If some of my meanderings into Milwaukee’s finest and most interesting buildings have led me to drop my jaw in surprise, once in a while, stepping inside almost queers the deal. If the exterior of the neo-Gothic German-English Academy, 1020 N. Broadway, wasn’t such a stunner, it might include itself among the latter.
These days, the former schoolhouse – which has also been home to a furniture retailer, offices and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, which currently owns the building – anchors the south end of an MSOE parking lot that is bookended on the north by Herman P. Schnetzky’s weighty romanesque masterpiece at 1120 N. Broadway, erected as the Blatz Brewery offices and now housing MSOE offices.
My focus on public schools has occasionally led me to pay less attention than I should to some important educational buildings erected by private schools, as this one was.
The German-English Academy was set up as the Milwaukee Schulverein in 1851 to provide instruction in German and English. In 1878 a new National German-American Teachers Seminary joined its ranks, with the goal of educating teachers from around the country.
The former institution morphed into Milwaukee University School in 1918, and the latter churned out teachers for Milwaukee Public Schools.
In 1890, the earliest section of the current building was erected on land donated by Elizabeth Pfister, widow of Guido, and her daughter, Louisa Vogel. Designed by Charles Crane and Carl Barkhausen, that section is a three-story cream city brick, 12-room schoolhouse with a rusticated stone foundation and gorgeous terra cotta ornamentation. It boasts a regal steeply pitched gable roof.
Among Crane and Barkhausen’s surviving work in Milwaukee are the Button Block on the corner of Clybourn and Water, and the Comstock Apartments, 828 N. Milwaukee St., and the George Schuster House/Redstone Apartments, 3209 W. Wells St.
At the top, you can see the words "German-English Academy" and, below, "Nat. G.A. Teachers Seminary."
In 1892, to house the gymnastics normal (teaching) school of the North American Gymnastics Union, another building was erected to the north.
This structure is even more attractive, with two-story arched windows in the east, north and west elevations that once provided light to a gym that had a viewing balcony. It, too, is executed in cream city brick with terra cotta ornament.
A panel on the front bears the words, "Turnlehrer Seminar N.A.T.B.," with the acronym representing the North American Turners Building.
In addition to the gym, with its 27-foot ceiling, this wing had a shower room, classroom (both on the east side of the building) and cafeteria (on the west side) in the basement. The third floor was one large space that had been sectioned off into four classroom before 1933.
A 1980 report by the Committee for the Restoration of the German English Academy says the north building was purchased by the German-English Academy in 1907 and connected the two structures. Two years later, a high school department was added and in 1912 a reinforced concrete and steel high school building – with a pool and a second-floor assembly hall – was built on Milwaukee Street, directly behind the Broadway building.
The University School moved out in 1927 and for the next four years, the German-English Academy was home to Klode Furniture, which later relocated to Plankinton Avenue. In 1932, MSOE bought the building, which was designated a city landmark in 1973 and was added to the National Register four years later.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Jewish Center purchased the Milwaukee Street Building – with funds raised at least in part by Lizzie Kander’s "The Settlement Cook Book." It, too, was sold to MSOE in 1947. That has since been razed due to its precarious condition. MSOE employees speak of quite literally seeing that building’s brickwork crumble to the touch.
In 1980, MSOE announced plans to raze the German-English Academy building because of its poor condition and one school official was quoted in an article saying, "the (roof) tiles are flying off into the street." There are photos of a crane with a wrecking ball sitting out front, waiting for the order to begin demolition, but, fortunately, that order never came.
Instead the city worked out a deal in which MSOE agreed to sell the German-English Academy to a developer who would convert it to office space and the city and MPS would sell to MSOE the former site of Jefferson Street School – on Jefferson and State, now the site of an MSOE soccer pitch – so that MSOE would have space to expand, if necessary.
Interestingly, MSOE is now owner of the building again, but leases most of the German-English Academy to Direct Supply, which has offices there.
On a recent visit, I had hoped to visit the old schoolhouse attic and expected to perhaps find some of the fancy hinges or doorknob plates I've seen in photos, some classic maple hardwood floors, maybe some decorative moldings.
Instead, I found none of it. As gorgeous as the exterior is, the interior is an equal part modern office space. Sure, it looks fine as office space goes – especially up in the former attic, which is now offices, where the skylights offer bright sunshine. But the building’s character is preserved only in its exterior, not its interior.
While I’m disappointed to find its schoolhouse persona erased on the inside – thanks to a renovation style that doesn’t match today’s sometimes more sensitive to history approaches – that transformation is what allows us to behold today the beautiful skin and bones of the German-English Academy.
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.