There’s something eerie about exploring a building before it’s demolished. It’s a dead man walking kind of thing (though, really, it’s more like dead building standing).
As I wrote a few years back, Racine is blessed with a beautiful collection of 19th century cream city brick schoolhouses, a number of which are still in use. But there’s also at least one that’s been sold and converted into apartments and a couple that are currently vacant and won’t likely be around much longer.
For example, Winslow – which I visited for the article linked above – has been transferred by Racine Unified School District to the City of Racine, which is packaging it with a nearby hospital property for sale.
The future of that 1850s building with beautiful 1890s updates, doesn’t look good, admits Jim Hooper, who is director of facility planning and maintenance at RUSD.
While it seems like a site ripe for new development, the future is unclear and it is possible Winslow could survive.
Franklin School, 1012 Center St., however, has no such hope.
The building – or rather buildings, since the complex combines an 1870s schoolhouse and an adjacent 1921 school – is slated to be razed this year to make way for a new building, as part of the district's long range facilities master plan.
“That location will be the new home of our Red Apple STEAM school,” says RUSD Chief Operations Officer Shannon Gordon.
“We would hope to open the new school in fall 2023.”
Red Apple is currently located at 914 St. Patrick St. in the 1874 Second Ward School building.
Of course, the problem with many of these vintage buildings is that, while beautiful, sturdy and beloved, they're not always well-suited to modern instruction, modern building codes, modern accessibility laws, and modern renovation and maintenance budgets.
Gordon – who I know from her MPS days and who, like me, is fascinated by these old schools – invited me down to see Franklin before it’s gone.
Starting at the back, the original portion of the cream city brick building at Franklin was erected in 1870 as the Sixth Ward grammar school.
According to the 1916 book, "History of Racine," the site and the structure cost $21,132.
"The plans upon which it was built marked a forward step in school construction, as it was the finest school building in the place."
The building was a lovely Victorian brick schoolhouse, with window hoods, a cornice running around the roofline and a wooden cupola at the top.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the building was still recognized as a leap forward in school construction in Racine.
"From 1856 to 1887 the general plan for providing increased school room, was by making additions to the old buildings," wrote the recently resigned superintendent H.G. Winslow in the 1893 "The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin," "except in the erection of the Sixth Ward Schook house, a somewhat impsing and commodious structure, designed to seat about 400 pupils, which, architecturally viewed, was a marked advance on previous buildings."
Construction was completed in January of 1870 and five years later, Martin L. Smith became its principal – a job he’d hold there for at least 40 years.
In 1916, Smith described the building:
"In 1875 the Sixth Ward School consisted of an upright building of six rooms – three on the first floor and three directly over them on the second, one of them a large assembly room capable of seating 70 pupils. At that time there was no kindergarten room and none of them was decorated; all were in the natural color of plaster, with here and there a crack in the wall, and a very few cheap pictures."
According to Smith, enrollment in the six-room building was 350 and there were six teachers including himself.
"All of the rooms were over-crowded with children," he recalled.
Interestingly, when construction was complete, the school was the Third Ward grammar school, but that first year, Racine redrew its ward boundaries making it the Sixth Ward school.
In the 1890s, many Racine schools were remodeled and expanded, often according to plans drawn by James Gilbert Chandler of Chandler & Parks, and it seems safe to assume that he was responsible, in 1899, for the new wings and roof line of the Sixth Ward School, with its tell-tale apses on both the north and south wings.
Winslow and other buildings that Chandler renovated at the time boast similar features.
"In 1899 came a change for the better," recalled Smith in the 1916 history book. "An addition was built to the school, doubling the seating capacity, and transforming it into a modern building which, in the opinion of the present principal (himself, -ed.), has no superior in the state."
When it reopened, the building was renamed Franklin School.
"There are 12 rooms, including one for the kindergarten department, decorated and further adorned with pictures. Four sanitary drinking fountains without cups are used in the building, which also contains a recitation or store room, a principal's office, a teachers' rest room and a room for the manual training classes. Under the entire building is a basement with cement floor, which contains separate toilet rooms."
Alas, those changes meant the lovely central portion, with its trio of windows and bracketed cornice, as well as the cupola perched on top were lost ... or were they?
By 1916 there were 14 teachers, including Prinicpal Smith and a pair of kindergarten teachers, for an enrollment of about 575 students.
The “new” building was erected in 1921 and connected to the 1870 school with a breezeway (and a basement passage, too) to house Racine’s first junior high school program (beating McKinley by two months and Washington by a year).
The junior high program closed in June 1966.
The elementary program endured until 1975, and when it closed, Walden III Junior and High School (founded three years earlier as a high school only in the Second Ward/McMynn building) moved into the newly vacant complex.
After the move, the 1903 McMynn building on 7th Street – which was also used as a high school annex in the 1910s – was demolished.
The Walden program grew so much that by 2018 even this two-building complex had become inadequate and the it relocated to the Washington Middle School site, which had previously housed McKinley Middle School.
When Red Apple returns to the site in 2023, it will mark a homecoming as the program opened at Franklin in 1974 and, during the Walden years, occupied the 1870 building – called, then as now, the “West Wing” – until 1986, when it relocated to its current site on the opposite side of town.
I start my visit in the West Wing, because as much as I appreciate 1920s schools, I can’t wait to get a peek inside a 19th century one.
Here, there are classrooms and offices arrayed around a couple “pavilions” connected by a pair of parallel hallways.
As you’d expect, every detail was considered. There’s wainscoting everywhere, lower in the classrooms, higher up the walls in the corridors. Built-in cabinets are in every room. Where interrupted by a cold air return, chalk rails trace the openings.
Smith's description suggests these interior trimmings were installed as part of the 1899 remodel and expansion.
Outside, I noticed a similar attention to detail. Even in little spots where no one would notice or perhaps even expect a bit of ornament, dentils were installed nevertheless.
Corners were definitely not cut.
“The workmanship in here is something else,” says Hooper, beating me to the punch.
When I ask to see the attic, Hooper seems to expect the question (perhaps Shannon has given him my M.O.). He fetches a couple flashlights and we scale a pair of ladders through a scuttle. Yes, it’s the rare schoolhouse I’ve visited that has no staircase into the attic.
I’m immediately distracted by some graffiti dated 1929 off to the left and I don’t notice what’s behind me.
But then I turn around and see it.
There, hidden away in the 1899 attic is the top of the 1870 building – with its three window openings intact and its cornice still in place – like a secret architectural treasure. Racine Unified’s own King Tut’s tomb.
Around the side, there’s an opening and I climb in.
“I know the bell is here somewhere, but I’m not sure where,” says Hooper.
I flash my light upward and I see a wooden pulley through which a rope once likely was looped, attached on one side to the bell.
While there’s no sign of the bell (we learn later it is actually up on the roof, but hardly visible from below), I do spy some graffiti dated 1887.
Back into the 1899 attic I can see parts of the old 1870 roof and even a dormer still surviving in here. A nearly pristine square nail juts out loosely from the old dormer frame and Hooper allows me to collect it as a souvenir, a tiny remnant of a place that by this time next year will be but a memory ... a 150-year-old memory.
Hooper tells me that the cream city brick of the building will be salvaged and sold, as will a number of other items. As we stand before it, he says he's going to add that cornice to the "save list," and asks me to send him one of the photos I've taken of it. Great news.
We head down to the basement and we can see the infilled basement window openings that were on the exterior of the 1870 building, now inside (pictured above).
We check out the old boiler room and walk through into the 1921 building, which is a whole new world of long, wide terrazzo-paved corridors, and classrooms arranged in neat rows.
Life in the 1920s was clearly more orderly and less ornamented, though there is still handsome woodwork in here and the gym has some pretty great masonry, too.
Beneath the gym we find the old locker rooms and in the basement we see the old cafeteria, which seems way too small to accommodate the students in the complex.
Back in the West Wing, here and there we see holes cut into the floors and walls and Hooper tells me they're the work of the demolition team, assessing what they’re up against in terms of construction and assessing the materials to check for hazards like asbestos.
Those holes, which show solid masonry construction in walls and floors, are a sad reminder of this building’s impending doom.
“If this was in Europe, no one would think of touching this building,” says Hooper as we stand outside admiring the cream city brickwork.
“But here we think about these things differently and we always want new.”
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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.