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.
Such was the post-war growth in Milwaukee in the early 1950s, that after work was completed on the first phase of 81st Street School in 1950, Milwaukee Public Schools was building furiously – with dozens of expansion, updating and building projects in the first half of the decade alone.
Growth was especially booming on the city’s northwest side, where entire neighborhoods, like Kops Park, Cooper Park and others seemed to spring up almost overnight, leading to the construction of projects like Schuster’s mall development at Capitol Court.
The boom in the number of school age children led to the need for a new northwest high school that could accommodate more pupils than could the old Custer, which occupied a 1920s building acquired by MPS as part of the city’s annexation of North Milwaukee that same decade.
In 1952, the decision to build a new school, called “Northwest High School” for a while, was made and the architectural firm of Grassold & Johnson was tapped to draw plans, and excavation began in the summer of 1953, at which point the architects were then immediately handed the task of designing a new junior high school at 84th and Burleigh (named in honor of Wilbur Wright and now home to Milwaukee School of Languages).
By December 1954, a school board committee suggested naming the new school Custer, “to perpetuate the name of the present Custer High School,” and the following month it was agreed to call the former building Thomas Edison Junior High School.
Soon after, North Division High School Principal Raymond Michalak was reassigned to lead the new school.
Even before the $4.5 million school was completed at 5075 N. Sherman Blvd., the overcrowding in area schools led to the suggestion that eight rooms of the new high school should be used to temporarily house roughly 150 elementary school children who could then be shifted to 66th Street School once a second floor was added to that building.
By Aug. 28, 1955, as students and teachers and staff were preparing to attend the new Custer High, the Sentinel reported that the gymnasium and shop classrooms were not yet completed, but that the 34 classrooms that could house as many as 1,800 students were ready.
“Thomas Edison Junior High School also is a project for the near future,” the morning paper noted. “With the opening of the fall term it will be opened under the new name, but remodeling will not begin for some time. Once remodeled to handle its new chores, the school will have 14 classrooms, plus shops, home economics rooms, cafeteria, art rooms and others, and will have a capacity of 1,500 students.”
That included a new addition to be built along Custer Avenue.
Meanwhile, back at the new building, it turned out a few other things were not quite ready, including the auditorium, parts of the cafeteria kitchen, the swimming pool and the practice field.
Still, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 1955, the building opened and the Journal was there to report on it.
“Milwaukee opened its first new high school since before World War II Wednesday and all the pupils came early to see it. As 7th through 12th grade pupils returned to school throughout the city, most junior and senior high schools had hundreds of pupils milling outside just before the opening bell. But at the new $4,500,000 Custer High School there was not a pupil outside five minutes before the 8:30 starting time. Some had come as early as 7:45. All had gone right into the building and then been directed to their home rooms.
“After Principal Raymond Michalak pushed the opening bell, the school’s opening convocation was held – over the public address system, since the auditorium won’t be finished for several weeks.
“Michalak told the pupils they were ‘pioneers’ in the beginning of what should be a great educational institution. He urged the pupils to show their gratitude toward school officials, board members and the community by making Custer ‘a great school in a great building.’
“Miss Irene Miller, head of the school’s cafeteria, told the pupils she would do the best she could for them even though the cafeteria kitchen still did not have water, gas or refrigeration. Bologna sandwiches were the fare Wednesday.
“There were a few other signs of the last minute rush to open the building. One home room met in the school’s little theater, which got its tile floor only late Tuesday night. Another was in a completed section of the auditorium, surrounded by carpenters banging together the rest of the big meeting place. And the school’s shops will not bne open for several more weeks.
“But the main academic wing was completely finished and there was no serious overcrowding.”
Such a big deal was this new high school – the first to be built in the city since World War II and, in fact, the first since Pulaski was completed 16 years earlier – that realtors were advertising homes and lots as being near the new school before it was even completed, and even before it was decided to call it Custer.
In early November, Michalak hosted Custer’s first open house, and on Dec. 4, an official dedication with another open house, drew a reported 1,500 people, who heard speeches by Mayor Frank Zeidler, MPS Superintendent Harold Vincent and others, and toured the facilities of the building that would be expected to accommodate students from the Carleton, Congress, Douglas Road, Hampton, Lancaster, 66th Street and 36th Street school areas.
And, still, it wasn’t enough for booming Milwaukee.
On the day of the dedication ceremony, the Journal wrote that even though it could house triple the number of students as its predecessor, the building would itself soon face overcrowding, noting that it could create space by moving out those temporary elementary students, as well as just over 200 students who lived in suburban communities.
Another suggestion was to make Custer a three-year high school, with 10th through 12th grades and accepting only incoming sophomores from junior high schools that had 9th grade programs.
In the end, expansion was also on tap and before the first 205 seniors graduated from the new building in June 1956, discussions were already underway to build a full football gridiron and athletic field, with a track, toilets, P.A. system, 5,000 bleacher seats, jump and pole vault pits, shot put area, and paved area for tennis and volleyball, as well as to purchase nearby land for that and a baseball diamond.
In 1961, the northwest side got another entire high school when John Marshall was built on 64th, just north of Capitol.
The Custer building is now home to MPS’ Barack Obama School of Technical and Career Education.
The old building did indeed become Edison Junior High School, which closed in 2007, and is the site of a proposed affordable housing renovation (reusing the original building).
Thanks to a former employee who rescued a cache of about 100 slides from the trash and gave them to the Old Milwaukee Facebook group founder Adam Levin, who transferred them from the original slides, we can get a peek inside the “new” Custer High School during what appears to be the late 1950 to mid 1960s.
Here, thanks to Old Milwaukee, are some more of those images, which are pretty self-explanatory:
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.