By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 11, 2013 at 3:21 PM

As it nears its 130th birthday, Eighth Street School on the corner of 8th and Michigan in Downtown Milwaukee, is getting a makeover.

It is humdrum news perhaps, but a development that affects everyone who passes by the building, designed by architect Henry C. Koch (City Hall, Turner Hall, The Pfister, Gesu Church, etc.) and erected in 1884.

Believe it or not, Koch’s building, despite its age, is the third school to have been located on the site. Two earlier Fourth Ward schools had short life spans. The first was put up in 1850 and its replacement followed just seven years later. That building got additions in 1866 and 1874 but within a couple years was again problematic.

And before long the district’s annual report noted, "[Fourth Ward School] is the oldest building now in use and it is rapidly reaching a condition when it will have to be thoroughly reconstructed or deserted. It has been remodeled internally several times; has had additions made to it; is insufficiently lighted and heated; has no provisions for ventilation; and has outside privies with the most imperfect sewerage. The rooms used for Primary grades are especially objectionable. The ceilings are too low, and the effects of wet weather are plainly visible upon the walls, on account of there being no excavation under the building…These statements, which have been put in their mildest form, amount to a condemnation of the building. There cannot be the least question as to its unsuitableness for school purposes."

Koch’s design won a competition and among the photos above you can see Ferry & Clas’ suggestion for a new Fourth Ward School. That design shared some features of the celebrated architects’ old Wisconsin Avenue school on the northwest corner of 27th and Wisconsin (razed and replaced nearly a century ago).

While the current building was being constructed, students met in the old Exposition Building (replaced by the Auditorium on 6th and Kilbourn).

Since it opened in October 1884, the building has hosted many programs over the years. After decades as a neighborhood elementary school, for example, it served as a downtown campus for North Division, an annex to Fulton Junior High, was rented briefly to Urban Day School and is now home to Project Stay Alternative High School and New School for Community Service.

The former Sarah Scott Middle School building on 12th and Highland was built as a replacement for Eighth Street, which, fortunately was not razed when the new building – now home to Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning – was completed in 1991.

A regal, symmetrical three-story building with a central entrance flanked by a pair of peaked, protruding wings dotted with circular attic windows, Koch drew a building in cream city brick sitting atop a rusticated stone foundation. The repeating sets of four tall thin windows – some of which have been reconfigured, as on the south facade – give the school an ordered but sleek appearance, almost making it seem taller than it is.

Sadly, as is often the case for these 19th century buildings, the decorative spire above the air intake on the roof has long since disappeared.

Eighth Street may be the only remaining "city" school that has no playground to speak of (a case could be made for Lincoln Middle School of the Arts, too). MPS added playgrounds to most schools still lacking them in the 1920s by buying up and razing adjacent homes.

I’m not sure how long the cream city brick went unpainted but a reliable source points to the 1970s. At that time, Eighth Street, along with many other cream city schoolhouses, was painted a stark white. In more recent years most of those schools – including Eighth Street – have been repainted in a subtler, more attractive cream color, often with greenish or seafoam accents.

In recent weeks, I’d noticed that crews were working on the building’s exterior and a new coat of paint seemed inevitable. But imagine my surprise last week when I saw the paint job in progress.

That rusticated stone foundation is now a royal blue in some spots and white in others. The first floor is wrapped in a baby blue (the same color that was slathered all over 37th Street School) and the second and third floors – and the pointed dormers – are white with baby blue on the pilasters. The buildings string courses are painted in the darker blue and there are dark blue circles around the dormers’ "eyes."

The colors are the official school hues of Project STAY, I'm told.

The effect is unfortunate. The stately temple of learning now looks more like a birthday cake than a school. And the subtleties that Koch embedded into the unadorned brick, like those pilasters, now seem to shout at, rather than speak warmly to passersby.

What I really hope to see someday is Milwaukee’s most beautiful schoolhouses returned to their cream city brick roots.

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.