Last winter, on a visit to a couple closed school buildings, I was in the attic at 37th Street School and I saw the pencil markings left by a carpenter while framing out the roof of that school, built in 1903.
While I’d often thought of the architects of these stately buildings, hard at work at their drafting tables, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the hard working folks who dug the foundations, set the limestone blocks in place, laid the bricks, framed the elaborate roofs.
A couple simple lines executed with pencil and a straight edge of some kind immediately transported me back more than a century and I could smell the scent of freshly cut wood, could hear the sound of rip saws and hammers at work.
Nearby, I saw a bird’s mouth cut into a joist to support a diagonal beam and I realized the pencil lines appeared to be a carpenter working out the proper angle for the cuts for the bird’s mouth.
An hour later, I stood in the much more spacious walk-in attic at Fifth Street School, where the effect is more soaring than cramped (like it is at 37th Street), and I paid extra attention to the carpentry. The framing in a school like that one (built in 1888), with a much steeper, complex roofline, looks almost like a spiderweb of wood.
Still, I was unprepared for what I saw when I switched on the light in a small, dark space I’d never seen before in the attic of the oldest part of Maryland Avenue School recently.
Ducking through a three-quarters size door – the top corner of which is traversed by a joist so watch your head – I could tell the space was cramped and I could see there was a light switch. When I flipped it, I saw what you can see in the image above: a sort of burnt siena-hued ligneous fan.
I was in the attic of the turret that is on the west facade of the original portion of the building, erected in 1887 and I was transfixed by the fan of joists. What struck me most was the heterogeneous spacing of them and the way they were trimmed to fit into the tight grouping where they meet at the peak.
This was clearly the work of knowledgeable and skilled carpenters. The web of boards wasn’t generated by a computer; the boards ripped by hand, not on a computer-driven saw. These days, something like this would likely be perfectly spaced, the boards perfectly trimmed. But here, a craftsmen or a couple craftsmen worked together to create a turret roof by hand, by eye.
Alas, my photos in this dark space – I was not there to photograph, so I didn’t have anything more than my iPhone camera – don’t show all the interesting details. For example, the roof boards nailed down to the joists are applied in an unusual pattern that is horizontal in one area, diagonal sloping north in another and diagonal sloping south in another.
An architect who was with me said he did a report on the Gallun tannery buildings when he was in college and he saw notes written on attic joists there in Polish and Italian. A couple other guys, who are much more adept at woodworking than I am, came in and were similarly impressed.
While we are often quick to recognize the artistry of the architects of Milwaukee’s vintage landmarks, let’s not forget about the folks who brought to life these drawings, who took an image on paper and rendered it in three dimensions for all of us to inhabit and admire.
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.