By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 28, 2015 at 9:02 AM

Memory is shaky business. I was reminded of this the other day when I decided to dig deeper into a story I probably tell my kids every third time we visit the Usinger’s store on 3rd Street.

As a kid, visiting my grandparents in Milwaukee, we went to Usinger’s and saw a hollow hulk next door. I recall my grandfather telling me it was the building that had burned a day or two previously and reminded me of the photo we had seen in the newspaper resting atop their kitchen table on Greenfield Avenue. The photo struck me because I couldn’t remember ever seeing a color news photo in a newspaper before.

The building was the five-story Romanesque Metropolitan Block, 1012 N. 3rd St., designed by architects Edward Koch and Charles Fink.

Problem is, though they may be out there, I can’t find any newspaper reports of the fire that had color photos, and while it’s possible we were in Milwaukee on Dec. 20, 1975 – we did come for Christmas at least one year – we typically visited in summer. Hmmm....

What’s not in dispute is that the building, with its soaring arched bays, carved stone details and pleasing symmetry, was built for attorney F.W. Cotzhausen.

Cotzhausen – or more formally, Baron Frederick W. von Cotzhausen – was born in 1838 at Cambach, an old castle in the Rhenish Prussian town of Aachen (then called Aix-la-Chapelle), and came to Milwaukee in 1856 after having studied law in Europe. Three years later he was admitted to the bar and would go on to serve in the Wisconsin Senate and in a variety of posts, including Public Administrator for Milwaukee County and as a State Regent on Normal Schools.

In 1863, he married Maria Sophia Jacobi and the couple had at least seven children. The family had a farm, dubbed "Villa Nordeck," out in the countryside of Greenfield.

According to "The Columbian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of the Representative Men of the United States: Wisconsin Volume, Part 2:"

"After Senator Cotzhausen retired from the routine of active practice, he settled upon a plan to improve one of the leading street corners in the Second ward of Milwaukee, which ward he has always practically considered his home. This building, known as the Metropolitan Block, is one of the most imposing structures of the city – the seat of numerous city offices, and of the municipal and superior courts. Over the main entrance of the block Senator Cotzhausen has placed the motto of his life, ‘Labor omnia vincit.’ This maxim has been his watchword ... Although he has retired from general practice, confining himself mostly to the argument of special cases, he spends his forenoons with the utmost regularity, as he used to, in his office."

When the biographical dictionary was published in 1895, a number of city departments and courts were, indeed, located in Cotzhausen’s riverside Metropolitan Block. In 1892, the city had signed a lease with Cotzhausen to house these offices during the construction of the new City Hall. There they remained until Henry Koch’s towering new building opened in 1895.

By 1975, the Metropolitan Block was home to offices housing the Socialist Party, labor unions – including the Ironworkers Local – and others, and the ground floor had a range of shops including Reimers Photo on the corner of 3rd and State, Romans’ Tavern in the old Wetzel’s bar space next door, Wisconsin Cheese Mart, the Potter’s Wheel pottery shop, Black Forest Imports and others.

Four large lodge halls in the building had soaring 16-foot ceilings.

A five-alarm fire broke out at Cotzhausen’s Metropolitan Block that year at about noon on Saturday, Dec. 20, a cloudy and cold day in the 20s, with fresh snow on the ground. Early reports from the scene noted that firemen pulled a trio of people from the blaze and two were sent to the hospital.

One rescue was especially dramatic, according to the Milwaukee Journal:

"An elderly man stood on a ledge outside a fourth floor window while black smoke poured from the window. A ladder was raised to the man by firemen but it didn’t reach the ledge. The man threw his jacket and shirt to the ground and dangled his feet toward the ladder. A crowd that had gathered to watch the blaze groaned as he reached for the ladder. A fireman then climbed the ladder and grabbed the man, carrying him to safety. The crowd applauded."

According to retired firefighter and historian Wayne Mutza, firefighters poured seven million gallons of water into the Metropolitan Block over the course of 11 hours, as the fire continued to rekindle itself. One of their ranks, Wayne Campbell, was trapped on an upper floor but was rescued via a ground ladder raised on the ice-covered, sloping alley on the north side of the building.

(Photo courtesy Dale Mutza and Wayne Mutza)

The 97-foot fireboat Deluge and its two-man crew delivered some of that water from a position on the Milwaukee River. (The boat was retired in 1984 as a cost-saving measure.)

Fortunately, no lives were lost and no one was seriously injured in the fire, but damage estimates suggested a loss of at least $1 million. In the end, the walls stood, but the Cotzhausen’s lovely hulk of brick – then owned by the Metropolitan Block Corp. – was gutted and 55 tenants sought new space. Manpower chipped in by offering office space at 820 N. Plankinton Ave. for free to the labor unions who’d been headquartered at 3rd and State.

The fire was notable enough to earn a spot on the cover of the national Fire Engineering magazine in June 1976.

(Photo courtesy Wayne Mutza)

By Monday morning, suspicion already turned toward arson.

"We haven’t had any evidence of arson yet," 1st battalion chief Robert McCann told the Sentinel, "but it seems a little unnatural that a fire would start in an open staircase without some added incentive."

At the same time, Peter J. Panos, attorney for the Metropolitan Block Corp. – of which he was a principal, along with his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mueller – expressed uncertainty about the future of the building. After initially thinking of saving it, Panos to a reporter that he later determined that the top floors were beyond repair and was considering hiring an engineer to assess the lower part.

(Photo courtesy Dale Mutza and Wayne Mutza)

In the aftermath of the fire, Milwaukee building inspector Alex P. LeGrand called for tougher fire inspection laws, noting that the city had, at that time, no law calling for the inspection of entire buildings. Inspectors checked specific spaces when commercial and retail space make changes or get new tenants.

LeGrand told the Journal that an inspector had been to the Metropolitan Block 10 days before the fire for what was deemed an "adequate check under the current regulations."

On Christmas Eve, the Journal ran an editorial rueing the loss of the building, which "was to play an important role in the development planned for the lower 3rd St. neighborhood that it anchored. The European character of the area is to be emphasized in the project.

"The decision on what rises from the ashes will be important," the paper continued. "Architecturally it should be compatible with its neighborhood. Functionally it should help tie the neighborhood together as an economic unit. A building that could combine retail, office and living space would be ideal."

The city made way for such a development when it ordered the building demolished in early January 1976, but within days a group of tenants urged the Landmarks Commission to step in, which it did, writing a letter in support of investigating the stability of the brick shell of the structure.

"It is the equal to any building in the country," said Daniel Thompson of Urban Real Design Group – an architectural preservation group – adding that the building’s decorative brickwork was important. "It is certainly superior to any building in the city and state."

LeGrand demanded some work be done to shore up the building and by March a team of developers – including Milwaukee Redevelopment Corp. and Madison-based Carley Capital Group – signed an option on the building. Panos apparently agreed to do the work required by LeGrand while the team worked out its plan and financing.

Despite those efforts, however, the demolition of the Metropolitan Block seemed a foregone conclusion by June. In an editorial, the Sentinel blamed the building’s location as much as the fire for its doom.

"Valiant efforts were made to save the proud old structure by the Milwaukee Redevelopment Corp.," but a, "major factor that helped destroy the Metropolitan Block, and threatens many other buildings in Milwaukee with economic collapse, is the depressed marked for downtown office and commercial space. Low rents for available space in nearby buildings would have made the higher rents charged for a rehabilitated Metropolitan Block unfeasible."

In 1979, police re-launched an investigation into a series of fires in buildings owned, or partly owned by Panos’ estate. One man pleaded guilty and implicated another man in at least one of the fires.

In the days after the fire, in its editorial, the Journal noted the assets of the Metropolitan Block site, saying it, "does have several special advantages. Foremost is its proximity to the river, parkland and some beautifully redeveloped area of Downtown."

But, the editorial board at the paper could look out its own window and see Downtown Milwaukee in 1975.

Cars are the only tenants on the former Metropolitan Block site (lower right) these days.

"With Downtown redevelopment at ebb in the uncertain economy, chances would seem marginal, at best, for any new construction at this location soon."

Forty years later, headed to buy some sausages at Usinger’s, I parked my car in the surface lot created by the demolition of the Metropolitan Block and told my kids about a spectacular fire that I saw in a color picture on the cover of the newspaper when I was young.

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.