Listen to the Urban Spelunking Audio Stories on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.
As the move-in dates for the new housing units at the former Wheatley Elementary School (aka 20th Street School), 2442 N. 20th St., approach, I stopped over to take a peek at the progress.
Wheatley School was built in 1902 – with two additions in the 1960s and another in the early ‘70s – and was designed by Van Ryn & DeGelleke, who drew many MPS plans in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
The school sits in the middle of a long corridor of public schools that, north of the Menomonee Valley, once included Girls Tech/Wells Street Junior High, 18th Street School (razed), McKinley, Brown Street, Wheatley, 21st Street/Gwen T. Jackson, Auer Avenue, Douglas Middle School, Rufus King High School and Pratt Elementary ... each just a few blocks north of the next and all on or within a few blocks of 20th Street.
Closed by MPS in 2011, it was declared surplus four years later and sold by the Department of City Development to Royal Capital Group in 2018. Soon after, Royal Capital announced a $22 million plan to convert the existing 84,000-square-foot complex and add new construction to the south to create an 82-unit mixed-income residential development.
Ground was broken on the project in spring 2021. Engberg Anderson Architects are the project architects.
Construction of the new four-story building, which has 10 three-bedroom apartments on each floor is nearly complete and move-ins are expected to begin as soon as July 1.
The former school buildings – which will have 42 apartments – are projected to be completed and ready for Aug. 1 move-ins. A ribbon cutting event will likely be held after all the buildings are open, according to a spokesperson from Greenfire Management Services, which is the general contractor on the project.
Greenfire also undertook the conversion of the former 37th Street School into senior housing, a project that was completed last year, so they have experience in this area.
I took a tour of the former Wheatley school last year and you might want to check out this post for more background information, as well as for renderings of the completed project.
We started our tour in the 1971 building, which was home to the gym and cafeteria and will soon house two apartments, a basketball court (basically a preservation of half of the gym) and a fitness center (in the other half), as well as a cafe that will be open to the public and an office.
Royal Capital is still considering options for the expansive kitchen and an adjacent room. Those spaces will be temporarily mothballed, which a plan is determined and partners secured.
Up the wide staircase and through what had been one of two MPS skywalks (the other connects the upper and lower campuses at Golda Meir), and we’re in the 1902 building, where I’m thrilled to find that – as I’ve suspected at numerous old MPS schools – wainscoting in corridors, stairwells and classrooms did indeed survive and was simply covered with panels when the buildings were modernized.
The covering was removed and the wainscoting was restored and, where necessary, replaced and now again adorns nearly every space on the three floors of the school building.
The hallways, corridors and apartments also have their original hardwood floors and steps worn smooth from the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of little feet that walked them for more than a century.
The apartments here don’t mimic classroom footprints, but they all have copious natural light thanks to the tall schoolhouse windows.
Some still have chalkboards. One unit, on the lower level, has a chalkboard and two cork bulletin boards.
A few of the many built-in cupboards that schools like this had have been saved and reused, but, sadly, many were in bad shape and couldn’t be kept. (At 37th Street, on the other hand, Greenfire was able to save and reuse many of those cupboards, which were built in MPS’ own carpentry shop.)
An elevator was installed at the junction of the 1902 and 1960 buildings.
One apartment each on the first floor and basement levels benefits from the bow of windows in the apse that typically housed kindergarten rooms.
Though you can clearly see where the 1960 and 1966 buildings meet on the outside, inside they appear seamless.
The apartments here also have good light and open-plan kitchens, and the cinderblock construction is on view, albeit painted. Some of the units here also have their original chalkboards. In the hallways are tiled insets where there once had been bubblers.
We head into the new building even though the construction team seems skeptical I’ll care about seeing it (OK, fair enough, I’ve earned that), but when we step inside one south-facing fourth floor unit, I’m struck but the broad windows and the open and airy feeling.
Really, while you know I love the idea of living in an old schoolhouse and details like that wainscoting, the hardwood floors, the chalkboards and the tall ceiling heights, I think that southeast corner unit in the new building just might be the most in-demand.
The complex will include educational, wellness and entrepreneurial programming amenities, including the fitness center, basketball court and cafe, plus a media room, a community room and on-site parking, as well as a large green space facing North 19th Street.
The apartments include affordable and ADA-accessible units, and the project draws on a number of funding sources, including TIF, State, Federal and Historic Tax Credits.
Here's more of what I saw when I visited:
A mural that may or may not survive
A kitchen in the 1902 building
Original stairs in the 1902 building
An apartment in the 1960s addition
1960s addition tile
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.