The day that I followed the steeples from St. John’s Lutheran on Vliet Street to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on North 4th Street, I spied another steeple straight up the block and it was then that I discovered the former Evangelische Dreieinigkeits Kirche at the corner of 4th and Meinecke.
Designed by Herman P. Schnetzky and Eugene Liebert, who drew plans for a taller, but somewhat stylistically similar house of worship for St. Michael’s congregation on North 24th Street the same year – 1892 – the church was a revelation to me, but not news to anyone in the neighborhood.
Since the 1970s, the cream city brick building and the attached school built at the same time have been home to King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, which got its start in the founding pastor’s home and had two previous churches before landing at this historic church at 2375 North 4th Street.
Recently, the church’s pastor, Rev. Charles D. Watkins, graciously welcomed me to the church and showed me around. But before that day arrived, I did a little background research.
First, I visited Milwaukee Public Library, where the architectural archive has original Schnetzky and Liebert plans for both the church and the school, those confirm that the current buildings, at least on the outside, have changed little in more than 120 years.
The gorgeous Gothic revival tower remains as do many details on the facade and other elevations. The school still has its second-story wooden bay above the alley entrance.
However, some changes did occur in 1937 when architect Hugo Hauser added a section to connect the church and school buildings at grade and also via a basement tunnel. Hauser also made interior alterations, the most dramatic being a drastic shortening of the balcony that originally swept around nearly as far as the altar on both sides.
The church was founded in 1862 by "dissident" Lutheran German immigrants – who organized their own, separate conservative German Evangelical congregations across the United States – who had been part of a congregation led by a Pastor Krause and affiliated with the Buffalo Synod.
Trinity, however, would be led by Pastor William Geyer and aligned with the Missouri Synod.
An earlier building was on the current church site and erected in 1870. Nothing of that building appears to remain beyond the cornerstone which was embedded in the facade of the 1892 building. You can see it today to the left of the main entry doors.
In August 1892, a newspaper report detailed progress on the construction of the new church, noting that Illinois-based Hinners and Albertson won the contract to build the church’s organ, Brusz and Wollaeger were furnishing the pews and Cincinnati’s Van Duzen and Co. was casting a trio of bells for the tower.
There was apparently another Trinity Evangelical Church at 6th and Vine which burned in January 1892. I haven’t been able to turn up photos or other information about this church, which must have been fairly large and made of brick. The day after it burned, a newspaper report noted that, "on the second floor of the building in the organ loft, the tall, heavy tower directly above ... fell with a crash. Bricks, timber and mortar fell on all sides."
Trinity’s congregation was a large one and more than 3,500 people turned out for three services to celebrate on the 50th anniversary in 1912. Eighty families joined the church that May Sunday. This despite the fact that an event that took place in the church 16 years earlier reportedly split the congregation ... and made national news.
On July 26, 1897, the Alexandria Gazette reported on the May 1896 marriage, by Rev. George Hirtz, of David P. Redd and Gertrud Farun at Trinity.
"The negro question has caused strife in Trinity Evangelical church here. Some months ago the pastor, Red. George Hertz (sic), married a colored horse doctor to a white woman, a member of the German congregation. The minister was denounced for his action and the trouble culminated yesterday when half of the congregation seceded and organized a new church society. The cornerstone of its doctrine is anti-miscegenation."
The Galveston News added, "It is a congratulatory feature of this stirring incident that once at least a negro figures in a disgust creating performance without a word being said about lynching."
Despite the attention and controversy, Hirtz remained at the helm of the church for another 15 years.
In the 1930s, the Evangelical and Reformed synods merged and in the ‘50s became the United Church of Christ. Trinity later became known as Faith United Church of Christ and moved out to the northwest side. The congregation now called Faith Church Milwaukee.
All of this was swirling in my mind as I explored the old Evangelische Dreieinigkeits Kirche with Pastor Watkins and Historic Milwaukee’s Amy Grau, who – you’ll be happy to hear – convinced Rev. Watkins to open the church this September for the annual Doors Open Milwaukee event.
Inside, in terms of historical elements, the church and school are a mixed bag. In the narthex and sanctuary, beautiful stained glass windows bearing German inscriptions survive. The swoop of Hauser’s revamped balcony is wonderful. Up there, the two wooden organ chambers still occupy back the back corners.
But there’s now a dropped ceiling in the entire sanctuary and a perhaps 1980s-era structure built above the altar, which, at some point, lost its decoration. There are some features that may still exist beneath things like that dropped ceiling, but it’s hard to tell without deeper exploration.
In the basement, at the far end of the fellowship hall, is the 1937 tunnel, which leads into the connecting space that between the buildings. Here we can see the old exterior walls of the church and school.
On the first floor of the school, the two classrooms flanking the entry hall have long since been divided up into smaller rooms. Upstairs, the old hall is still open and full of light, but with carpeting laid atop what were likely hardwood floors. Concave chalk rails sit atop wainscoting.
Back in the church, we hope the pastor will take us up in the tower, but the space has been sealed off from the cold. Even with those precautions, the chilly air is palpable on the landing that leads to the balcony and the tower.
Although Rev. Watkins doesn’t know much about the history of the church, he appreciates the building – despite the expense of keeping it running – and you can sense his interest in preserving it.
Fortunately, with original plans and drawings of the 1937 addition also extant, if the money should ever present itself, there are blueprints for restoring this Milwaukee gem back to its original state.
In the meantime, I suspect 3,500 folks who celebrated the church’s 50th anniversary would be pleased to know that more than a century later, the bricks still echo with the sound of praise.
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.