton in a decommissioned Bay View firehouse) and the Irving Athletic Club – Kortsch bought the building in 1924 for $10,000.

In 1924, Kortsch added a freight elevator to the northwest corner and a small tower was added to make the lift – which runs off an old Allis-Chalmers motor in the tower – possible.

There are wainscoting and weathered hardwood floors th…

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Collins/Elwell Residence at 1363 N. Prospect Ave., built in 1876, with a window in its chimney.
Collins/Elwell Residence at 1363 N. Prospect Ave., built in 1876, with a window in its chimney.
The Sciortino's building on Brady and Humboldt.
The Sciortino's building on Brady and Humboldt.

Don't let landmarks distract you from the city's subtler beauty

Lately, I’ve found myself more curious than ever about the small stuff I see every day in our built environment. If you read my blogs and articles about Milwaukee history and architecture, that won’t surprise you very much.

For a long time I often found myself looking down when walking. Now, I’m always looking up – have you ever noticed just how many lovely cornices there are in this town? – or all around me. And it’s paid off. In focusing on the places widely accepted as local landmarks, I’ve often looked right past examples of equally stunning beauty.

Ever see a chimney jutting up out of a dormer, flanked by windows? I didn’t think I had before I saw the one on the north elevation of the Sciortino’s Bakery building on Brady and Humboldt. The awesome Collins/Elwell Residence at 1363 N. Prospect Ave., built in 1876, appears to have a window in the chimney, though it’s hard to tell from street level whether or not it’s a window into the chimney or through it.

Incidentally, if you work in that house, which is now an office building, please invite me in a for a tour. Russell Zimmermann wrote of it that "chiseled hip, pitched octagonal, and half octagonal roof segments result in such complexity that one third floor room has 49 wall and ceiling surfaces." I’ve got to see it!

Revisiting a Milwaukee park this week, I was reminded not only how much I love the WPA-era, Lannon stone structures there, but also that I’ve never really considered who designed and built them. (You can be sure that will change.)

I think this interest in the everyday is a bit of an outgrowth of my interest in local schoolhouses. Researching my book on the subject, I learned a lot about the respected and well-known architects who created those buildings in the late 19th century. Folks like Edward Townsend Mix, Ferry & Clas, Henry Koch, Schnetzky & Liebert, Moller & Lotter, Walter Holbrook, George Ehlers and others.

But I also realized that although they were much-celeb…

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Brent Gohde celebrates a book-fueled community this weekend.
Brent Gohde celebrates a book-fueled community this weekend. (Photo: Kathrine Berger, Cedar Block)

Celebrating the creative force nurtured at Schwartz

Schwartz Bookshops was an arts incubator, albeit an unintentional one. During the roughly 10 years I worked there, I worked alongside talented poets, aspiring novelists, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers.

You had to love books to get a job at Schwartz. Late owner David Schwartz pretty much made that an inescapable requisite. So, it stands to reason the staff had an artsy bent. Being around creative people all the time also helped, often subtly, encourage still more creativity.

The shop at 2559 N. Downer Ave. that I was honored to play a small role in opening in 1997 was an especially creative – if not always excessively profitable – place. It is there that I met Brent Gohde, who is the force behind Cedar Block which presents "May The Schwartz Be With You" Saturday night at Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m.

"Basically the show comes from the fact that everyone I've met over the past 15 years – and every opportunity I've had – can be traced directly back to the day I was hired at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue," Gohde says.

"The people I met have become my closest friends. We'll explore the notion that Schwartz was a cultural nexus for Milwaukee, dating back to Casanova, and continuing with Boswell."

Casanova was the name of Harry Schwartz's first bookshop, located in the back of a hair salon further north on Downer Avenue and Boswell is the bookstore, run by former Schwartz lifer Daniel Goldin in the old Schwartz shop on Downer.

Participating at the wide-ranging multimedia event are Bridget Griffith Evans, Brooklyn Henke, Joe Kirschling, Lia Manley-Deruiter, Ashley Morgan, Kara Mulrooney, Amy O'neil, KPOLLY, Chris Rosenau, Steve Schlei, Mark Waldoch and Jim Warchol.

Gohde says he'll also moderate a chat with some of the folks who worked at the shop, which closed in 2009.

"I'm actually going to have a little roundtable during the show for former coworkers and new friends to share stories about their experiences with the bookshop."

Ti…

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