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If you want to trace Milwaukee’s transit history in a single spot, the former Fiebrantz bus facility, 1900 W. Fiebrantz Ave., is a good place to start.
When The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company built a streetcar barn there, the site had already been a rail facility, a car shed for for the Milwaukee Northern Railway, an interurban rail service that ran north to Sheboygan.
The first trolleys arrived when the new facility was completed in March 1931, followed by the first trolley buses in 1940. The last streetcars rolled out in 1948 and the facility had a long run as a Milwaukee County Transit System bus garage, wash station and repair shop, which ended in 2018.
The facility has been empty ever since and was listed for sale by Milwaukee County in 2021.
A few months ago, the County announced that it has a contract to sell the 3.8-acre site (with quarter-acre lot, zoned two-family residential, just across the street) to MKE Northside LLC, which owns Containers UP and Green Frog.
County officials expect the sale of the property to close sometime in the first quarter of 2024.
Containers UP and Green Frog – subsidiaries of Stratus Industries, a manufacturer of wood, metal and plastic products located at 4997 N. 33rd St. – operate businesses that convert shipping containers to new uses, such as bars, and offer portable toilet rentals and service, respectively.
Containers UP's containers have been installed at Harbor View Plaza in the Harbor District, as parklets along Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View, at Brown Deer's beer garden and at breweries like Eagle Park and Raised Grain.
Green Frog mostly utilizes outdoor space for its portapotty business, storing the units on a property in Glendale.
Some of Stratus' woodworking production will also move to Fiebrantz, according to co-owner Lyle Stoflet.
They plan to paint and clean up the nearly 91,000-square-foot facility, replace doors and lighting, and hire 12 people initially, with plans to hire 12 more in the following two years. They also hope to work with Rufus King High School across street on a student internship and apprenticeship program.
"The building as it sits is a very good fit for what we need," says co-owner Tom Daugherty, "with most of the space being open."
Daugherty says a realtor alerted them to the Fiebrantz property.
Before the sale closes, I went over for a tour of the old streetcar, and later bus, facility.
But, first, a little history.
Before there were any tracks laid at the site, the 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows the west end of it covered in greenhouses owned by William Edlefsen Floral Co., which was founded in 1882.
The German-born Edlefsen had a shop on Third Street (between Juneau and Highland) and greenhouses Seventh Street, between Garfield and Lloyd, in the mid-1890s and before that was selling flowers in a store on Juneau Avenue.
The Fiebrantz greenhouses stretched as far west as 21st Street. On the east end of the site was a home, presumably Edlefsen’s own, with an attached greenhouse.
According to a 1912 issue of Florists’ Review, “The Edlefsen Floral Co. has opened a new flower shop at Third and State streets. William Edlefsen, who was one of the prominent florists in the city for many years and who has been out west for some time, has returned to Milwaukee, and, together with his daughters, will operate the store. The family is well known and, no doubt, should do a good business.”
Although the company survived into the early 1930s, run by his daughters after Edlefsen’s retirement – at which point he moved to a fruit farm near Portland, Oregon, where he died in 1935 – we know that its greenhouses did not endure on the Fiebrantz site, because by sometime in the 1920s, Milwaukee Northern had acquired the site and put up its temporary car shed.
Because he still lived at the greenhouse, we know that he would’ve been witness to the efforts of The Milwaukee Electril Railway & Light Co.’s efforts to turn his former greenhouse site into a streetcar facility that would be immediately south of his home.
“Whether the electric company shall be permitted to build a car barn at 20th Street, Fiebrantz Avenue and Olive Street, rests with the railroad commission, it was agreed,” reported the Sentinel in October 1928. “Residents of the neighborhood petitioned the (common) council not to change the zoning to accommodate the car barn.”
Perhaps Edlefsen was among those residents. Perhaps the construction of the facility is what led him to move back out west? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the following November, there was a hearing on the electric company’s plan to create the barn that would be able to store as many as 150 streetcars, even though the site was zoned residential.
“Street car barns have no place in a residential neighborhood, residents of the 25th Ward insisted before the railroad commission Tuesday afternoon,” wrote the Journal. “They objected to the enlargement of a car barn at 20th and Fiebrantz, the former car shed of the Milwaukee Northern, now owned by the Electric Co. The commission took the case under advisement.”
At a commission meeting in December, Ald. Charles Schad asked that the TMER&L request be refused, “because of the residential character of the surrounding territory.”
Though there’s not much more coverage to be found of the commission’s discussion of the subject, the electric company ultimately got its way. We know this because on July 6, 1930, the Sentinel reported that, “Grading will be started this week for construction of a new street car barn to cost about $250,000 at Fiebrantz Avenue and 19th Street, it is announced by R. H. Pinkley, vice president of the electric company.
“From 100 to 125 men will be employed in the erection of two buildings and laying of storage tracks, Mr. Pinkley said. The new car barn, to be ready for use early this fall, will have a capacity of 150 cars and will replace a smaller temporary car barn now occupying part of the site. A two-story trainmen’s building will be 80x120 feet in size and an adjoining four track car repair and washing building will be 64x302 feet. Both buildings will be of concrete, steel and brick.”
By September much of the material scooped out of the site during that grading work was sent over to land at Capitol and Hopkins where the Milwaukee Road was constructing freight yards. By Oct. 29, work constructing the Fiebrantz building was set to begin, providing work for 150 men for an estimated three or four months, which was big news a year into the Great Depression.
By the final day of the year, the Journal reported, “substantial progress on construction of new car station,” and by mid-February 1931, it announced that, “finishing touches re now being added,” and the facility should be open by mid-March.
And, indeed, that was the case.
“Two hundred trainmen and 75 street cars will be transferred to the new Fiebrantz station Monday to relieve congestion at the Fond du Lac and Oakland Avenue stations,” the Sentinel reported on March 15.
With approximately a mile of storage track, a clubroom and a space for repairing and washing cars, the barn was built at a cost of $250,000. Cars of the Eighth-Muskego, Third-Burnham nd Sixth Street lines will be stored here. Andrew W. Kordick, division superintendent, will supervise the opening of the new station.”
In addition to the three-story office building, the brick facility also had four bays with garage doors. Elevated power lines crisscrossed the the entire site and out onto Fiebrantz.
Photographs in local archives also show that on the west side of the site, there was still a rail freight handling facility, at least into the 1940s.
A 1947 photograph also shows that a single-story addition was made to the west of the building by then, adding three more bays.
Further expansion to the west during the bus era added two more structures with three bays each.
In 1975, when the county took over the bus system, the Fiebrantz facility became part of the Milwaukee County Transit System.
MCTS utilized it for much the same purposes – repair, storage and washing of vehicles, as well as for its dispatching, bus pass sales to the public, offices and driver services, including showers, lockers and rest rooms.
Most recently, from autumn 2021 until spring of 2022, the complex was used by State of Wisconsin Department of Children and Families as collection and storage of donations for Operations Allies Welcome Afghan Refugees.
There had been a plan to rent it as storage for the Democratic National Convention in 2020, but that, of course, did not come to pass, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, really, since 2018 – when MCTS found cost savings by consolidating three such facilities into two, closing Fiebrantz – the place has been mostly vacant and unused.
Here’s how the County described the property in its request for proposals:
“Its main building is a one-to-three story former service garage and bus terminal facility containing approximately 90,842 square feet of gross building area of which 8,363 square feet is finished three-story office space. The bus service building is approximately 4,496 square feet.
“The building is situated on one tax parcel containing 3.802 acres or 165,609 square feet of land. The secondary parcel was historically utilized by MCTS as an overflow employee parking lot. The parcel contains a total of 0.253 acres or 11,035 square feet.”
When I visited, we entered the far west end of the main structure, which was the latest addition, and of block construction. In each of two incredibly long, windowless spaces are three lanes where buses could puil in.
It’s hard to tell if there’s a wall between these two spaces because they were put up at different times or just for support.
But when we got six lanes in, I could easily see what had been the exterior wall of the first addition, as it had windows (now blocked up) with cut stone sills. Also, the roof construction in this section differed from that of the newer ones.
The four vehicle bays of the original are the most interesting.
Here there are windows along the east wall and much higher ceilings, as well as clerestory windows facing west.
There are also four long, narrow cuts in the floor, with stairs leading down. Anyone whose had a drive-through oil change knows that these afforded mechanics easy access to the undersides of vehicles.
In the main building, much of the detail has been erased or hidden by later modernization finishes, like dropped ceilings.
However, there is still a lovely staircase at the front of the building with metal railings, wood bannisters and terrazzo floors, though much of that is hidden under metal no-slip treads.
Outside, just above the main entrance are some cut stone details including a TMER&L Co. nameplate.
In a separate building on the far west side of the property (next to an electrical substation that serves as a reminder of the electric company ownership of the site) is a long narrow building that served as the vehicle wash.
It looks much like the other bays but with a little extra specialized washing equipment.
One especially interesting room was the former parts room, with its rows of tall narrow shelving and its boards with examples of all the parts mounted.
Looking around, it’s clear why Green Frog and Containers UP wants the property. With lots of big, open spaces – indoors and out – it seems perfect for their businesses.
“We had gotten two other submissions,” says Emily Streff, Associate Project Manager for Milwaukee County Economic Development. “Both were for housing, so they’d have to completely demolish this building, and (there’s) financial feasibility, so the panel wasn't really in favor of those.
“There was someone on the panel lived in the neighborhood, so she was kind of the voice for the (community) and ... the neighborhood was opposed to more dense housing.
“We were showing Rufus King. They had expressed interest in this a little bit, but their project would just not have been financially feasible either. They wanted to demolish this whole thing, (and) potentially make it into a fieldhouse.”
“Then we had gotten the one from MKE Northside doing business as Containers UP and Green Frog and we thought that would be a good fit.”
Jonathan Fera, Communications Director for the Milwaukee County Office of the County Executive, said that the proposal seemed like a good fit for other reasons, too, noting that the buyer plans to paint the buildings, clean up the site, collaborate with Rufus King and hire up to two dozen people.
Containers UP will hire skilled workers with pay ranging from $17.50 to $45 an hour, while Green Frog will be looking for cleaning, maintenance and delivery staff and paying $15.50-$25 an hour.
"This is a great opportunity to bring economic stability to our neighborhoods," says County Executive David Crowley, "because we know that economic stability creates healthy neighborhoods.
"So I'm very excited that we found partners to move into a County-owned building and revitalize this asset. This is about bringing good-paying jobs right here to our own community, and opportunities, particularly for our young people who are attending Rufus King High School, this is going to give them some career experience and opportunities to learn more about manufacturing."
Daugherty says the larger space will not only allow Containers UP to catch up on a backlog of work, but also grow the business.
"We've been really hamstrung for the last couple years," he says, "wedging containers into a tiny space and limiting what we could do for production. So it's really going to open opportunities for us to grow."
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.