By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 26, 2024 at 9:01 AM

A dozen years ago, I stumbled upon an online listing offering for sale the Civil War-era notebooks of Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch, who designed City Hall, Gesu Church, Golda Meir, Garfield and Kagel Schools, Turner Hall, The Pfister, the chapel and Ward Theater at the Soldiers Home, the Big Red (Calvary) Church, Wells Building and many other local landmarks.

I immediately penned this post urging Milwaukee to help find a way to bring these seven leather-bound diaries – with an asking price of $12,000 – home from Canada.

While that effort didn’t really go anywhere, now-retired State Archivist Matt Blessing saw my post and he snatched them up for the Wisconsin Historical Society, where they now reside in a vault.

The cover of one of the notebooks.

The books were described in the original listing like this:

"Seven notebooks in full brown calf, dated between November 1863 and October 1866. ... The notebooks contain narratives and numerous hand-drawn maps mostly in Virginia. ... Various positions of Sheridan's headquarters (May 30-31, 1864 and Sept. 23, 1864) are also identified. ...Among the maps are those showing the location of the Battle of Five Forks, (April 1, 1865. Charles Town in present day West Virginia, with map references to John Brown. Harper's Ferry is only 11 miles away to the Northeast. As well Appomattox Courthouse with a sketch of the McLean House where Lee surrendered to Grant. The final pages of the last notebook contain his architectural sketches and made shortly after he returned from the war to Milwaukee."

Appomattox map

Soon after they were acquired and returned to Wisconsin, Blessing wrote me an email, saying, “The notebooks will serve advanced scholars of the Civil War, particularly those interested in the war in Virginia. I’m perhaps most intrigued by volume 7, in which young Koch measured numerous southern courthouses. Young Koch was clearly gathering information to launch his post-war career in the months immediately following Appomattox.”

WHS bought the books for $10,500 with private funds raised in a capital campaign.

Why it’s taken me more than a decade to go see them in person, I just can’t explain, but I did finally get there last week and I’m glad I did.

A church
Drawings of buildings.
Hamilton County Courthouse
Likely the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati.

It’s wonderful that these treasures now reside in the state’s archives, and, says WHS Reference Archivist Lee Grady, the internet has been a boon when it comes to uncovering lost treasures.

“That is one function of the internet; things get scattered around,” he says. “We had a case some years before this where some photos of Madison turned up, pretty much the earliest known photos of the city, taken around 1860-61 of the isthmus area around the capitol.

“They turned up, as I recall, somewhere in Texas or something. People move around and stuff ends up in their attic and now with the internet, they can put it on the web and suddenly people are bidding on it.”

That availability can also lead to more more bidders seeing the objects and that can drive up prices.

Architectural details
Architectural details.

Even though the full set of notebooks were digitized and can be seen online here, I wanted to see them in person.

So, I set off on a day trip to Madison (where I also began work on a future Urban Spelunking story that I hope you’ll want to read in April), with my kid, who spent 11 years studying in a Koch-designed Milwaukee schoolhouse.

A drawing of the floor plan of a jailhouse.

Holding Koch’s notebooks in my own hands and paging through every one of the seven volumes was a magical experience.

Born in Hanover, Germany in 1841, Koch arrived in Milwaukee as a child. After attending the German-English Academy, he began working for architect George Mygatt around 1857. One of the projects that Koch worked on during this period was the post-fire renovations of the famed Lion House.

Koch's entry in a Civil War enlistment register.

On Aug. 15, 1862, at 21, Koch enlisted in Company B of the Wisconsin 24th Infantry.

When someone noticed his talents with a pencil, he was assigned to Gen. Philip Sheridan’s staff, where he worked as a topographic engineer.

Johanna (Knab) and Henry C. Koch, circa 1869. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)

It’s kind of amazing to see Koch’s incredibly detailed – and often miniscule – pencil drawings showing rivers, roads, topography and more. They’re the kinds of thing we take for granted in a time when aerial views are available at the tap of a few keyboard strokes.

But back then Koch – remember, he was still in his early 20s – would have to gather all of this data with his eyes, from the ground (perhaps sometimes with the help of a hill or other high ground) and transfer it to paper in drawings that would be used to create maps, the accuracy of which could mean life or death for his fellow soldiers.

Lithographed maps.
Koch's survey drawings were used to create lithographed maps.
Five Forks MapX

There are almost no narrative entries in the books – with one multi-page exception that I can recall – just lots of topographical maps, as well as pages of equations and geometry work in the first book, and drawings of court houses, including one in Cincinnati, in the later books. At the back of many of the books there is some tallying of what appear to be expenses of some kind, though it isn’t clear what the amounts represent.


In one of the last books there is a list of detailed expenses in which Koch notes train rides from Cincinnati to St. Louis to Milwaukee, hotel stays in each place, amounts spent on photographs, a shave, a shoe polish and other daily personal expenses.

There are also scattered sketches of architectural details, of a train car and one of my favorites: a pencil sketch of a row of retail facades, including a bank, a law office and a tantalizing clue in a sign that reads, “C.L. & F.P. Wehe.”

Wehe MilwaukeeX

This is a name that turns up an undated online listing of businesses from the Edwards Milwaukee Business Directory as, “bowling saloons” located at 425 East Water Street, a location that is now the site of the OnMilwaukee offices!

One must assume that some of these drawings date to the period after Koch’s discharge on May 20, 1865, though the fact that the journals do not follow a strict timeline makes it difficult to know. Entries out of chronological order suggest Koch sometimes picked up books at different times, opened to blank pages and began sketching.

After his return to Milwaukee, Koch went back to architecture, now partnering with Mygatt, before setting out on his own in 1870. He continued to work in Milwaukee (and beyond) until his death in 1910 at the age of 69, at which point his son Armand Koch, who worked alongside him, continued the family business.


These diaries don’t offer a ton of insight into Koch’s architecture or Milwaukee, but they help draw a fuller picture of a man whose mark can still be seen all around the city, including in many of our key structures.

And, for historians, they offer a rare glimpse into the Civil War.

“We have hundreds of Civil War diaries and letters and collections,” says Grady, who graciously pulled the books and some related maps that were created from Koch’s work, and spent an hour going through them with me.


“But I don't think we have any other ones exactly like this. Sometimes in somebody's diary, I've seen things like they'll draw their tent or something. Probably like, ‘this is my tent, this is where I sleep,’ and that kind of thing. But I've never seen these kinds of (drawings), where the detail obviously seems more professional.

“I've seen lots of diaries where people make notes and figures. They're using pages to calculate maybe their wages or something, but never equations like (the ones here). I don't know what kind, or if he had any kind of cartography training, but It's pretty impressive, the detail in those drawings. I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”

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.