By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 06, 2021 at 9:02 AM

If you like this article, read more about Milwaukee-area history and architecture in the hundreds of other similar articles in the Urban Spelunking series here.

One of my earliest Milwaukee places upon arrival here as a teenager was the Downtown campus of Milwaukee Area Technical College, where less than two months after arriving, I started studying (briefly) television production.

But I never really paid much attention to my surroundings there, which I now regret. Especially after seeing a cache of photographs – taken most likely in the 1920s by the G.S. Carney Photographic Studio, 268 West Water St. – that show the earliest days of the main MATC building, as well as surrounding structures that would fall to make way for expansion.

MATC entranceX

The photos were purchased by Adam Levin of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group at an estate sale after the passing last year of John R. Birkholz in Cedarburg.

Born in Antigo and raised in Minocqua, Birkholz was an educator for more than 50 years, with a focus on adult education at places like Harper College, Erie Community College, Gateway Technical College, and Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Birkholz served as president of all of those institutions, and he retired from MATC in 2001.

MATC began life in 1912 as the Milwaukee Continuation School at Mason Street near the Milwaukee River. It opened in the wake of a 1911 law that aimed to push high school dropouts to study part-time while continuing to work full-time.

In 1916, the school, which focused heavily on trades education, was renamed Milwaukee Vocational School and by 1917 respected architects Van Ryn & DeGelleke were tapped to design a new structure at the current site.


Thanks to their copious work building schools in the city, Van Ryn & DeGelleke were perfectly suited to the complex task of designing a school building that had classrooms but also so much more, as one can see from the extremely detailed and lengthy plans drawn up for the first phase, which was built on the northwestern corner of the block bounded by 7th Street, Highland Avenue, 6th Street and an alley, though later that alley was vacated to make way for expansion.

A site survey drawn up at the time, shows that the site was almost entirely occupied by Brand Stove Co., with its four-story brick machine shop, a single-story brick foundry, two corrugated pattern shops and a store room and office building, as well as a few sheds. Along Highland Avenue were seven small frame buildings – three stores and four homes.

MATC site surveyX

In 1921, the building was extended south to State Street, where between 6th and 7th Street was a range of dwellings and a few shops.

Six years later, the gym and auditorium were added and the remainder of the building was extended to State Street, filling the entire square block with the growing school.

In 1948, the school was renamed the Milwaukee Vocational and Adult School and in 1964, the word Technical was added, too. Four years later, it merged with the Milwaukee Institute of Technology and was renamed Milwaukee Area Technical College in 1969.

Other buildings were added over time and later, when Kalmbach Publishing moved to Waukesha County, its building on 7th Street, erected in 1930, was added to the campus.

There are dozens of photos in Levin’s cache of images and for this article, I selected two types.

First, there are peeks inside the likely brand new buildings from the 1920s, including unpopulated shots of a corridor, a kitchen, a laundry, the light well created by the final addition in 1927, and a bank of elevators, as well as a beautiful second-floor lecture hall that was altered in more recent times to create the library and academic support center.

Perhaps more interesting are the peopled photos, showing students and instructors at work in engineering and cooking classrooms, in masonry and auto repair shops and other such settings. These really help to illustrate the countless students that have benefited from their work at MATC.

One of my favorite photos from this era shows the exterior of the building looking north along 7th Street, where in the lower left corner you can just about spy the children playing on the tiny playground at the old Highland Avenue School on the northeast corner of 7th and Highland.

In that same photo you can see how the original portion of the building ended at they alley (lower right) and a few of the structures that lined State Street.

The rest of the images are from much later, showing adjoining properties that were to be torn down to build the T and C Buildings.

In these images you can see the old natatorium, the west side of 7th Street (with Kalmbach and the Wiener Furniture Showrooms, as well as a great painted Milwaukee Biscuit Co. sign) and other sites.

My favorite of these looks northwest out an upper-story MATC window, showing us the old home of H.H. West on Highland between 5th and 6th, Ambrosia Chocolate just north and off in the distance the Schlitz Brewery and the old power plant with its seven identical smoke stacks.

In that image I can just spy Art’s Garage, which you can read about here in one of my favorite stories ever.

Enjoy these early photos of MATC and scenes from a neighborhood that’s been entirely transformed since the images were made.

The school

matc auditoriumX
matc auto repair shopX
matc carpentry shopX
matc classroomX
matc cooking classX
matc corridorX
matc elevatorsX
matc kitchenX
matc laundryX
matc light wellX
matc masonry classroomX
matc masonry classroomX
matc nurseX
matc classroomX
matc lecture hallX
matc 7th Street facadeX

The neighborhood

7th Street, west side
matc 7th Street demolitionX


Highland Avenue natatoriumX
Highland Avenue with natatorium, from 8th Street, looking east
8th and Highland SE cornerX
North side of Highland just east of 8th StreetX
Looking east from 6th and HighlandX


Looking northwest from 6th and HighlandX
H.H. West demolitionX


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.