By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 19, 2021 at 9:04 AM

In 1983, Catholic East Elementary School was created at two locations from the schools at three East Side parishes: Holy Rosary, St. Hedwig and SS. Peter and Paul.

With kindergarten through first grade at the old Holy Rosary school on Bartlett Avenue and grades 2-8 in the 1956 SS. Peter and Paul school, a number of old school buildings were rendered redundant.

One of them, the 1912 SS. Peter and Paul school at 2474 N. Cramer St., has been listed for sale, and now a buyer has been found.

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Matter Development and Galbraith-Carnahan Architects are teaming to convert the roughly 30,000-square-foot cream city brick schoolhouse into about 20-23 apartments, which will leave about 10,000 square feet for commercial space, too, in the former auditorium and cafeteria wing.

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“It was about finding the right match,” says Wayne Rappold, of CBRE, which has been representing the property on behalf of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“It’s kind of in the middle, in terms of size. For some potential buyers, it’s too small, and for others it’s too big. I think we’ve found a good fit.”

The developers plan to seek state and federal historic tax credits to help finance the $4-5 million project, which will likely be funded via a variety of streams, including mortgage debt and private investment.

The projected timeline calls for construction to begin by autumn and for completion in summer or autumn of next year.

A little history

Two years after the city carved the new 18th Ward out of the First Ward in 1887, the parish of Saints Peter and Paul was established as a Roman Catholic worship center for the rapidly growing East Side north of North Avenue – and especially its German population.

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While the Henry Messmer-designed church, above, was being put up – it was dedicated in April 1892 – the parish’s initial 43 families worshipped in a temporary chapel on site of the current school, which you can see in this 1894 Sanborn map image.

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According to the Archdiocese, the chapel, which stood on land donated by Solomon Juneau on the northwest corner of State and Jackson, was the original 1839 St. Peter's cathedral, the first Catholic church in the city.

After it was replaced in 1854 by the current St. John the Evangelist on Jackson Street it served as a school and then as a children's chapel until 1863. Then for five years it served Bohemian immigrants, then a Sunday school and then a seminarians' chapel.

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St. Peter's, as it stands at Old World Wisconsin. (PHOTO: Wisconsin Historical Society)
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In 1874, it was put up for sale and Monsignor Leonard Batz raised $10,000 to purchase it and he lived in it as a dwelling for time, later moving it to SS. Peter and Paul on Cramer Street to prevent it being destroyed.

"At present the residence of of Mgr. Batz, vicar-general of the archdiocese of Milwaukee, will soon be occupied by a row of flats, Hoffman Bros., the widely known booksellers and publishers of this city, having bought the ground today," wrote the Milwaukee Journal on May 7, 1889.

"With the old church, which will be removed to the 18th Ward next fall, are connected some of the most interesting reminiscences in the history of the Catholic church in this state."

At the start of August, the chapel was put on rollers and transported two miles north, and Archbishop Michael Heiss dedicated it in its new location. Batz became the new parish's pastor.

It appears the chapel was extended and brick veneered while on Cramer Street.

Two related buildings behind the church on Murray Avenue were built the same year the chapel arrived on-site, 1889: the rectory, above, also designed by Messmer – which initially housed the school – and the convent, drawn by Herman P. Schnetzky, below.

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Interestingly, the three newly constructed buildings were drawn in somewhat contrasting styles: an eclectic Romanesque church sat astride a Classical Revival school/rectory and a Romanesque Revival convent. The chapel was in yet another style.

In 1912, the recently arrived pastor Bishop Koudelka parish tapped Erhard Brielmaier – an archdiocese favorite – to design a new school building and he opted to stick with Romanesque Revival (with the occasional Gothic touch, like finials).

The look probably seemed 20 or more years out of date at the time, but it pairs the building nicely with its public school counterpart, a couple blocks east on Maryland Avenue, whose 1893 addition – drawn by Schnetzky and his then-partner Eugene Liebert – is similarly styled.

Ground was broken on Sunday, June 9, 1912, drawing a crowd of 2,000 people to see the laying of the cornerstone of the $54,o00 school.

As you can see from the 1910 Sanborn map (below), the chapel endured on the site until it had to be cleared to make way for the new school. It was moved to just south of the convent on Murray Avenue.

"It stood on Cramer Street in an all but forgotten condition throughout the remaining years of the monsignor's life and during the pastorate of the Rev. Julius Hellweger.  It appeared the old chapel was doomed. But because of the parochial interest in the historic old church, Peter Schmitt, a member of the old and the new St. Peter's, resolved to preserve it again, and acting generously upon the impulse he acquired from the Notre Dame Sisters a piece of land fronting on Murray Avenue to which he moved the old cathedral.

"Mr. Schmitt, going a step farther, determined to restore the church to its primitive appearance as far as possible. He built a brick foundation for it, tore out the partitions by which Mgr. Batz had adapted it to living purposes and remodeled the interior. Much of the old furnishings had been preserved also – a part of the first altar, the first communion rail, the old organ, some old paintings, pews, etc. These were all again put in place."

An on July 6, 1912, the cathedral was opened in its new location, with its brick veneer and extension removed.

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The chapel as it appeared on Murray Avenue in 1933. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Archdiocese of Milwauke)
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In 1938, the 99-year-old chapel was moved yet again, with workers dismantling it and reassembling it at St. Francis Seminary on South Lake Drive. The company that moved it said it was "impractical" to move it whole.

Later, it was moved one more time, in 1975, to Old World Wisconsin, in Eagle, where it still stands today.

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In June 1913, after the new school building was completed, there was talk of tearing down the small 1899 building on Murray Avenue to erect a new club house, but a proposed remodeling won out instead.

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There are some Gothic touches on the schoolhouse, including the lunette above the main doors, but the building has a lovely Romanesque arched entry and a pair of gables dotted with oculi.

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The floors – original – are hardwood, the walls plastered and the classrooms have what appear to be original chalk rails running along the chalkboards, which are framed in beautiful woodwork. The classrooms all have adjacent cloak rooms and built-in cabinets of various kinds.

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There’s a broad and tall main staircase in the center bay illuminated by a large rose window with frosted glass etched with a variety of patterns.

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Straight back in the center is the large auditorium – where many a meeting and card party was held and school plays and CYO dances staged – with a balcony that still has its rows of original iron and wood seats, and pilasters on the side walls. The proscenium features a painted plaster medallion centered above the stage.

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There’s also a cast concrete projection room (film was very flammable) accessed by a raised door out in the vestibule (above). Nearby, at the entrance to the balcony seating is a statue of Jesus. Next to the small sculpture is an etched metal plaque – dated May 1949-1954 – that reads, “We promise to recite the living rosary, before this statue, for five years, for the conversion of Russia, on the 13th of each month.

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The statue was awarded in May 1949 by the National Fatima Rosary Contest.

There are four classrooms on each of the two floors, plus two more in the basement, where there are the student restrooms and a large cafeteria space with a pressed tin ceiling and a large kitchen adjacent.

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Out in the hall there’s a tunnel connecting the school to the church, above, and exiting the cafeteria is a longer subterranean connector to the 1956 Grellinger and Rose-designed school building (below) erected on Murray Avenue.

Students from that building apparently tunneled over to the 1912 building each day for lunch in the cafeteria.

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Up in the attic, you can see the concrete top of the projection booth, the top of the auditorium – including its skylight, now covered, that will be reopened.

The attic, like the rest of the building, feels transitional in that while it looks almost exactly like what you’d expect to see in a late 19th century Romanesque Revival school building – a large space with impressive wood framing – a series of steel braces supporting the roof remind you that of its actual construction date.

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The plan is to put some apartments up here, too, taking advantage of the high ceiling heights and he great views over the low-slung neighborhood surrounding the building. At least one apartment would have a skyline view of Downtown.

These apartments could, at some point, be converted into condominium units, if the demand exists, according to architect Joe Galbraith.

The whole complex (except the 1956 school) was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

Since the school vacated the space, the building has been used by a local seniors program and as a day care center, and the church has continued to use the audtorium for its events. The cafeteria (pictured below) has been the scene of rummage sales and fish fries, too.

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The plan for the future

According to Galbraith and Rappold, the building is now under contract and paperwork has been signed, but the deal has not yet closed.

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Once it does, the plan is to create roughly two studio apartments in each of the four Cramer-facing classrooms – which have windows along one wall – and their cloakrooms. The separate cloakroom doors means that there are already entrances in place for each apartment.

These units, says Galbraith, will have a lofted space.

“It's sort of a hybrid,” he says. “It's not a full loft where you're going to walk under it, but more of a storage loft with elevated bed. There's room potentially for bike storage, other storage. When you're in a small apartment, I think storage is at a premium.”

The two basement classroom below these will be similar, but have lower ceiling heights, limiting the opportunities for lofts.

Because the four classrooms on each floor that flank the auditorium have two walls of windows, they will likely each be converted into a studio and a small one-bedroom.

As much of the woodwork and other detailing as possible will remain, says Galbraith.

“Absolutely,” he says, and I don’t doubt it for a second. After all, this is the guy who, along with his partner Nick Carnahan, moved and renovated a log cabin into its new office space a couple years back.

“I think the intent here is to make you feel like you’re in a school house apartment. You come in and it's distinctly, ‘hey, this was an old school house. But now, I get to live in this old classroom with these cool chalkboards’.

“You can see how beautiful it is. That's our strategy.”

The attic apartments will keep the huge brick chimneys and weighty wooden support beams exposed.

(There is also a chance the developers will acquire the convent when the remaining sisters who live there move to the new residential facility being constructed on the Mount Mary University campus later this year.)

Despite a little cosmetic damage from a leaky roof, Galbraith says the building is in good condition.

“I would say it's in really good condition,” he says. “There are signs of water issues over the years; bad flashing, which is typical of old buildings. But, structurally there's really nothing wrong.”

The real question at the moment is what will happen in the auditorium and the cafeteria below.

The developers are currently seeking partners for those spaces.

“The playbook is wide open for that,” Galbraith says. “We’re hoping to attract good users.”

They envision the auditorium as a beautiful events space, a use for which it is perfectly adapted.

The cafeteria below could be support space for the events business above, but it could also have a life of its own, says Galbraith.

“Look at the tin ceiling,” he says. “Isn't it fantastic? This space, actually it could be a bunch of different things.

“There is a cafeteria kitchen back here. It might be a part of the (events space) plan. We've had some people suggest the ghost kitchen concept where if this were events, obviously you don't need the kitchen all the time. Then someone could set it up like a commissary kitchen and people could rent time."

Some other ideas floating include a makerspace, community center, day care, business incubator, co-working facility or arts space.

“We do have windows, so there is natural light down here. This wouldn't be a terrible office space for someone. This wouldn't be a terrible fitness center or small-scale boulder gym or something.

"We've just got to find people with that entrepreneurial spirit.”

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.