By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 21, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

Stand at the foot of Park Place near the east bank of the Milwaukee River today and if you face the right direction, you might barely realize you’re in the heart of a big city. It’s green and quiet.

But a century or more ago, this spot was booming with industrial activity thanks to the Milwaukee Worsted Mills on the north side of the street and the the National Brake & Electric Company’s sprawling complex to the south.

then and nowX

It would have been loud, grimy and with all kinds of traffic – workers on foot, vehicles on the streets, trains on the tracks that ran on the right-of-way that is now part of the Oak Leaf Trail.

But, standing there last week, there was almost no activity on this stub of Park Place. One truck pulled into a parking lot. A few Urban Ecology Center employees moved stuff out of the sole remaining building of the industrial era into shipping containers on the south side of the street.

They were preparing for the Wednesday, May 29 groundbreaking of the Urban Ecology Center’s $15.4 million Riverland Project, which includes a public green space and a 300-person Prairie Springs on Park event hall in a renovated cream city brick building.

Otherwise, all was quiet.

The woolen mill site and part of the National site have long since been returned to nature as part of UEC’s Rotary Centennial Arboretum, which covers a 40-acre riverfront site, including this four-acre, formerly industrial portion donated by the late architect and salvage king Pieter Godfrey, who owned the land and its buildings.

The groundbreaking, open to the public, is set for 3-4 p.m.

aerial rendering
A rendering of the exterior of the events hall.
A rendering of the events hall.

In addition to its main space with a capacity of 300, the eco-friendly Prairie Springs on Park Event Hall, 1420 E. Park Pl., will have a mezzanine with a meeting and events space for about 80 people, plus a green room, a catering kitchen and an accompanying outdoor patio space to the west.

The outdoor gathering space and play area to the east will have native plantings, open greenspace, a bioswale and benches and will be open to the public.

In addition to boasting a fountain, bike parking and a new connection to the adjacent Oak Leaf Trail, this area will also serve as a drop-off area for school groups arriving at the UEC’s main building, built just east of the Oak Leaf Trail at 1500 E. Park Pl. in 2004.

The new facility will also allow for reconfiguration of the 2004 building to create more space for classrooms, storage and staff.

The project is being designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, which designed that 2004 Riverside Park building, and will be constructed by CG Schmidt.

future kitchen
The apartment's kitchen will become a catering kitchen.
There will be a bar and bathrooms here, with a mezzanine above.

MaryBeth Kressin, UEC’s Senior Manager of Facility Rental and Events, invited me over to take a look at the building and the site before work begins.

The cream city brick structure doesn’t fit neatly into an architectural style – Wisconsin Historical Society’s architectural inventory calls it “astylistic commercial” – but it is attractive, with masonry details on the exterior and large industrial windows in seven bays on each of the sides.

A parapet peeks up over the roofline on either end of the facade, which is dotted with windows and a large garage door flanked by single doors that lead into the shop area and the former office.

Though the WHS suggests the building went up in 1890, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of that. It doesn’t appear on either the 1894 or the 1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which show a different structure, perpendicular to the current one, partially overlaying the same site.

The site on the 1894 Sanborn map.
The 1910 map of the site.
updated map
An update of the 1910 map now shows the existing building.

A form used to determine eligibility historic designation for the building says it was built around 1910, which seems more likely, since National Brake underwent a building boom that year, putting up at least three new structures and, according to a newspaper account at the time, “other buildings (we)re contemplated.”

Indeed, that August, the company pulled two more building permits, for a total of five that year. Most, if not all those buildings were to be designed by Herman J. Esser.

The building was, according to the eligibility document, used by National Brake & Electric Co., “to test and install gasoline engines into locomotives of all sizes ranging from mining locomotives up to full size locomotives.”

By 1910, National Brake was a huge and growing concern with what would ultimately become a 14-acre complex between the river and the railroad tracks, and Belleview and Park Places, that employed 1,400.

National Brake complex
A vintage view of the sprawling National Brake & Electric Co. complex.

National’s roots are in Christensen Engineering and thanks to Thomas Fehring’s great book, “The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the Engineers Who Created Them,” we know the story of the Danish-born Niels Anton Christensen, who arrived in the U.S., stopping first in Chicago, where he worked as a draughtsman at Fraser and Chalmers.

There, while inspecting a railway in Oak Park, Christensen witnessed a terrible accident that caused two deaths and numerous injuries. He realized that the handbrake on electric trains typically relied on human strength and even if electrified was useless in an accident if power was lost.

So, Christensen set to work developing an air compressor-driven brake, which when tested on streetcars in Detroit proved to be effective.

While he continued to perfect the brake, Christensen accepted a position with E.P. Allis in Milwaukee. During his time here, his brake system was tested by the Milwaukee Street Railway System, again with success. In 1896, Christensen found backing and went into business for himself, opening a facility on the South Side.

Demand grew and so Christensen took on investors, who by 1903 owned a majority of shares. When they wanted to expand the business into other areas, Christensen balked and was out. The company was renamed National Brake & Electric and moved up to the East Side.

Christensen was paid a royalty for his patent, but when Westinghouse – which had its own air brake system – bought National Brake, a 24-year legal battle was ignited with Christensen. That case land three times in the state supreme court before Westinghouse was ultimately forced to pay Christensen  $260,750 in 1930.

In the meantime, National Brake flourished under Westinghouse and the company began to produce other things, including, according to the Journal, pioneering the gasoline-fueled locomotive, which were tested in the future events hall building.

During World War I, Fehring notes, the company made four-wheel drive and steer tractors, lathes and castings for gun mounts.

However, by 1931, Westinghouse began moving operations to its site in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania and by the following year, the East Side plant had been completely idled, leaving behind roughly 1,394 unemployed workers. For five years, only six people were employed at the plant, as security guards.

Beginning in 1937, most of the plant was demolished, though it took a number of years, leaving just the current building and the lower sections of three walls of an adjacent tractor storage building.

The building – along with the now-demolished structures to the east (on the north side of Park Place) that had been home to the Milwaukee Worsted (woolen) Mills – found a variety of uses over the years, including as a manufacturing plant for Toepfer & Sons malting equipment company in the ‘40s; a warehouse for Cornell Paperboard in the late 1950s; home to Juneau Stamping & Manufacturing in the 1960s; storage for Reinke & Schomann in the early 1970s and Armstrong A of Wisconsin in the late ‘70s; and the H.L. Munch Co. in the second half of the ‘80s.

This is when architect and scrapper/salvager Pieter Godfrey arrived on the scene.

Godfrey was the son of Dudley Godfrey, Jr. who co-founded the law firm of Godfrey & Kahn in 1957 and he had a passion for historic buildings and a dream of returning the riverfront to nature.

mezzanine view
The view from the current mezzanine.

“In 1993 Pieter Godfrey purchased this building and used it for storage of reclaimed building materials, and a sawmill for resawing antique old growth beams and lumber he spent reclaiming from demolished building in Milwaukee and area over the next 20 years,” the UEC’s eligibility form says. “Pieter was an architect, builder and historic preservationist.

"He was involved with providing materials and consulting for many of the historical restorations in the area. His company collected and stored endless amounts of materials that were available for purchase. He was very knowledgeable about historical methods of construction and materials, as well as local history of the area. This was well before it became commonplace to collect and preserve materials.”

When Godfrey passed away unexpectedly in 2011, his family approached the Urban Ecology Center and together they arranged the purchase of the site for $2.4 million. Although the Milwaukee Worsted building had to come down due to deterioration, the testing building remained.

testing then
The interior of the testing building then (above) and now (below).

Godfrey's entire collection of salvaged materials was sold to Chicago artist Theaster Gates for his Rebuild Foundation, which uses art and recycled architecture to help revitalize distressed urban areas..

“Our hopes are to redevelop the building in the future, and preserve as much of the original integrity of the building as possible," the document notes.

"We also hope to integrate many of the materials we acquired and to preserve Pieter’s legacy as he was a supporter of our organization.”

Patio space
Two views of the events hall patio space.

The cream city brick building will get a clean-up but will look much the same as it does now.

The masonry will be repaired, the roof will be replaced and so will the windows, though the fenestration will remain the same. An east facade garage door will get a large window and currently opaque windows will be transparent.

The apartment's fireplace.

Inside, a former apartment that Godfrey had built out in the old office area will become the catering kitchen and green room and an open area overlooking the main shop floor will be transformed into the mezzanine and bathrooms.

The apartment’s quirky details, like a free-standing fireplace, a combination hot tub and shower, and a lofted bedroom will all go.

Lofted bedroom
Looking up at the apartment's lofted bedroom.
lofted bedroom
The view from the apartment's lofted bedroom.

Just inside the front garage door, which will become a glass entrance, there will be an entry/lobby space.

The steel interior roof structure will also remain in place, but will be painted. On one side of the large open room there will be a bar.


Sadly, one of the coolest and most intriguing features of the building – a variety of train tracks of different gauges for different types of vehicles embedded into the concrete floor – will likely not survive.

The concrete floor may need to be replaced, which could make saving the tracks nigh impossible.

“These were the tracks for the testing house,” says Kressin. “They would bring the different streetcars in for installing and testing gasoline engines, as well as air brakes.  So we were fighting to keep these tracks. It is just not feasible. They're going to try to salvage as much as they can.”

UEC is hoping to somehow integrate this giant saw blade that was left from the Godfrey era.

Hopefully, some of the tracks can be saved and integrated into the new facility, which could be ready by February.

Kressin says UEC will begin taking bookings for the facility this summer.

“Right now we're working with a couple different consulting firms to help us figure out what are the comparables for this space, what is our pricing going to be,” says Kressin, who is clearly very excited about this project.

“I've been in event and wedding industry for over 12 years and I've been at the Urban Ecology Center for 10 years,” she enthuses. “Before this I worked catering and day-of coordination and bartending in a lot of different spaces, but when I came here there was such a change of a culture. Sustainability is really important and I was like, ‘yes, I'm in the right place.’

“So taking the baseline that we already have in all of our other venues and making it even more here, how can we make events zero waste is a little aggressive, but as low waste as possible? We're salvaging a building that exists, it’s here. What choices can we make in our vendors – like a certified green catering company – and in our policies and all of that.”

The building will get the infrastructure required to install solar panels, which would come later, and the outdoor spaces will help manage stormwater to keep it out of sewers.

Fundraising is underway, as part of a multi-purpose $42.5 million Imagine campaign.

“There are four parts,” Kressin says. “The money to raise to do (the new) Washington Park (building, currently under construction), the money for here, an endowment and something called Operational Excellence, which is kind of a pool that will help with buses (for school groups) and bigger ticket things that are organization-wide.”

Support from Prairie Springs Paul Fleckenstein Charitable Trust has helped kick off the project, but $1.8 million is still needed to complete the job, $800,000 of it urgently.

You can make a contribution here.

“My job the last 10 years has been to essentially sell the Urban Ecology Center,” Kressin says, “and have people have their events in our spaces, and I love it. A hundred people will come in for an event and some will say, ‘I never knew of this place.’

“My hope (is that) I can get a person to come back and volunteer with us or bring their kids for summer camp or make any sort of connection, Our mission is we connect people in cities to nature and each other. My role and my department's role is connecting in a different way, but it's an ecosystem. So, I'm super excited about this (project). Can you tell?”

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.