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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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The windows at the former McKinley School were partially boarded up after a November fire.
The windows at the former McKinley School were partially boarded up after a November fire.
This undated photo shows the south schoolyard bubbling with activity.
This undated photo shows the south schoolyard bubbling with activity.
A Cold Spring Avenue School classroom in 1920.
A Cold Spring Avenue School classroom in 1920.
This classroom photo was taken in 1965.
This classroom photo was taken in 1965.
The east entrance on 20th Street, circa 2011.
The east entrance on 20th Street, circa 2011.
The view from 21st and Vliet in 2011.
The view from 21st and Vliet in 2011.
The 21st Street addition in 2011.
The 21st Street addition in 2011.

Former McKinley School faces demolition

I have a special affinity for the old McKinley School, 2001 W. Vliet St., which has been owned by V.E. Carter Development, and according to the city's website, still is.

The group ran a day care and, I think, a school in the building, but something appears to have changed.

(There are no listings for a school or day care at the address on the Young Star, Great Schools or Milwaukee Parental Choice Program websites, though Google searches turn up results for the V.E. Carter Human Resources Center and Young Minds Preparatory Academy at 2001 W. Vliet St.)

Recently, I noticed there was plywood over the lower portions of the first floor windows, despite the fact that the windows are grated. Basement windows are boarded up, too.

Yesterday, someone stopped and saw no sign of plowing or shoveling and no cars in the lot. The other afternoon another friend drove past and it was dark. I tried calling two numbers I could find for Carter and neither worked.

A visit to City Hall and the Department of Neighborhood Services in the Municipal Building turned up a condemnation order, based on a July 31, 2013 inspection.

The emergency order lists structural failure as the condition "requiring the building to be placarded."

"All supporting structural members of all structures shall be kept structurally sound, free of deterioration and maintained capable of safely bearing the dead and live loads imposed upon them. Repair or replace defective structural members - Permit required."

According to a DNS employee, a complaint was filed last March with reference to the cafeteria egress at the building and an inspection was made. The employee said some code violations were noted by the inspector.

On Nov. 14, 2013, the city levied a special assessment of $452.40 for the board-up of the premises. The response to a Nov. 15 service order states, "Fire at NE wing of vacant school. Issue cleanup order and order to procure a fire repair permit."

A Jan. 30 service request on the DNR site calls for an inspector to "inspect vacant building as candidate for condemnation actions." As of Monday, no response had yet been posted.

Inspector Joel Trotter said the building is slated to be razed.

"There is nothing good going on there at the moment. The board-up is from the fire," he told me. "Unless there is someone who can come in and buy it and fix the problems, it will be razed. We would be happy to work with anyone who could come in and fix it. That would be wonderful."

The land is currently assessed at $56,500 and the building at $127,800 for a total of $184,300. Those figures have gone unchanged since at least 2006, according to property data from the City Assessor's office.

I fear for the future of some of Milwaukee's great old school buildings and this one surely fits the bill. There is no other surviving building that looks anything like it.

The earliest part of the building was designed by Walter Holbrook, who was then in partnership with Edward Townsend Mix, and erected on 20th and Cold Spring in 1885. Holbrook also designed Mound Street, Trowbridge and Dover Street Schools in Bay View while in partnership with Mix.

There were two buildings at McKinley – then called District 15 – with huge, dramatically sloping roofs peaked at the center with air vent towers.

The buildings are connected by a passage, making it look like one might be original with a second added later, though I don't know that to be the case. The 1894 Sanborn map shows both wings there by that time.

Interestingly, what is now a giant schoolyard to the north of the building, up to Vliet Street, was originally a much smaller playground with homes and businesses along Vliet, and two and three houses on the side streets. Presumably, it grew when MPS began its program of buying adjacent properties to expand schoolyards in the 1920s.

An addition was built in 1898, on the west side, fronting 21st Street, to the designs of Mollerus and Lotter. While Holbrook's double building had gabled roofs, low dormers on the south elevation and peaked dormers with arched windows above the side entrances, Mollerus and Lotter created a more classical addition, with columns flanking the west entrance, dentils along the cornice and a nearly flat roof.

Like most schools, District 15 was renamed for its location in 1912 becoming Cold Spring Avenue School, until the street – and the school – were renamed in honor of President William B. McKinley.

Another addition went up most likely in the 1960s.

By the late '70s, McKinley was on the list of schools to be closed, alongside Mound Street and 5th Street and others, and that closing came to pass. Like Mound Street, the building was sold a few years later. Carter has owned it since 1985.

The inactivity and the plywood there make me fear for its future, but Dawn McCarthy, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Board President, has already contacted Ald. Bob Bauman to find out if there is potential for saving the building.

"Former schools like McKinley are more and more frequently being converted into housing," McCarthy said. "A distinctive building like this may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and if so, could be eligible for up to 40 percent in Historic Preservation Tax Credits to help finance restoration work. Losing a great old building like this is damaging to the community and regrettable on many, many levels."

Meanwhile, Trotter said that although demolition currently lies in the building's future, there is time for things to change.

"V.E. Carter has not paid for the fence that was put up to protect the public, because there are falling bricks. Once the owner of the fence takes down the fence, I will be writing an order for V.E. Carter to put up a new fence to protect the public. If that doesn’t occur, they will get a citation each day there is no fence," Trotter said.

If those citations go unpaid, the city would likely begin the process to get possession of the old schoolhouse.

"It’s going to be a very long process," Trotter added. "I guarantee you it won’t (be razed) this year."

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