After years of slow to no movement as the building rapidly crumbled, progress on creating affordable housing for veterans and their families at the former McKinley Elementary School, 2001 W. Vliet St., in now rapidly advancing.
The earliest part of the building appears to have been designed by Fred Seyring and built around 1885, with a similar expansion added in stages just a couple years later. These portions of the building have classrooms arrayed around a central pavilion, which you can see in the photo below.
Another addition was built in 1898, on the west side, fronting 21st Street, to designs by Mollerus and Lotter.
Another small, one-story addition – designed by Lefevre-Wiggins – went up on the 20th Street side in 1958, MPS operated the school until the end of the 1970s and sold the building to V.E. Carter, a day care, in 1985. After a 2013, the building was vacated and began to fall apart.
“When people saw this (west) side of the building (photo directly above) they were like, ‘no way you’re saving this building’,” recalls Ted Matkom of Gorman & Co., which is redeveloping the school.’ “Bricks we’re just popping out.”
That’s no exaggeration as anyone who stopped to look will have noticed. Vandals were getting inside and causing damage and Mother Nature was doing a pretty good job of it herself.
Ultimately the city acquired the building and in 2017, the Oregon, Wisconsin-based Gorman expressed interest. After asbestos abatement and the demolition of the 84-foot chimney that sat atop a 1915 boiler house designed by Van Ryn & DeGelleke, Gorman and the City closed on the sale of the property in December 2021.
(Gorman also redeveloped the former Fifth Street/Isaac Coggs School in senior housing and you can read about that here. A few years earlier, it did the same at the old Peckham Junior High/Jackie Robinson Middle School, which you can read about here.)
Gorman workers were already on site at that point prepping the building for work to begin as winter began to roll in.
Now work is rolling along to create 38 two- and three-bedroom apartments for veterans and their families. Because there was extra room, but not enough for a two-bedroom unit, there is a single one-bedroom apartment, too.
“Like we did at Valor on East Washington in Madison, we’re going (looking) for veteran families to make this a military community,” says Matkom. “Veterans and active military.
“Veterans always get left out of the affordable housing equation. We’re starting to reach out to them now. They can be hard to reach.”
Six of the units are in the one-story 1958 addition – the kind of boxy modern additions to MPS schools that are generally unloved. But here, that addition, which is where the 2013 fire occurred, was key, says Matkom.
“This is what made it possible,” he says as we walk past, explaining that the type of apartments in the addition couldn’t be created in the historic building but would work in that space.
Those units were key to working out the financing and so, in effect, the addition which almost ended the life of the entire complex actually ended up saving it.
Now, on the exterior, passersby can see that the middle section has been painted in the new color scheme – a tan that resembles cream city brick with brown highlights – and new windows are being installed.
On the south side of the building, which is less visible to those passing in cars, is even further along (see photo below).
There are nearly 400 windows in the building and while the apartments are getting new windows, some of the entrances and other areas have had their original windows restored.
The building’s original light wells will continue to serve their original purpose and work to re-pave the vast parking lot will begin next month in order to finish up by mid-October as cooler temperatures begin to move in.
Inside, original woodwork around windows and doorframes, as well as wainscoting in former classrooms, offices and corridors is being kept.
Inside on Monday, I saw plasterers at work in the corridors and workers prepping for the installation of more windows. Drywall is up in pretty much all the apartments, at least on the first floor.
Sadly, unlike at some other repurposed school buildings, not much survives in the way of chalkboards, which were apparently a favorite target of vandals. When I visited McKinley a few times previously, most had already been shattered.
A few things survive from the building’s past life, including small murals about famous people like Imhotep and Isaac Newton.
While the building has long held the 2001 W. Vliet St. address, it actually sits along a now vacated block of McKinley Avenue. Because the city will restore the alley just north of the building, and Gorman will build a row of houses along Vliet Street, the apartment development will have a North 21st Street address. However, the main entrance will be on the north side of the building, closer to 20th Street.
Matkom says the apartments should be ready for tenants to move in by April 1.
When the future seemed more than a little dreadful for McKinley, I called it a place that matters. Now that it’s on its way to becoming a place that will profoundly matter to 39 families, I’m extremely heartened.
You can read some more history of the building and its potential demolition here and here, and you can see photos from one of my looks inside here. A bit more about the Gorman plan can be found here. A 2020 update can be read here.
Next up for Gorman & Co. in Milwaukee is the conversion of the former Edison Middle School (aka the original North Milwaukee and, later, Custer High School) into apartments.
Matkom says that the closing on that purchase from the City of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development is expected to take place in December with work set to begin soon after. Stay tuned for more on that and, in the meantime, you can take a walk through that building and its history here.
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.