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The 1927 West Milwaukee Intermediate School, 5104 W. Greenfield Ave., with its cream-colored brick and gorgeous terra cotta detailing, is a local landmark – both officially and in the local psyche – for its Mediterranean-style allure and for the fact that it is Liberace’s alma mater.
The school building – part of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District – was named a Milwaukee County Landmark in 1983, three years before the death of its most famous alum.
But the building, like many schoolhouses that are a century or more old, is also an example of the challenges of maintaining our landmarks.
The Village of West Milwaukee was founded in 1906 on land that had previously been part of the Towns of Wauwatosa and Greenfield.
The first school in the area was National Soldiers Home School, built at 46th and Beloit in 1852 and attended by children of National Soldiers Home staffers.
That school was replaced in 1906 with the first Pershing School – though it didn’t get that name until 1919.
Before West Milwaukee High School was built, secondary school-aged children in West Milwaukee attended MPS' Bay View High School and West Allis High School.
But that was hardly a great solution, geographically.
And thus was the West Milwaukee High School born. In it's first year it was a junior high school, becoming a four-year school in 1928. The school held its first graduation ceremony in 1929.
Hiring the Tullgren & Sons architects pretty much ensured that the new building would a terra cotta-adorned looker, with an exterior perhaps not quite as flamboyant as that of "Mr. Showmanship," but close.
After all, the firm had just recently created an elaborately-decorated retail investment property on 60th and North (1924), the flamboyant Italian Renaissance-inspired George Watts building Downtown (1925) and the Mediterranean terra cotta explosion that is the Bertelson Building on the East Side (1927).
What West Milwaukee got was this, as described in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s architectural inventory:
“The building is irregular in plan with the front elevation facing south. The primary entrance is located in a slightly projecting center bay and is highly ornamented with a portico containing three round-arched doorways separated by decoratively carved pilasters with ornamental friezes above. The roof of the portico serves as a balcony accessed by a large bank of windows at the second story. The second-story window bank is accentuated by a highly elaborate Alhambresque crown.
“Constructed in a distinctive Spanish Colonial style that features cream brick walls, red tiled roofs, along outer edges of the roofline along the façade ... and a band of checkerboard terra cotta above the second-story windows.”
In his book, "Architectural Terra Cotta of Milwaukee County," ceramics sculptor, author and educator Ben Tyjeski described the building as the "premier masterpiece of Martin Tullgren and Sons ... (it) is the most ornate and highly crafted facade of their portfolio.
"Richly detailed units (NOTE: created by the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. in Illinois) extend all across the facade along the capitals, frieze and entryways."
There are flowers and trees and ribbons and dolphins and grotesques and vases and the faces of the children. It is a veritable feast for the eyes and the effect is almost overwhelming.
In 1936 the east end of the building got a large addition in a similar style – drawn by architects Herbert L. Edling and Henry P. Plunkett) and built by R. Siesel Construction – that included classrooms and an 700-seat auditorium that since 2005 has been named in honor of Liberace.
The theater space – the lobby of which has a graceful barrel-vaulted ceiling – has its original seat standards, ornate floral-motif vent grilles and other period features.
“Most schools built in the 1920s were constructed in the classical or Tudor style,” noted the Milwaukee County Historical Society, but West Milwaukee High School differed with its Mediterranean styling.”
It was during this era that Wladziu Liberace, who was born at 1649 S. 60th St. and later lived on 49th and National, attended the school, after having studied, according to Darden Asbury Pyron’s “Liberace: An American boy,” at Pershing.
By then, the young Liberace, who had begun playing piano at the age of 4 and took lessons at the Wisconsin College of Music from the age of 7, was a wunderkind on the keyboard.
In addition to performing with the high school jazz band, called The Mixers, he reportedly entertained in the auditorium, though it seems unlikely that he performed much, or maybe even at all, in the current auditorium that bears his name as it was completed not long before he graduated.
When I visited the school, the engineer told me that Liberace may have played on the stage, which may have only existed for a few months of the young pianist’s time at the school.
According to a 1999 Las Vegas Review-Journal by K.J. Evans, “(Liberace) excelled academically at West Milwaukee High School, and was active in extracurricular activities, excluding sports. (He couldn’t stand to get dirty.)
“One of the school’s traditions was ‘Character Day.’ Every student was supposed to dress up as a famous character from history, and Walter nearly always won. He appeared one year as Emperor Haille Selassie of Ethiopia, another as Yankee Doodle Dandy. One year, he came in full drag as Greta Garbo.”
Another building expansion took place in 1954, adding a gym at the back, after the West Milwaukee district consolidated with that of neighboring West Allis. A round of renovations was made in 1976.
However, in 1992, the school was shuttered and its students split between West Allis Central and West Allis Hale.
But it did not lie dormant for long.
When a task force determined there was need for a middle school on the eastern side of the WAWM District – where existing school buildings were among the district's oldest as the community had developed westward from the east – a plan to re-open the building emerged.
In 1996, the building was again remodeled and expanded to add more classrooms to the west side and northwest corner at a cost of $7.3 million and it reopened at West Milwaukee Intermediate School.
The building has been in continuous use ever since.
When I stopped in for a visit, I marveled at the gorgeous exterior and was happy to see that a beautiful original terra-cotta entrance surround that was removed during the remodel was carefully removed and is preserved on the 52nd Street side as part of a decorative arch.
Inside, the building has a nice wide entry vestibule with a wide staircase adorned with a pair of wrought iron railings.
It is a beautiful building, but it is not without its issues.
In fact, thanks to deferred maintenance and the age of the building and its systems, the school has a list of facilities repairs, maintenance and upgrades that adds up to an estimated $12.9 million.
Some of that work is tagged as low priority – such as interior building (flooring, etc.) and structural repairs (like foundational cracks, wall crack repairs, etc.) – and some as medium priority, including exterior/enclosure repair (tuckpoint, exterior doors, etc.), electrical and plumbing work and ADA compliance.
But two categories are ranked high priority in the 149,760-square-foot building, including $1.7 million in safety work (like fire protection, asbestos removal and emergency responder radio systems) and $1.9 million in mechanical/HVAC work.
“The average age of our schools is 80 years old,” says WAWM Schools Assistant Superintendent Aaron Norris.
The needs across all the district schools are nearly $300 million and the specific issues vary by school, though the district overall also faces a challenge in that its teacher pay trails the regional average. That means a lot of talent is lost to nearby districts. (It also goes a long way toward explaining why 50.3 percent of WAWM teachers have five years or less experience in the classroom.)
“Hale had water pouring in during the September, October, when we had huge rain,” Norris offers as one example. “They had to cancel gym classes.”
So, at Hale, the priority is a new roof. At many schools, replacing outdated mechanical systems is high priority. Electrical and plumbing is not far behind.
Steven Eichman, the district's manager of facilities, points to a recent facilities plan, saying, “the architects and the MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) contractors all said that the buildings are in good shape. They're maintained. The systems are just old.
“I was telling Aaron a while ago that we had a chiller that we just recently replaced. It was installed in 1957. It had a 25-year useful life, and we just replaced it last year. It was literally held together with Flex Seal and duct tape.”
Eichman says they couldn't get parts for it anymore.
Norris adds, “Baird's our financial advisor, they give us data every spring around what do other districts spend, and we spend in the top 15 percent of all the districts in the state on capital needs. So what it tells me is we're not neglecting our schools.”
As we walk around the school, I can’t help but notice some of the problems for myself.
One room can’t be used because water is leaking in due to exterior decay issues. Around the window there’s plenty of water damage, and elsewhere in the room there’s more. Near the door is a large garbage can that’s nearly full of water coming down from the ceiling.
Old fluorescent lights in the cafeteria – which has a eye-popping floor – caused a small fire during a school day last year.
In the lower level, there’s a beautiful pool – seven feet deep at one end – that would be the envy of many schools ... except for the fact that it’s empty and the deck serves as storage space because aging systems have rendered it unusable.
The engineer takes me down under the pool to show how the overflow tank liner is long overdue for replacement, how the 1927 plumbing needs replacement and how the underside of the concrete deck is literally crumbling.
Rebar is exposed, and scattered around the space concrete dust and chips that have been swept into piles for pickup.
As we stand talking, another small chuck of concrete lands at my feet.
Kids at West Milwaukee who want to swim have to be bussed to Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate School.
“So the kids that go to school here don't get to use the pool,” says Norris. “We don't have $2 million to fix it. But it’s not just a repair issue, it’s also an equity issue."
The pool at FLW, on the west side of the district which is a little higher income, works.
To help make a dent in all this work, the district is planning to bring a referendum to voters in November, seeking 15-year $50 million facilities and $4 million annual operating increases.
The money would be used to fund repairs, boost technology and curriculum for students and bring teacher pay closer to the regional average.
A number of engagement sessions were held in recent months to explain the needs and the ask to residents of the district, and there is also a survey available online for feedback.
“We're in really good shape where we had zero audit findings; one of 10 districts across the state that had this past year,” Norris says. “I feel like we're in a really good spot. The problem is if we spend more than we get, then we're going to go right back to the mistakes of the past. And if we don't solve the problems, then we're just spinning our wheels.”
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.