For the past 11 years, the Forest County Potawatomi has been renovating its Wgema Campus – formerly Concordia College’s campus – at 944 N. 33rd St., on Milwaukee’s West Side, and now the last buildings on the site are getting attention.
Concordia – now a university, located along the lakeshore in Mequon – was founded in 1881 on what is now the Wgema site, on State Street between 31st and 33rd Streets, and until 1983. The Forest County Potawatomi bought the campus in 1986.
You can read more about the history here, as well as a 2018 renovations update here.
While the 1930 Barth Gymnasium is getting a makeover inside and out, the adjacent 1955 pool building was demolished this past weekend.
With the pool building down, the parking lot will be expanded, the gym will get a new foyer on the north side and there will be some grass area added.
While the gym – which had been the original practice facility for the Milwaukee Bucks, including during thei 1971 Championship run – has been in more or less constant use by Woodlands School, which rents a building on campus, and Potawatomi employees on campus, the pool has sat vacant for decades.
Part of the building was used for storage and over there years had a few other uses, too, including most recently as a boxing gym, which rented the first floor.
Woodlands also uses the handsome 1930 gym, which for many years was the practice facility of the Milwaukee Bucks. Close your eyes, and you just might be able to imagine Kareem dunking here.
The old pool has been empty and covered for decades and is used for storage. You can walk into the deep end, but you have to make yourself progressively smaller as you make your way up the slope to the shallow side.
I stopped by last week for a last look at the pool building before it was to be demolished the following day. Interior demo began last Monday. Quorum Architects is the project architect and Greenfire is the general contractor.
“So right now, we're doing obviously the big demo in there,” said Greenfire Management Services Assistant Superintendent Connor Wierschem. “They're in the basement right now doing just selective demo, taking out recycling, all the metal and everything out.
Pretty much everything that can be recycled, says Wierschem, will be.
There are two guys up top of the pool building as well, removing the upper parapet, just for safety. We don't want that to fall down right when they're taking that building down.”
On Saturday, a big 480 excavator was to arrive on site and take down the building. The job was expected to take all day.
“The pool is going to be filled in with recycled stone,” Wierschem says, “and then all the brick, we're recycling.”
Concrete from the project will be used on-site as fill.
The two buildings basically sat side by side, right up against one another, but were not for the most part wedded. The result, says Wierschem, is that the north wall of the gym building is in good shape.
“We were surprised about it,” he admits. “It looks fantastic, which is super cool, (and) a good thing money wise.”
I ask if it will be challenging to pull down that south wall of the pool building, which is up against that gym wall.
“One of the difficult parts about it is that there's vertical (rows of) block going all the way up, you can see the outline of it,” he says, pointing it out. “So that's where obviously, the damage of the brick is going to be happening. But I mean, they're doing a fantastic job.
There are also steel beams in the pool building that are up against the gym wall, but not attached to it.
“That steel's up against the wall,” Wierschem says. “That's just driven down (into the ground) and holding up the truss.
“The plan is since the trusses are running north to south, we're taking out the east and west sides first, and then we're going to take out the south side so that it kind of collapses in. If we take it this way, it's going to go that way. Because everything's pushing that way.”
Kind of like taking down a tree.
“Exactly,” Wierschem says. “It’s about figuring out the direction everything's going to fall.”
Once inside we can the old tile floor that surrounded the pool, which makes clear the footprint of the pool – which has a concrete cap. On either end of the south side of the room are staircases down to the men’s and women’s locker rooms, which survive intact.
Since those are actually in the basement of the gym building, they will stay and get some basic upgrades.
Back up in the pool room there’s an old Concordia University sign board for noting the records in various events – 200-yard freestyle, 400-yard breaststroke, etc. – and on the opposite wall are painted reminders like, “no running” and “no pushing.” On the north wall, pool depths are painted.
If all of that doesn’t shout “pool,” then surely the slate blueish green enamled wall tile does.
A variety of things hang from the trusses creating what almost looks like an industrial-themed art installation. Some of those are straps that held the heavy bags used by the boxing gym.
We go downstairs to climb into the actual pool, which survived below the cap or decades, its tile clearly demarcating where the swimming lanes were located.
Although I had been down there once before, it still felt pretty weird to be walking around at the bottom of a 9-foot, 6-inch-deep former pool.
Back up and outside, we look at the red brick gym building that was designed by R.A. Messmer and had a an addition drawn by Sheboygan architect A. Stubenrauch. Masons were busy at work tuckpointing on the south facade.
‘They did the east side and the west side, which are both completed on tuckpointing,’ says Wierschem. “The parapet is getting demolished and then rebuilt. The mortar is all down and basically disintegrating.”
So, says Wierschem, it’s just easier to start from scratch on that part.
But because the building is designated as historic, it will be rebuilt exactly as it was.
Only a little work will be required on the north facade.
“We'll still tuckpoint,” says Wierschem, “and there's going to be spots where there's like a dog house, we call it, basically where the old boiler room exhaust comes through. So that got damaged, and that'll just be a little rebuild on that.
“Then new windows throughout the entire building.”
Due to the designation, those windows will also mimic their lead-laden predecessors.
“Inside the gymnasium, it's just a lot of new MEPs (mechanical, electrical and plumbing), new basketball hoops,” says Wierschem. “The floor is staying, which is the difficult part. So we’ve got to protect the floor once we start removing all that in there. It's just going to get a new finish on that.”
There will also be a new fire alarm and protection system installed.
Don’t worry, Bucks fans, the old hoops are not historic. With their clear backboards and other clues, it’s obvious that while the metal pipes holding up the backboards appear original, the backboards, hoops and nets look new.
But while they’re not likely the ones Kareem swished jump shots through, they were there when Giannis was recently on site to record a commercial in the gym.
This building, which has built-in seating flanking the courts, a stage (with proscenium) at one end and a scorer’s box on the other, is covered all over inside with beautiful enameled bricks like the ones you may remember from your grade school lunch room or gym.
There are even offices lining both sides of the basement below the bleachers that are covered in the stuff.
This building also has rest rooms and small locker rooms on the south end.
Everything here is staying and will just be prettied up for the Woodlands kids and the Potawatomi walkers.
The whole project is expected to be completed by the end of June next year.
And then the campus is finished, right?
“Renovation wise, yes, says Greenfire’s Simmi Urbanek. “But there's the second floor of the (Wgemas) building that can be built out over the cafeteria. Right now, it's just empty; white boxed.
“And then there's still property, just open green space, that can be used for development.”
While there’s no plan to build on-site for now, the potential is always there, says Urbanek.
“It's there, and the PBDC (Potawatomi Business Development Corporation) has now created a real estate group to look at not just opportunities on the property, but just in general, for development.
“So I know that they're talking to people about development all over, but there's always opportunity here, and depending on what the business is, there's tax incentives to build on (Potawatomi tribal) trust land, even for manufacturing or light manufacturing or warehouse kind of stuff.”
You can a Greenfire blog post about the project here.
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.