As you know, I get to see a lot of Milwaukee buildings. And since I’ve lived here a long time, it makes sense that I have some connection to some of them. But few of them have affected my life as much as the former Journal Sentinel buildings on what used to be called “4th and State.”
Although I’d been writing professionally for a couple years by the time I started working at the Milwaukee Sentinel in autumn 1988, my five years there solidified my career choice and helped provide me with the skills I’d need.
It’s also where I met my wife.
Plus, when I first moved to Milwaukee in 1983, the Journal lobby still sold maps and stamps and newspapers and you could mail letters there and handle other services, too, as well as grab schedules for every bus route in town. I'd go there to buy bus passes.
Professionally and personally, the buildings, especially the former Sentinel building at 918 Vel Phillips Ave., carry a lot of memories and nostalgia for me.
So, I was excited to be able to get a peek inside last week as work commences on owner J. Jeffers & Co.’s effort to convert them into Journal Square apartments and student housing for nearby Milwaukee Area Technical College.
The Journal Sentinel has for the most part completed the move of its newsroom staff to 330 E. Kilbourn Ave. Only a few photographers and others, like those clearing out the former library, remain.
A little history
Although most recently the building was called the Journal Sentinel Building, it is actually a complex of three buildings, erected at different times.
The most recognizable of the three, 333 W. State St., faces the corner of State Street and Vel Phillips Avenue and was built in 1924 as a stunning new home for the Milwaukee Journal, which like most Milwaukee newspapers, had gotten its start east of the river.
Founded in 1882, the daily Journal – an afternoon paper – was published by Peter V. Deuster and Michael Kraus, and headquartered in the Seebote Building, home to the German-language Seebote newspaper Deuster also published, on Mason Street near the river.
Two years later, the Journal became a United Press International affiliate and moved across the street to the former Wisconsin News building, which still stands. In 1883 the Journal really made its name via its hard-hitting coverage of the Newhall House fire.
In 1891, the paper moved its offices to the Montgomery Building at the southeast corner of Milwaukee and Michigan Streets and in 1907 it hopped the river, occupying a building at 734 N. 4th St. that was demolished in recent years.
In 1924, the growing Journal moved into its Art Deco gem of a home designed by Chicago architect Frank D. Chase.
The building cost $1 million, and the paper spent another million on the machinery required to produce a newspaper.
After laying the cornerstone in April, W.W. Oeflein contractors got busy erecting the five-story building with its granite base and Kasota limestone from Minnesota decorating the areas above.
Though it’s not explosively decorative, the building has a simple elegance and was adorned with a number of motifs and symbols, as well as a now-removed frieze.
Many employees took bits of the frieze home as garden or home ornaments. The rest went to the dump, though one facilities employee believes that it was documented in photographs before it was trashed.
“Because the building was so simple, much was made of the design of the printers’ marks in the lunettes above the third story windows (all thoroughly researched) as well as the frieze near the top of the building,” notes the city’s historic designation report for the building.
“An article from 1925 describes the frieze as six feet in height, depicting man’s efforts to communicate with man. It is divided into 17 major epochs in rather sharp relief separated by groups of figures in low relief illustrating the life and customs of each particular period." The article goes on to describe the frieze in detail. Arthur Weary is credited with the design of the frieze but he was not mentioned in the descriptions published in the American Architect and nothing could be found about him through an internet search.
Although the frieze, which was deteriorating and had begun to perilously drop pieces to the sidewalk below, was removed in 2011, other decorative elements remain.
Inside, in the one-time executive suite on the fourth floor, there is a mural that also depicts communication across the centuries (a section of it is pictured here below).
A contemporary addition was built to the east in 1962 to plans drawn by Eschweiler Eschweiler and Sielaff. In addition to housing office space and a cafeteria (pictured above), the addition also had loading docks and a newer, larger press room for printing the newspaper, a large paper storage area and other features.
That same year, the Journal purchased the morning Milwaukee Sentinel – which had been founded with the financial support of Solomon Juneau in 1837 – from the Hearst Corporation, which had itself bought the paper once edited by Rufus King, in 1924.
To bring the paper closer to the Journal – the former Sentinel building still stands at 225 E. Mason St. – the Journal bought the adjacent Republic Building, erected in 1918 to plans drawn by Alfred C. Clas.
Built for the Kletzch Realty company, the three-story structure got a fourth floor in 1923 and an addition to the south five years later.
When the Journal bought the building for its new morning paper, it added a pair of skywaks to span the alley that separated them.
In 1995, the papers were merged and the newsrooms reconfigured. The Sentinel building has been mostly vacant for about a decade now.
Going back in time
One of those skywalks provided me daily access to the cafeteria and the newspapers’ library, which were on the Journal side during my years there.
I always felt a bit like a spy passing along the edge of the Journal newsroom (pictured below) on my way to these places, as before the merger, the two papers – despite being owned by the same company – were definitely in competition with one another.
Going back inside felt a little surreal.
First off were the places I knew, especially the Sentinel newsroom (pictured above), the former Journal Credit Union space on the second floor of the Sentinel building, the cafeteria, the Journal newsroom and the lobbies of both buildings.
In the Sentinel newsroom I tried to imagine how it was when I was there: where sports editor Bill Windler’s office was; where Jim Higgins, Jan Uebelherr and Duane Dudek had their desks in the features department (where I hung about as much as possible seeking freelance work writing about music and books and movies).
I looked for where the messengers, typically college kids like me, had their long, shared desk. And I found the spot where I last saw auto racing beat writer Phil Cash before he passed away one sad, shocking day.
Those were all still familiar but had changed enough over the years and were now emptied and desolate enough to be jarring. Like visiting my old elementary school, everything seemed smaller than I remembered.
The old library on the Journal side is still there but had been remade since my time there.
A couple employees were busy packing up items to take to the newspaper’s new offices across the river.
Some shelves were lined with rows of old annual indexes to The New York Times, dating to the 1910s. All were marked with red duct tape, which means they’re destined for the Dumpster.
Other spaces, like the former composing room on the fifth floor had been remodeled completely away so that not even a trace remained.
For example, I tried to find cartoonist Bill Sanders’ office – the scene of my earliest visit to the upper floors of the Journal Building and of one of my earliest and most valuable journalism lessons (thanks, Bill) – but the walls are no longer there.
Then there were the many spaces that, over the course of five years, my work never entailed exploring.
And these were the most interesting.
Behind the scenes
In the Sentinel building was the old photo department, where there are intact darkrooms, work areas and a photo studio (pictured above).
The roof of the Journal Building offers a stellar 360-degree view of Downtown (pictured above), for example, and just below it are the so-called “truss rooms,” that house a steel web created to allow for an entirely column-less open space on the floor below.
In some of these spaces one can see the old factory-style sawtooth roofs that once were skylights admitting daylight into the composing and engraving departments on the fifth floor. These are now all covered over.
On the second floor of the old Journal building we see the old nurses’ office, once arrayed with beds and examination tables, and the nearby corner space (pictured below) that housed WTMJ radio before the Journal Company building the Radio City complex on Capitol Drive in 1941.
Of course, the building has been so heavily remodeled and reconfigured inside that nothing remains of these uses beyond the hardwood floors.
The same is true on the upper floors where there the engraving and typesetting departments, where you can still see the pipes that pumped molten lead up from the basement to create type and plates for the printing of the paper.
One employee, who started in 1974, remembered this system still functioning when he arrived.
Later, we went to the basement to see the lead re-melting room with its giant melting pots and other equipment. This area looks like its workers just went home one day and never returning, leaving everything as it was. There are still blobs of lead on the machines, pots and floor.
The basements are especially interesting because they are home to the two press rooms.
The older press room facing Vel R. Phillips Avenue has tracks embedded into the floor to allow small train-style carts to move paper around the space (pictured below).
Nearby, you can walk beneath the Phillips Avenue sidewalk and see the radiators that were used to heat the pavement and keep them snow- and ice-free in winter (pictured above).
There are tunnels beneath the press room, but at the moment the entrances are covered, so we couldn’t go inside. But near those entrances you can still see color-coded pipes that carried ink to the presses.
Passing through an area where paper was received in giant rolls – and moved via a big conveyor onto more carts on train tracks which transported it to the press rooms and storage areas – we come to the “new” press room in the 1962 addition.
“We call it the Death Star,” says Tyler Parbs, of Jeffers & Co., and it’s plain to see why.
What’s most amazing about the astonishingly large space is that years after printing has ceased here, there is still liquid ink in pools and puddles here and there and its scent lingers in the air. Plus, it’s splattered and daubed absolutely EVERYWHERE.
When I mention that press operators must’ve gone home every day absolutely filthy, our tour guide – who has been at the company for 46 years – says, “I could tell you some stories. The guys in here used to go to Goodwill to buy whatever clothes they could because they’d have to throw them out after wearing them once. You’d see guys here in women’s dresses, muumuus, anything.”
Along the east wall are the former ink tanks, recesses in the floor that were open pools of ink to be sucked through pipes to the presses, which towered two or three stories high.
Paint is splattered on the walls around these tanks, creating a scene of oddly stunning abandoned beauty.
But it won’t feel abandoned for long.
Today, Jeffers & Co. owns the entire square block bounded by Kilbourn Avenue, State Street, Vel Phillips Avenue and Old World 3rd Street, but at the moment it only is pursuing plans for the 1924 Journal Building and its 1962 addition.
The 1924 building will be converted into about 130 units of market-rate housing; one- and two-bedroom apartments that will not only be in one of the hottest neighborhoods in town, but many of which will literally offer windows out onto that area, including Turner Hall, the Deer District, the UWM Panther Arena, the Fiserv Forum.
In the large original press room (pictured below) there’s talk of creating retail space because of the large plate glass windows that face right out onto Vel Phillips Avenue.
It’s a perfect place for a brewery with a taproom/restaurant, Parbs and I agree, because of the large ceiling heights, the floors that can hold heavy brew tanks and those windows.
The plan is to start work on those at the beginning of next year for delivery in the first quarter on 2022.
The 1962 building will be fitted out with 83 units and 195 beds as dorm rooms for students at Milwaukee Area Technical College, which will lease the space. There will also be some amenities added in this building, including parking at the very bottom of the Death Star press room.
Because of its use of historic tax credits, Jeffers & Co. must abide by the rules set forth by the National Parks Service, which wants the scale of this soaring space to be preserved. For now, that means that above the parking, the space will be grayboxed until a suitable use can be found for it.
Work is already underway on this side – the buildings will be entirely separate – and it is expected to be completed by August.
Back inside that press room, I climb a staircase to see the long control room booth with its numerous windows looking down over the press room.
Inside, there are long rows of metal cabinets housing electrical controls for the now removed printing presses.
Outside the corner of my eye, I notice a newspaper at the far end of the room and I wander over for a look (as I’ve done wherever I’ve seen stray papers lying about in the buildings). It is a Sentinel sports section from 1991.
I open it and find an article with my byline on it and I’m momentarily stunned by the odds of this, statistically speaking, considering how many newspapers were printed there in the intervening years. Then I take a photo and text it to my wife thinking about how in some ways our time in that building seems both like yesterday and like another lifetime ago.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.