By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 11, 2021 at 10:06 AM

The conversion of former schoolhouses to residential development continues in Milwaukee as ground is officially broken this week on a $22 million, 82-unit conversion of a 1902 former MPS building at 2442 N. 20th St.

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Alderman Russell Stamper will attend the groundbreaking at the former Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School – closed by MPS in 2011, four years later declared surplus by the district and sold by the Department of City Development – on Thursday, May 13 at 10 a.m.

“This groundbreaking is monumental for the rejuvenation of the 53206 ZIP code, and I am proud that we are able to start the construction process at such a historically significant site,” said Stamper.

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Renderings of the new development.
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The development joins others either completed or under construction, like examples at the former 37th Street, Peckham JHS/Jackie Robinson MS, 5th Street/Isaac Coggs, Mound Street School, Garfield School and McKinley Elementary.

Others, including developments at the former SS. Peter and Paul School, Edison Middle School and Carleton School on Silver Spring Drive, are in planning stages. The former Wisconsin Avenue School is being converted into a hotel.

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In addition to the conversion of the 1902 building (pictured above in a 1901 rendering and a 1927 photo) and its three additions – completed in 1960, ‘66 and ‘71, for a total of more than 84,000 square feet – a new four-story building along Meinecke Avenue is part of the development, too, bringing the total square footage to 140,000.

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The 1960 and '66 addition.
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The 1971 addition.
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The new building will have 40 units, as will the 1902 and ‘60s additions, and the 1970s addition – connected to the 1902 building by a skywalk (pictured below) – will include two residential units plus a cafe space, commercial kitchen and a fitness center that will all have some public access.

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The affordable and market-rate apartments will vary from one- to two- to three-bedroom units and some will boast original classroom features, like hardwood floors, tall windows and high ceiling heights. Some may retain chalkboards and other details.

Interior demolition work began in mid-April and the completed complex is expected to be delivered by Greenfire Management Services to developers Royal Capital Venture and Holdings – which purchased the site from the City of Milwaukee for $585,000 – by April 2022.

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Classroom wainscoting.
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Among Royal Capital's development projects are the apartments at the former Gimbels/Schuster’s on King Drive, the Deer District and the new Good Hope and Mill Road Libraries.

Engberg Anderson is the project architect.

The 3.8-acre site will be landscaped and includes surface parking.

The beautiful Italianate schoolhouse was designed by Van Ryn & DeGelleke, who designed many buildings for Milwaukee Public Schools, and completed in 1902.

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The future commercial kitchen.
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The site and building cost $71,150 at the time and served an enrollment of 784, an astonishing number for a 17-classroom building nowadays.

Originally designated Tenth Ward Primary No. 2, the building was renamed 20th Street School in 1912.

In 1991, MPS renamed it in honor of Phyllis Wheatley who, in 1773, became the first African-American woman to have a book of poetry published.

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Register in 2020.

But not everyone has been a fan.

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Though it sports a lovely cupola and has a classic bow-windowed kindergarten room on the first floor (and in the basement, too), a 1909 School Architecture and School Improvement report was prepared by California’s Department of Public Instruction pointed to it as, “An excellent example of bad lighting,” because some classrooms had windows on two walls.

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The cupola.
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At the time it was believed that light should enter a classroom only from one side, to prevent shadows falling on students’ desks, and that light should come from the left side, as most students were right-handed.

“The windows are simply holes punched in all sides of the building, at regular intervals. This sort of a thing is not by any means confined to Milwaukee, however,” the report added, noting a similarly derelict school in Oshkosh.

“In the same class as the (Milwaukee) one. Bad, very bad! It will be comforting for rural trustees to observe that the architects sometimes fall into the same errors found in the little red schoolhouse with equidistant windows on four sides.”

Two better examples were shown – both the work of New York City’s talented school architect CBJ Snyder.

“This is one of the best arrangements of windows. Note that the light enters from only one side of the room, and the windows are so close together that the piers between them do not cast heavy shadows.”

Readers were assured that despite anonymity, “The criticisms were written by a competent architect, who prefers not to have his name printed as a public critic of his competitors, but who has written with impartial judgment.”

The same copious light that irked schoolhouse architects, however, makes for great living space.

The building is landmarked in part for its social significance and association with the Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee.

“In 1964, the school was one of a small group of inner-core public schools strategically selected by civil rights advocates for the first public demonstrations protesting segregation within Milwaukee’s public school system,” notes the nomination report for national designation.

“The school was the focus of continued protests through May 1965, which culminated in the filing of a landmark desegregation lawsuit against the school board in June 1965.”

So, residents have the opportunity to live in a building that was a key site in the desegregation movement in the city.

It is also a chance to inhabit spaces that were important in the lives of countless thousands of children who studied in them for more than a century.

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One of those students was Royal Capital’s own founder and CEO, who attended Wheatley from 1988-90.

"it's been a very nostalgic moment in walking these halls again, as Phillis Wheatley Elementary happens to be my neighborhood school that I first attended in K4.," said Kevin Newell.

"We are excited about the opportunity to redevelop this historic gem. This development is vested with great storytelling. Not only providing much-needed, quality housing, services and programming that will contribute to the ongoing rejuvenation of the 53206 zip code, but it also pays tribute to an incredibly inspiring Black woman."

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 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.