By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 14, 2022 at 9:01 AM

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The road to the completion of the North Avenue Market food hall, 5900 W. North Ave. has been a long one for owner Chris Harris Morse, who announced the project at the dawn of the pandemic.

(RENDERING: Galbraith Carnahan Architects)

With the project – which combines food and beverage vendors with office and meeting space and even a massage therapist – now under construction and likely ready to open by late summer, Harris Morse’s team has been turning up a few interesting things in its new home, which was built as a bank in 1949.

Inside there are two vaults, one on each level, and each will remain and will get a new use.

Former safe, future speakeasy.

The lower level one will be converted to a small speakeasy, run by Bittercube. This vault has enameled brick walls and a sturdy door that still bears a sticker advertising its manufacturer – Mosler Safe – which built safes in Cincinnati from 1874 until 2001.

The upstairs one, which appears newer, will become a shared kitchen for the vendors.

Future kitchen, former safe.

The food hall will be the only one in town with a drive-through window (two actually!). While the bank’s drive-through drawer and counter currently remain, they won’t stay. It’s hard to put coffee cups into that sliding drawer without spillage.


The coolest thing that’s been found so far is a large terrazzo sign depicting the logo of United Federal Savings & Loan Association.

United Federal built the bank as its headquarters in 1949.

The first savings and loan in Wisconsin was founded in Platteville in 1876, but United’s history began in 1915 when it had 25 members and total assets at the end of its first year of $39,500.


By 1948, its holdings had jumped to $4.5 million and the following year, as it moved into its new West Side building, assets were more than $5 million.

That’s because the city was in a post-war building boom and much of the activity was taking place on the west and northwest sides.

This booming business led United to want to be closer to the action and so it departed its home at 1639 N. 12th St. (which would fall a couple decades later to make way for I-43 anyway).

Around June 1 moved into its sparkling new building on 59th and North.

In March of ‘49, it ran a newspaper ad showing a rendering of the new place.

“Very soon in just a few months another new home will welcome your inspection on Milwaukee’s growing northwest side ... the new home of the United Federal Savings & Loan Association at 5900 W. North Ave.,” the ad read.

“It’s been our heart warming business for 33 years to help thousands of families to own their own homes. Now the thrill is coming to us.”


And that feeling was not unique to United Federal.

In April 1950, the Journal published an article explaining how the housing boom was benefiting a number of area financial institutions, including United Federal.

“Business Booms for Loan Groups; Many Building New Offices. Report large increases in assets, memberships,” the headlines read.

“Contemporary in design is the new office,” it wrote about this one in particular. “The $100,000 structure supplanted smaller quarters, which the association left to be nearer the west side building area.”

At that point United Federal had 3,100 members and mortgage rates were running about 5 percent.

In 1970, United Federal merged with Layton Park Building & Loan Association to become Wisconsin Savings and Loan, which survived and inhabited the North Avenue building until 1976.

Then First Federal, later First Financial, moved in and it stayed until Associated Bank arrived. Associated closed the branch in 2019.


“The sign is going to stay,” says Harris Morse. “We've decided to incorporate it.”

The gem was revealed when carpeting was pulled up, and the decision to keep it was immediate. Though the sign looks truncated by a wall in the images here, it is in fact intact. That wall you see is temporary and will be removed.

“The sign is in the main entry,” says Harris Morse. “It will be the first thing people see when they come in.”

Harris Morse has also been working to find some United Federal memorabilia and photos, including some vintage matchbooks, which will be displayed in the new food hall.

At the back of the main floor will be an enlarged map of the West Side from around the time the bank building was constructed. With it will be a range of photos of the neighborhood dating back to the 1920s.

One thing that has not yet turned up is the time capsule that a former United Federal employee told Harris Morse about.

The employee recalled putting some objects into the capsule, but it’s unclear exactly what’s inside or even exactly where it's located.

“We haven't found it yet, but there's still some more cutting that has to be done,” he says, referring to the concrete slab in the lower level.

“From what the guy that was emailing back and forth said, I think it is in the southeast corner. And we've got some cutting over in that corner. We’re not going to go searching for it, but we’ll see if we find it.”

To read more about the vendors and the plan, click here.

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.