By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 30, 2024 at 3:27 PM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

The new senior living community created at the former school building that, over the years, housed North Milwaukee and Custer High Schools and Edison Junior High and Middle School, 5372 N. 37th St., is about to open.

The building, erected in phases beginning in 1924 and annexed by the City of Milwaukee five years later, was added to the National Register of Historic Places and purchased by Oregon, Wisconsin-based Gorman & Co. last spring.


You can read a detailed history of the building in this Urban Spelunking story.

The new $28.5 million Edison School Apartments development has 63 one- and two-bedroom units for residents age 55 and up. The property also has 12 new three-bedroom townhouses that are available to families.

Apartment residents earn 30 to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), and the townhomes families earn up to 50 percent of the AMI.

The townhomes, outside (above) and in (below).

"Every single unit is affordable," says Gorman's Wisconsin Market President Ted Matkom. "What that means is the rent is pegged to 30 percent of that resident's income. No more than that.  

"But as you can see, all the fixtures and everything are of a market-rate quality, which is fantastic."

The apartments have amenities like in-unit laundry, dishwasher, ceiling fans, walk-in closets, controlled access and central air.

Apartments with original built-ins.

For a schoolhouse geek like me, it's cool to see that built-in cabinets and hardwood floors remain in the many of the units.

Thanks to the big original windows, the open-plan kitchen apartments have plenty of natural light, even in the basement.

"The great thing about using these school buildings is the basements, which were used for classrooms for a whole bunch of stuff. But what's nice about these, the nice big windows make it airy down here."

community room
There's still a chalkboard on the wall of what is now the community room.

The overall development offers a community room (where there's still a chalkboard on the wall), playground, fitness center, community gardens, on-site management, storage units, an elevator in the former school building and off-street parking.

Display cases are still in the corridors – many which are lined with lockers – and at least one has a couple trophies in it and another contains an old artwork.


The hallways maintain their original terrazzo floors and woodwork – including transom windows above doors – and many of the entryways are still adorned with beautiful tile.

In some of the corridors, especially in the basement and the building's 1960s addition, the walls are pretty stark at the moment, but Matkom says that will change.

Tilework in one of the foyers.

"The one thing about historic redevelopment in these schools is it can look kind of like a old 1960s mental institution once you've got all of the walls done," he says with a smile. "So we've hired La Familia, which is a South Side art group, who did this at McKinley school, too. They will put art and murals and pottery all throughout these corridors, which will make it look kind of homey, like your living room."

You can see how that looks at McKinley here.

Alas, a couple big spaces are notably absent from the renovation: the gym and auditorium.

Looking down into the darkened gym.

"You can't put units in them because we are always negotiating (for historic preservation) about what you can take apart and what you can't," Matkom says as we gaze down into the dark gym through a grate in a closet on the first floor. "In the classrooms, they kind of give us full reign, but they say in exchange for that you have to keep the gym the way the gym is. And so you can't really update it. And so what we do is we mothball it.

"We have a community room and a fitness room for people to have classes if they want. So we just mothball (these spaces) for the future. If we want to bring it back, great. The auditorium is a huge old school auditorium, and what we do (there) is the same as the gym."

The development is a big deal for the neighborhood says District 1 Ald. Andrea M. Pratt.


"This is amazing," she says. "So many people went to school here; you have ties in this community. And then to see something else happen here, especially as we have this aging population in my district, that they're able to age in place, I think that really matters.

"I have older parents. I would love for them to be able to stay in our neighborhood. It means so much to them. That's where their ties are. And for that to be an opportunity for other elders throughout the city and throughout my district, it means a lot."

Pratt, whose father Marvin Pratt is a former mayor of Milwaukee, also has family ties to the Edison building.

"My husband went to school and graduated from here," she explains, "and he has very fond memories of being on Villard (Avenue) and coming in this whole area.


"But my mother also worked in the library here, so I remember picking her up in the back."

There has been a big movement in Milwaukee in recent years to adapt former school buildings into residential spaces, although there are examples of this in the city dating back even to 1982, when Bay View’s 1886 Mound Street School was converted into 48 residential units.

More recently, Oregon, Wisconsin-based Gorman & Co. has taken the lead here, converting the 1926 Peckham/Jackie Robinson and the 1888 Fifth Street School/Isaac Coggs (2018) into senior living communities, and rescuing the nearly collapsing 1880s McKinley Street School on 20th and Vliet to create veterans housing in 2023.

Other developers have tackled school building conversions, too, including Maures Development’s transformation of the 1887 Garfield Avenue School in 2018; Heartland Housing and Community First Milwaukee’s senior housing at the 1903 former 37th Street School (2021); and Royal Capital’s adaptive reuse of the 1902 20th Street/Phyllis Wheatley School in 2022.

Painted signX

Apartments have been created or planned for some former suburban schools, too, including the recently closed Longfellow Elementary in West Allis, and Tosa’s former Hawthorne Junior High, which, like Mound Street, was converted in 1982.

Many of these conversion projects have been made possible by state and federal historic tax credits, which is why the buildings typically receive historic designation before the work on the adaptations begins.

From a historic preservation standpoint, this ensures that the work – overseen by the National Park Service in the case of buildings listed on the NRHP – conforms to preservation standards and guidelines, keeping these important community buildings intact at the same time that they are reimagined for a new use.

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.