By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 18, 2021 at 10:04 AM

As a fan of vintage schoolhouses, there’s nothing I love to see more than a beautiful old building put to a beneficial new use – other than it still operating as a school, of course – and there have been some great examples in Milwaukee of the conversion of former public schools into housing, as at the former Jackie Robinson/Peckham Middle School, Garfield Avenue School, Fifth Street School, Mound Street School and others.

A few more of these projects are now on tap, too, including at the former McKinley Elementary, Custer High/Edison Junior High and Phyllis Wheatley – as well as the conversion of the old Wisconsin Avenue School into a hotel.

37th Street SchoolX

One conversion currently underway is over at the former 37th Street School, 1715 N. 37th St., and last week I got a chance to see the progress on a building that I called endangered in 2013.

I’ve always been a fan of the U-shaped 37th Street School building (designed by George Birnbach), which has a number of nearly identical (some more than others) siblings in MPS, including Auer Avenue School, Brown Street Academy and Siefert Elementary, all built around the same time and all still in operation, so I’m especially pleased that there is a plan for its re-use rather than for its demolition.

37th Street School renderingX
37th Street School renderingX

The $9 million plan for the building – which is owned by and being developed by Heartland Housing Alliance and Community First, with Greenfire doing the construction work and Landon Bone Baker serving as architects – includes 49 low-income senior housing units.

It is being funded, in part, with Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits, too. The latter requires a number of historical features to be retained.

There will be studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, along with a community space in the former gym, laundry facilities, storage lockers, a 40-stall parking lot and new landscaping.

The work will return the luster to a 1903 building (with a large 1911 addition) that, once a neighborhood anchor, had become a rapidly deteriorating target for vandals since the school program moved to the then-new Mary McLeod Bethune Academy building, around the corner on 35th Street, in 2005.

Since work began in August, the site has been a hive of activity.

On the exterior, the tall, unused chimney was removed and masons have been busy tuckpoint bricks, replacing mortar and repairing or replacing stone sills. Alas, unlike over at the old Garfield Avenue School, the cream city brick here will not be exposed; the plan is to repaint the exterior once the masonry work is complete.

Later in the the project, every window will be replaced.

Brick from the chimney has been used to patch holes and make repairs, etc. throughout the building.

37th Street SchoolX

The new main entrance will be around the back (pictured above), facing the parking lot and a series of formerly behind-the-scenes areas, like the boiler room, will be converted into the entry, lobby and elevator shaft.

Each floor has been reconfigured to turn classrooms, offices and other spaces into the 49 units, as well as storage lockers and a trash room on each floor. Removing a series of long-unused chimney runs, bought a bit of extra floor space, as has the removal of a few distinctive brick arches (a trade-off that pains me, in this case).

37th Street SchoolX

Part of the top-floor gym (pictured above) is being walled off to create a corridor, but the bulk of the space will remain open, with its original floor (and the basketball hoop!) intact, for use as a common space for tenants. A leasing office is also being built out on this floor.

Mechanicals are being installed on the flat roof of the 1911 addition as well as in the attic.

Many original doors and moldings, as well as cabinets and cupboards built specially for the school (in the photo below, you can see “37th Street” penciled on the newly exposed sides, written, surely, when the cabinets were built in the MPS carpentry shop decades ago), will be kept and used in apartments and other spaces.

37th Street SchoolX

Despite the fact that this was my fourth visit to the school, I was able to get a different look at it now that so much work had begun. When slate blackboards were removed, earlier, black-pianted boards were found underneath, many still covered in chalk writing.

37th Street SchoolX

Sadly, there was never enough of the writing visible to be able to get a good sense of when it dates from, but surely the slate blackboards were there for many decades. Many of these sections of original blackboard will remain in place behind kitchen and living room drywall and bathroom tile, secrets for perhaps another generation to find in years to come.

For now, this nearly 120-year-old building will be transformed into an again-useful neighborhood anchor.

Greenfire is expected to hand over the keys to Heartland Housing Alliance in mid-July, with tenants likely moving in soon after.

Here are more images of what I saw on my visit last week:

Original cabinetry in a future apartment

37th Street SchoolX

Classroom number on a future apartment entrance

37th Street SchoolX

Second floor corridor, looking north

37th Street SchoolX

Original doors awaiting reinstallation

37th Street SchoolX

Original hardwood floors awaiting reinstallation

37th Street SchoolX

Future entrance area

37th Street SchoolX

Future living room

37th Street SchoolX

Former kindergarten cloak room and tiny toilets

37th Street SchoolX

Lovely little painted detail in south stairwell

37th Street SchoolX

South stairwell

37th Street SchoolX

Former second floor classrooms being converted to apartments

37th Street SchoolX

 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.