Urban Spelunking: Grace Lutheran Church
As beautiful as Milwaukee's historic churches are, visiting them can sometimes be disheartening. That's because so many are threatened due to failing -- or even entirely failed -- finances as churches in the heart of the city have fallen victim to suburbanization and other pressures.
This is true for some, but definitely not all churches, as I was reminded recently on a visit to Grace Lutheran Church, 1209 N. Broadway, which occupies a 1900 Gothic building designed by Armand Koch, son and partner of Henry C. Koch.
Though the tops of the church's two towers were altered more than a half century ago, the church -- both building and congregation -- is in tip-top shape these days. In fact that's been true for most of the congregation's 165-year history.
Organized west of the river as the city's fourth Lutheran congregation in 1849, Grace built its first church -- a small brick house of worship on the corner of Broadway and Juneau in 1851, when German-born pastor Johannes Muehlhaeuser led the congregation.
"There were already three Lutheran churches on the west side of the river: Trinity, St. John and St. Paul's," says Pastor James Huebner, who has been at Grace since 1982 (coincidentally, his uncle also led the congregation there from 1951 until 1961). "Those guys said, 'You should start your own church on the East Side.' So this was the first Lutheran church on the East Side.
"He bought this land for 700 bucks, this corner I should say, and then right away built a church. It was a beautiful brick church, smaller, but Romanesque style. The interior was quite gorgeous. They had a very interesting altar design with the pulpit over the altar so the pastor can come up through the side of the altar."
Next door, a brick parsonage was built and a school was erected there toward the end of the century. All the time, the congregation was growing and the original church was no longer capable of handling the number of faithful that turned up for services. A new brick parsonage was built on the corner across Broadway, where it still stands, currently owned by MSOE.
Koch's 700-seat church was dedicated in the summer of 1901 and it was a beaut.
Because the church sits atop a bit of a rise it feels even more soaring than it is, with two towers, the south tower being a bit taller than its counterpart. What's most striking is the orange pressed brick, which is heavily decorated with a wide variety of terra cotta motifs in a matching color. The three-portal porch is especially heavily adorned.
On the facade is a rose window and each of the side aisles is adorned with original stained glass windows, many bearing inscriptions in German.
"This whole thing -- windows, woodwork, everything you can see -- was all done for 70,000 bucks," says Huebner, adding that six congregation members wrote checks to cover half the required amount within the space of a week.
Though the exterior of the church appears to be in fine condition, the tops of the towers were altered in 1953, and their Gothic detail diminished. This was a result of deterioration of the towers' wood frames, which survive -- one can see some rotting beams inside the tower -- but were bolstered by a steel frame that now carries the weight.
Huebner has overseen the restoration and preservation of the building. A lot of energy and money has been expended on this lengthy process.
"It hadn't been painted here for 40 years so it needed it. When we did that, the whole church was decked at the second level, at the level of the balcony, so they had staging with another floor up there and they went and painted down and entered the staging down and painted the rest," he recalls.
"But when we're up there, you know, climbing up the scaffolding that was rolling on top of this deck, we got up by the windows and we found out that they were bowing and sagging after that many years."
The result is that the enormous window depicting Jesus on the south wall was entirely restored by Conrad Schmitt. A complementary window directly across, on the north wall, has been reinforced but awaits restoration.
The plexiglass added to the exteriors of all the windows for protection in 1979 has been removed. Two windows depicting angels on the altar that had been plastered over have been re-opened.
But the biggest problems that Grace faced had nothing to do with windows.
"By '86, we had already known that the building itself was starting to slide down the hill," says Huebner, as we stand in the southwest corner of the sanctuary, to the left of the altar. "This is all rock, but it does go down to the river and our church, just like the Blatz south of us here, is all rock, except for this corner, (which) was starting to sink."
Huebner says there were tell-tale cracks in the stairwell, a crack running up the left side of the altar wall and some beams in the attic were starting to come apart.
"So when you're standing here, you can sort of feel that you're leaning forward. This chancel area here is probably four of five inches lower than when the church was built. So, now what do you do?"
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