In 2013, after visiting 37th Street School, 1715 N. 37th St., built by Milwaukee Public Schools in 1903, I described the empty schoolhouse as endangered.
But now, not only was it pulled back from the brink, but it's undergone a stunning transformation.
After the school closed and its program moved to the new Bethune Academy building around the corner in 2005, the building long sat vacant, ripe for vandalism.
My subsequent visits made it seem even more hopeless.
MPS Facilities and Maintenance staff and Milwaukee Police worked hard to keep a step ahead of burglars and vandals, but sometimes failed. As I wrote in 2017 – when sharing a plan to finally save the building and convert it into affordable senior housing (see "before" photos at the link) – during one then-recent break-in, while stripping copper wire and pipes, vandals caused water damage that buckled some of the hardwood floors.
So imagine my surprise and joy at seeing the completed project this week, when Greenfire Management Services, the general contractor, gave me a tour. (Landon Bone Baker was the project architect; George Birnbaum was the building architect.)
I knew it was coming. In January of this year, I went back to check progress, and it was great to see work moving forward, but the full impact wasn’t yet clear.
This time was different. The conversion, now complete, is a real success story in a struggling neighborhood that could use more of them.
The old cyclone fence is gone, replaced with a more stylish and less forbidding lower version that encircled not the old asphalt, but a beautifully landscaped yard with a path and benches.
The building has been entirely repainted and new doors and windows installed. The roof has been replaced, too.
Out back, which is now where the main entrance is located, the playground is a newly paved parking lot for tenants (parking, like heat, is included in the rent).
The old unused smoke stack that could be seen for blocks around has been removed, but its base serves as the main entrance.
Inside, the former multi-story boiler room has been converted into two floors with space for the small lobby – where the school’s old welcome board has been installed, with the contents still in place – bike storage, storage lockers for residents, an elevator, garbage and recycling room, and laundry facilities.
The building has 49 units: 22 studios, 21 one-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom units. Rents range from $394 to $900 a month.
A number of them are on the lower level and are surprisingly bright garden apartments. Alas the one in the old kindergarten room no longer has the two tiny tot bathroom facilities.
Some of the units on the first floor are blessed with those huge arched windows facing 37th Street.
Most apartments have open-plan living room and kitchen areas. The larger, two-bedroom units have islands.
The building will be ready for occupancy by Friday, though move-ins are not yet beginning.
The apartments are reserved for seniors (age 55 and up) and 43 units are designated low income ($45,000 is the upper income limit). The other six units can be rented at market rate.
On the third floor there are some apartments, but the main feature here is the community room created in the former gym, where the painted lines (and home plate) remain painted on the floor.
I should mention that the original hardwood floors remain throughout the building: in the hallways, in the stairwells, in the apartments and most strikingly in the community room, which has a kitchenette, some exercise equipment and offices for social services and the building manager.
There will be a library and computer room, too.
The developers – Heartland Housing and Community First Milwaukee – also kept original door frames and handcrafted built-in cabinets, though they’re not always in their original positions due to the shift in the floor plans when carving classrooms into apartments.
A large, especially stunning built-in that had been in the kindergarten room is now a main feature in the community room.
Some other touches survive, too, like rows of coat hooks.
Because the project utilized historic tax credits, the plan had to be vetted by the National Parks Service, which typically requires as much of the building’s original detail as possible to be maintained.
Thankfully, that has been achieved here. The look and feel of a 118-year-old former schoolhouse that had a long useful life for Milwaukee children has been polished and restored to give it a new useful life for Milwaukee seniors.
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.