By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 22, 2022 at 10:01 AM

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Many in Milwaukee can vividly recall the day in May 2018 when flames tore through the 1878 Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1046 N. 9th St., in dramatic fashion.

Work has been ongoing to bring the Gothic Revival church back to life and I’ve been tracing it since that dreadful day.

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On the scaffolding looking toward the altar (above) and toward the narthex (below).
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In case you want to go back to the beginning and get caught up, before I give you the latest update, here are some links:

Here is a “before” story; an Urban Spelunking look at the building and its history, from 2013.

Here was a story about the clean-up work and the assessment of the damage, as well as a look at the destruction inside.

These looked at the decision to rebuild, 140 years of history at the church and news that work would begin soon.

This article discussed the replacement of the roof, and this one talked to restorers working to save artworks damaged by fire and water.

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One of a number of signs now hanging in the sanctuary.
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I went back for updates three years after the fire and this past May, four years later, and then this summer, I visited with the woodworkers restoring the church’s beautiful wooden objects.

This week I was invited back by Mark Paschke, an architect at Ramlow/Stein Architecture + Interiors, which is part of the team working on the church – designed by German immigant architect Frederick Velguth – to see how work is advancing on the ceiling.

When I last visited, in May, Rev. M. Douglas Peters, Trinity’s pastor since November 2019, showed me the undercroft where services are being held.

Peters also noted that the congregation requires $6 million to completely restore the historic church. That includes about $1 million for the kind of work that needs to happen to gain occupancy, $2 million for an organ suited to a church like Trinity and another $3 million for “the pretty stuff,” like stained glass, pews, woodwork and finishes, plus the cupola and steeple.

“If we were able to raise the first million dollars, which is our first goal, so that we can get occupancy, we think that we would be able to be into the building probably by July of '23,” Peters said in May.

That timeline remains the goal and it’s possible, says Paschke, though others involved caution that only if fundraising goes well (see link at the bottom of this story) will the congregation will be able to worship upstairs in time for Christmas 2023.

Work will not be complete by the time occupancy is granted by the city. That permit would simply mean that the space and its new new mechanicals – plus a high-pressure fire supression system – have been inspected and meet code requirements.

The space will not be ready for worship until the plaster walls and woodwork are complete, due to dust issues during construction.

“We want to get the ceiling painted so we can get the scaffolding out of here,” Paschke says “Then we can just work from the capitals down.”

To that end, once the roof was on and windows and installed, the ceiling became a priority.

“We've finished the drywall and right now they're doing plaster work on the ceiling, and then later on they'll move down,” says Paschke.

“We're going to do all the plaster down to the top of the columns, and then the next phase will be all the walls below the columns: finishing up all the plaster work, the decorative capitals, that'll be later.”

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Apse ceiling above the altar.
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Again, that work can only proceed with successful fundraising. The capitols atop the pilasters will be cast off-site based on scans and can be added later.

Painters from Conrad Schmitt Studios will arrive on site at the start of the new year to do some priming work in preparation for the decorative painting that will follow.

The new scheme will recreate what was there before ... sort of.

“They have (images of) what was historically here, and what was here most recently,” says Paschke. “It's kind of a combination (of both). We looked at probably three or four different schemes and this is the one that they went with. It's kind of cool. They did the blue over the altar with stars.

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Paint schemes. (PHOTOS: Mark Paschke)
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“The details are some that were originally in the church. They have (colorized) photos from the original church's paint scheme. Conrad Schmitt looked at all of these things and did some great schemes.”

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Some folks might not want to look down.
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What I got to see up close this week was talented plasterers working on the ceiling – on scaffolding – not only plastering broad surfaces, but also recreating all the details: arches, moldings, capitals, etc.

Paschke says the entire interior of the church was scanned after the fire, before any original details were removed, which allowed for the recreation of many of these facets.

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Recreated detail pieces.
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Other pieces were scanned and in some cases recreated by UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning where Prof. Matt Jarosz has an incredible historic preservation lab that does this kind of work.

“A lot of the ceiling, not all of it, portions of the ceiling, and the beams, and the capitals were still in place after the fire, so we have that in the scans,” says Paschke before we start our climb about three stories up the scaffolding.

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At a level just below the top, we stop to watch some plasterers doing some finish work on the walls in the north transept.

Then we take the last couple sets of stairs and our heads are nearly touching the ceiling, a part of the church that for nearly 150 years very few people saw up close.

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Currently entirely plaster white, the ceiling’s curves look almost like a Calatrava-designed building or close-up views of Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York City.

Here I can touch the soaring arches and see the openings through which the two massive chandeliers will dangle. A number of chandeliers will adorn the sanctuary (some will hang in the narthex) and some of them will be made up, at least in part, with pieces from the originals that were saved after the blaze.

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At this level, we watch two plasterers recreate a long rounded detail that following the sloping ceiling line along the south transept wall.

After using a trowel to perfect a section of the detail, one of the men explains how he mixes the lime plaster. Then the other demonstrates how he uses a specially made form to smooth out and shape the work.

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This is how it will look.
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Forms like these were made by copying original details, either via scanning or by other methods.

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The tool used to shape the detail.
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Then Paschke tells me about how the ceiling is constructed.

The metal roof, which has a layer of insulation above, is supported by steel trusses that replaced the beams of centuries-old wood that were first hoisted up in the late 1870s.

Then metal studs were used to make the ceiling. That’s covered in three layers of drywall under the plaster.

Previously the ceiling's curves were executed in lath and plaster, Paschke says.

“For the sound and the acoustics you need to have a certain density of weight on the plaster,” says Paschke.

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The trusses and studs were all fabricated off-site to specification and brought to the church for installation.

Before we head up to the attic to see the new trusses and catwalk, we stop to take a look at the windows, which all have clear glass for now.

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The goal is to replace the stained glass that was destroyed in the fire, but that’s a ways off.

Some samples will arrive next year and be installed in two openings as a teaser, says Paschke.

There’s thermal glass on the outside and the stained glass will sit inside, creating a much better insulation – for sound and temperature – than existed before.

“There's actually two types we did; these have inset storms so the storms are in the openings,” says Paschke. “Then, on some of the higher-up ones, they have storms over the whole thing. It's less expensive and more higher-up, so it's a way to save some money than doing overlay storms.”

Previously, all the windows had storms that were overlaid.

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Next, from the scaffolding, we enter into the north tower and take the old staircase up to access the attic, where what was once a forest of evocative-smelling vintage wood beams has now been replaced with steel.

The formerly wood catwalk is now also steel, and where there once hung a few bare bulbs for light, the space is brightly lit. Up here, at least one contractor – an electrician – is busy at work.

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The attic catwalk and underside of the roof.
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Paschke shows me where the winches will be installed to lower the big chandeliers for service (they’ll be LEDs now, however, so they won’t need frequent bulb changing), and then we make our way back into the tower.

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There I spy a wall covered in graffiti that I didn’t recall from my first visit nearly a decade ago. There are signatures dating to the early 20th century and perhaps even older, though I didn’t have time to see every one.

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The attic and a view out the window (below).
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Instead, spying a steep wooden staircase, Paschke and I decide to ascend.

On the next level, we are greeted with an intriguing space showing the tower’s construction and more graffiti (including the prolific "A.O." who left his/her mark in both places).

There’s also a second steep wooden ladder, though slightly perhaps a third shorter than the last one.

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The second, shorter ladder...
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... leads to this tight space, which is where I stopped this time around.
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I climb it and reach the level just below the clock faces, which is dark because there are only a couple windows up here. We save the third staircase for another time and make our way back down.

I’m reminded that this restoration work costs a lot of money and the church can use all the help it can get. Removing the scaffolding – for which it pays a hefty enough monthly rental fee – will be a step in the right direction.

But, more is needed. If you’d like to donate, please visit trinitymilwaukee.org.

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.