From the view I usually have of them, the four remaining Agricultural College buildings designed by Alexander Eschweiler and erected on the County Grounds in 1911-12, are a mystery.
They're perched above Tosa's Swan Boulevard in a position that suggests respect. But they're also obscured from the road, peeking out from a screen of trees and overgrown tangles of weeds, lurking like escaped prisoners hiding from their fate.
The buildings – which are on the National Register of Historic Places – were constructed to house the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy, but that institution proved short-lived and barely a dozen years after they were built, they became vacant.
Nine or ten years later, HGA architect Jim Shields – who is working with Mandel Group on a plan to build apartments on the site – told me on a recent visit, the buildings began to house kids from the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children, across the prairie to the south, near 94th and Watertown Plank Road.
And that's pretty much the foundation of the story for a century. The buildings were occupied for a while, then vacant for a while. Occupied for a while, vacant for a while. They've been silent again for more than a decade.
Though while the buildings have echoed with little more than the hiss of vandals' Krylon cans and the thrum of traffic from nearby I-45, Wauwatosa and Milwaukee have buzzed with discussions about the fate of these structures.
The latest proposal, floated by the Mandel Group, is to buy the property from UWM, which plans to build a research campus on adjacent land, and erect five buildings of apartments. Eschweiler's engineering building would be razed, his stellar administration building would be renovated into a commons building – with an exercise room, meeting space, etc. – and the dairy and dormitory buildings would be in large part demolished, though their exterior walls would remain up to the string courses and serve as borders for a pair of walled gardens.
This plan conjures images of those roofless, dilapidated abbeys one sees dotted around Yorkshire, where the remaining walls hem in overgrown vegetation or carefully tended lawns. It calls for more formal gardens, however, not just random weed growth or putting-green grass.
There is opposition to this plan, however, because it fails to preserve all four buildings. Still others oppose it out of concern about the effect the entire development could have on an adjacent monarch butterfly habitat.
My recent visit was both exciting and disappointing.
All four buildings are lovely on the outside, with Eschweiler's variegated brickwork, augmented by fetching patterns. One of my favorite views in an area between the dorm, dairy and engineering buildings, where you can see that the architect created a theme of triple dormers, but chose a different arrangement for each of the three buildings.
Also quite alluring is the "quad," or the area surrounded on two sides by the administration, dairy and dorm buildings. One is instantly transported to the corner of Hartford and Downer and its quad bordered by some finely preserved Eschweiler buildings, and the imagination runs wild with possibilities for this site.
Inside, things are a bit different. I was disappointed to find that the dairy, dormitory and engineering buildings are in sad shape in terms of condition – I could see the shimmering reflection of standing water on the roof of the dairy, brick is exposed on inside walls and the connecting heating tunnels have filled with water repeatedly, for a start.
Certainly, these buildings can be repaired (Mandel puts the cost at a bit over $11 million, a number it says has been more or less verified by a third party hired by the City of Wauwatosa). But it is notable that whatever interior architectural elements were present when the agricultural college opened have since been stripped clean. Instead, there is thick carpeting, wall configurations have been altered, dropped ceilings, linoleum tiles on the floors.
Inside the administration building, which we visited first, things are different. The stunning disrepair is the same – I saw daylight in one room and when I went to investigate, I saw I could easily climb through the hole in the roof allowing the sunshine (and certainly rain and wildlife) to enter.
But this building remains a gem. There are hardwood floors, stained moldings that have deepened to a rich hue over the years, fine staircases leading up to a third floor gym that is perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen, with pointed arches running the length of the room and balconies on opposite ends. Though they've been boarded up, the skylights that must have flooded this gorgeous space with light are still there.
While it broke my heart to see the condition of this building, it was thrilling to picture it restored to its former glory, and because so much of its original detail is still there, it was eerie to feel the vibes of the feet – big and little – that walked these same hardwood floors over the course of a century.
I'm torn when it comes to the Mandel plan for the Eschweiler buildings. My instinct is to preserve it all, find the money and get it done. But yin to that yang is the sense that there is no sugar daddy looming in the overgrown flora ready to hand over, for argument's sake, $11 million to make that a reality.
Plans for the buildings come and go and so do the vandals, the rodents, the wind, the rain, the ice, the searing summer sunshine. And it is plain to see that the boards over the windows and the signs threatening video camera surveillance are doing nothing to ward off any of them.
Would I prefer all four buildings live on forever? Absolutely, without a doubt or the slightest hesitation. Do I think the Mandel plan is the best we can hope for at this stage? Maybe, maybe not.
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.