By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 30, 2014 at 10:52 AM

The exterior of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 1100 N. Astor St., is a stirring testament to the skill of Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix. I especially love the long shed-roofed dormer that follows the roof line part-way down the long, sloping gable above the sanctuary.

It reminds me of dormers on Mix’s Grand Avenue Congregational Church, built in 1887 – 14 years after Immanuel Presbyterian went up on the lower East Side – though those are triangular and shingled with scalloped shakes.

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But a visit to Immanuel has me wondering if Mix himself ever intended that long string of windows that serve as a clerestory in the sanctuary.

Photographs of the building before a disastrous December 1887 fire testify that it wasn’t there. Instead, a pair of small gabled dormers flanked the larger transept gable, their three peaks aligned in a row.

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But over time, Immanuel has done a good job of adding to Mix’s church in a way that masks the changes unless you look carefully. A new addition on the south and east facades continues that tradition, using the same building materials and erected in a similar style.

Mix – who worked on a number of fine early churches in the city, including St. Paul’s and All Saints – drew an eclectic Victorian Gothic church with a pair of square towers for Immanuel.

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A colorful blend of materials – gray and dark red sandstone trim contrasts with buff and rock-faced limestone and there are polished granite columns and wrought iron elements (the gates out front are the work of Cyril Colnik) – was dubbed "Modern Gothic" at the time.

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A 1971 report on the church for the Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation raved, saying "Immanuel Presbyterian Church is asymmetrical in plan and elevations, picturesque in silhouette, and richly varied in color, texture, materials and ornament. The exterior is a splendid specimen of that bold, eclectic, Gothic style popular in England and this country during the third quarter of the 19th century."

It was quite an achievement for a congregation founded just a few years earlier, in 1870, by a group of parishioners from the First Presbyterian and the North Presbyterian Churches, founded in 1837 and 1849, respectively. Sources place the cost of the original project at anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000.

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The interior was the work of Peter B. Wright and was, according to the 1971 report, "colorful and exuberant." Photographs show a balcony running along the back and aisles delineated by tall Gothic arches.

There was an elaborately carved pulpit and an organ valued at $13,000 rattled the glass – there are four gorgeous Tiffany windows in the sanctuary that you must stop in and see in person – and rumbled the foundations.

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(In a side note, the area beneath the sanctuary was unexcavated until now, when a lower level was dug to build a Sunday school area as part of the current project. During the excavation an old safe was found and it was opened with great anticipation. In a Geraldo moment, the door swung open to reveal ... a single coin. It was a quarter, dated 1897.)

All that changed on Dec. 31, 1887, when – sometime after a choir had performed Handel’s "The Messiah" – a fire tore through the church, leaving little more standing than the exterior walls. An artist’s rendering shows the entire structure engulfed, with flames bolting through the windows and having devoured the roof.

"A fierce blizzard was raging at the time," wrote The New York Times in Jan. 1, 1888, "and it was with the greatest difficulty that fire engines reached the scene. A policeman discovered the flames bursting from one of the windows shortly after 3:30 (a.m.) and gave the alarm promptly, but the fire had evidently been burning for hours before it was discovered, and the building was soon a mass of flames from the basement to the battlements of the tall stone tower."

The Times reported that the fire was presumed to have been the result of one of the building’s four boilers being "overtaxed."

"The entire city was brilliantly illuminated," the paper wrote, "the northern portion being enveloped in a shower of sparks and firebrands."

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Damage was estimated at around $100,000 and insurance covered about 70 percent of that. Other than the walls, one of the few things left in place was the marble baptismal font, which takes pride of place today in the center of the chancel.

When the building was rebuilt, that dormer appeared, though no source I can find reports whether or not Mix had a hand in the work to reconstitute the church. He was still working on projects in the city at the time, so it’s possible, but it’s also possible that those dormers weren't his at all.

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Later, an addition was put on the north end, with a hall and a chapel and in the 1950s, a Sunday school building was erected behind the church on Waverly Place, next to the gorgeous Mix-designed Peck Residence, an 1870 Italianate cream city brick home with a Koch & Sons porch added in 1912. The house was acquired by Immanuel in 1998 and serves as the church offices.

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That building was pulled down last year to make room for a parking lot and the new addition, which is being built by Berghammer Construction. 

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"It was meant for education, community service and our offices," Pastor Deborah Block tells me as we stand in the sanctuary. "Like many utility buildings, it was just not designed for the long run. It was just falling apart."

"Accessibility is so important not only for adults but for children, too," adds Associate Pastor Robert Ater. "The fact (as) that kids with disabilities couldn't get into Sunday school."

As we stand in the sanctuary, Ater points out how the now austere decor has changed over the decades. After the fire, the Gothic elements and ornament were eschewed, other than wainscoting that runs around the interior. Later, in order to gain meeting and gathering space, the balcony was closed off to the sanctuary and a stone motif was added to the back wall.

In the late 1950s, the church was "modernized." The organ pipes at the back of the chancel were covered up, the wainscoting was bleached.

"That’s what you did with woodwork in the ‘50s if you didn't paint it beige to lighten and modernize," says Block ruefully. "And they took this maple ceiling and painted it beige."

During Block’s more than 30 years at Immanuel -- and Ater’s 10 -- they've worked to try and erase some of the missteps of their predecessors.

"I think even with this ‘50s modern chancel, (everyone) realized how ill fitting it was," says Block. "Everything we've done has been to go forward by putting it back."

In that spirit, the entire church has been undergoing restoration and repair. There’s nary a water mark on the sanctuary ceiling, nary a crack in the plaster. Two of the Tiffany windows were sent out to be cleaned and repaired and are back in place, much to the relief of a nervous congregation. Organ pipes again adorn the chancel, giving it a weight, making it again an immediate attention-grabber.

And standing right down in front is that baptismal font that survived the fire, a link to the earliest days of the church.

Block and Ater – along with Pastor Jean Dow – are very conscious of that thread of continuity in their thriving church, which has a growing congregation – currently numbering about 650 – and one that is a good mix in terms of young, newer members and older families who have been here from the start.

This also goes a long way toward explaining why the decision was made to tear down a poor performing and architecturally incongruous building and replace it with new space, physically connected to – and executed in a design and materials that mimic – the Mix building.

"That is what’s in our water in terms of why there wasn't any serious conversation about a modern addition," says Block. "Interestingly, I think it was an assumption that if we did anything to this building, it would have an architectural integrity; I think a respect for the original architect and the original vision. It was never a discussion."

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Just outside the sanctuary, there is a grand staircase that leads up to a hall. At the landing, throwing an explosion of variegated light down into the narthex. This is the Presbyterian Window, created and installed to celebrate the rebuilding after the fire and also the centennial of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

As always, one of the highlights for me was visiting the towers (no bells, though there is a carillon all the way up in the taller, 142-foot tower. Entering the base of that tower, one sees a vast open space and a long, winding staircase that leads to the belfry. Alas, this was on offer the day I visited.

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Above the sanctuary, I got a close-up view of the backside of the long dormer and was interested to see that there a space, perhaps six feet wide, between the clear-paned exterior windows and the stained glass windows that adorn the clerestory in the sanctuary.

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The roof structure is also an interesting mix of materials. One might expect only wood joists, but up here there is also an iron structure that likely arrived after the fire.

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The Immanuel congregation remains alive and active and it has a building worthy of that vivacity. There are interesting spaces and details at every turn. It is accessible to the public every year during Doors Open MKE. Move it near the top of your list.

Last night, the church won a Cream of the Cream City Award from the city’s Preservation Commission in recognition of its stewardship of the Peck House, one of a number, "large and small which have preserved the rich history of Milwaukee found in its varied architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries," said Ald. Robert J. Bauman, who is a member of the Historic Preservation Commission.

This weekend, on Sunday, June 1, Immanuel Presbyterian dedicates its new addition. A 10 a.m. worship service will be followed by an open house that includes tours and music from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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 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.