By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 29, 2023 at 9:01 AM

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You wouldn’t know it passing 7th and Highland today, but for nearly a century, the northwest corner was home to one of the earliest high schools in the city. Later, it was the site of an elementary school. Now, it’s an educational institution of higher learning.

In 1951, the old Highland Avenue School – which served a now mostly gone residential neighborhood population – was demolished to make way for what is now Milwaukee Area Technical College’s T Building, designed by Grassold & Johnson and completed in 1953.

T buildibng
The T Building (lower right) in 1972. (PHOTO: MATC)

The $1.5 million building was constructed to house heavy machinery and foundry equipment shops for vocational training.

The structure that it replaced was a three-story schoolhouse built of brick and Wauwatosa limestone in 1901 to plans drawn by Buemming and Dick, who also designed the current Cass Street School a few years later. That building cost $68,000.

Highland Avenue School, built in 1901.

Recently, I came across a series of photos of the demolition of that building, which led me to dig a little deeper.

Work began on the T Building in January of 1952, just three months after the cornerstone of the old building was opened, revealing a time capsule.

What they found on Oct. 25, 1951 were old newspapers, school handbooks and “other communications to posterity,” as a Journal reporter put it.

“A novelty in the cornerstone was an envelope on top of the tin box which contained the official documents,” the reporter noted, “sealed with a label in the shape of a whisky keg with ‘Tom Benton Whisky, Pure-no fusel oil’ printed on it. Inside were two slips of paper with the vital statistics of two Milwaukee policemen printed on them. They are believed to be among those who used to patrol the area around the school.”

It also contained documents that told the deeper history of the site.

The beginning of the end. (PHOTO: MATC)

In 1853, exactly a century before the completion of the T Building, noted the reporter, “a group of private citizens earmarked the block bounded by North 6th and 7th Streets and West Highland and West Juneau Avenues for one of Milwaukee’s first secondary schools.

“Among the papers was a document in German script which said the school was needed because of an ‘insufficiency of facilities on the high school level’.”

And thus was the old West Side German and English High School born.

The first building, however, did not open until 1869, when there were but two public high schools in the city, the Milwaukee High School in the 7th Ward, and the brand-new Second Ward High School.

The site with its earlier building, on the 1894 Sanborn map.
The site on the 1910 map.

That building was sold to the city in 1879 and converted into a primary school, although MPS records suggest that for a time it also served as a Normal (Teachers’) School.

The district’s educational department was housed there from 1881 until 1896, and in 1883 the Wisconsin Phonological Institute launched a program for deaf students. That program grew into the Paul Binner School of the Deaf, which moved sites a few times and continues today in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Neeskara School.

“By 1895 the building had begun to decay,” our intrepid reporter continues. “In 1897 a large part of the ceiling fell in. A complete rebuilding project was begun in 1901.”

interior demo
Interior demolition. (PHOTO: MATC)

That project was the 22-classroom building torn down in 1951 and early 1952 by Speedway Contracting Company, which tried the patience of officials when it asked for extensions to account for delays due to weather and the rerouting of steam lines.

Highland – which should not be confused with the old Second Ward School on 10th and Highland, designed by Edward Townsend Mix (or with the current Highland Community School in the old MacDowell building on 17th and Highland) – had been closed by MPS in 1934 and turned over to the Board of Vocational Education for use as an annex.

It was said to be the first school “to be abandoned,” but that hardly seems likely, especially considering at the very least Lisbon Avenue School had been closed in 1932 and demolished.

Almost gone. (PHOTO: MATC)

“The site was rededicated in early February 1953 to serve more young people in a city with growing pains,” wrote the Journal. “Educators joined city and state officials to lay the cornerstone of the city’s new vocational school annex, being built on the old high school grounds.”

And what of the gems found in the old cornerstone?

“The contents of the old cornerstone along with the brief biographies, were carefully re-wrapped,” the reporter noted. “They were enclosed in the cornerstone of the new building, along with a schedule of courses offered by the vocational school, a copy of local newspapers, a school catalog and a list of its faculty, speeches made by the dignitaries Thursday and biographies of the directors of the school.

“The group of speakers stood in a drizzle as each stuffed a bit of mortar into the crevice between the cornerstone and the shiny red bricks.”

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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.