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St. Mary's School closed in 1969 and was razed nearly a decade later.
St. Mary's School closed in 1969 and was razed nearly a decade later.
An older photo of the school. Excuse the funky perspective, it's a photo of a photo hanging on a wall.
An older photo of the school. Excuse the funky perspective, it's a photo of a photo hanging on a wall.

Yesterday's cream city brick Romanesque schoolhouse is today's parking lot

I have trouble walking past Downtown's plague of surface parking lots without thinking about what was razed to create each drab, and in almost every case, underutilized lot.

In some cases, I remember what was there, having seen it with my own eyes. I think of the Randolph Hotel on 4th and Wisconsin and on the same block, the old Big Boy and the former Starship rock and roll club. Across the river, I can still picture the YWCA on Jackson Street and the gas station on Kilbourn and Van Buren.

In other cases, like the lot on the southwest corner of Kilbourn and Milwaukee, I've never really known what was there. (Yance Marti's great "Missing Milwaukee" provides insight in a number of cases.)

On a recent visit to Old St. Mary's, which abuts the plot, I discovered the land was once home to a lovely three-story cream city brick Romanesque Revival schoolhouse. Among an array of historical photos in the church are two of the school.

Soon after the church was built in 1840s, the first Catholic school "in the west" was opened on the lower level. Opening in 1851, that school proved popular enough that Father Leonard Blatz had a dedicated school building erected south of the church, on Broadway, in the 1860s.

In 1894, the church built the brick schoolhouse, with its arched windows, diamond motifs running between the second and third stories, and cut stone foundation.

I haven't been able to determine who the architect was, but it's possible that it was Henry Koch, who was working on a lot of schoolhouses at the time and designed many with similarly gabled roofs (Park Street, 18th Street, the original Cass Street, etc.). 

But the school's features were popular at the time, so they're not really enough to go on. One could make an equally valid argument for Ferry & Clas, for example, based on their Jefferson Street School a few blocks awat. And a number of architects who specialized in church work may also have designed the school.

Based on the photographs, it looks like the building had eight or 10 classrooms and the de rigueur third floor "German gym." 

The school graduated its first class in 1900, but by 1969 the program was shut down, due to what a later newspaper report described vaguely as "financial issues," though the building continued to be used as a site for youth activities and a meeting place for Catholic groups.

A February 1978 article in the Sentinel proved prescient when it said, "the expense and upkeep is becoming prohibitive for the parish," and by the dawn of 1979, the schoolhouse had vanished.

Since the building was razed nearly 40 years ago, the site -- in the heart of Downtown -- has provided parking for 25-30 cars. 


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