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The former McKinley School on 20th and Vliet looks like no other Milwaukee schoolhouse.
The former McKinley School on 20th and Vliet looks like no other Milwaukee schoolhouse.
The western portion is a classical addition from 1898.
The western portion is a classical addition from 1898.
The eastern portions are the oldest parts of this four-part complex.
The eastern portions are the oldest parts of this four-part complex.

Old McKinley School gets a hearing

In February, I wrote about the fact that the old McKinley School on 20th and Vliet is in danger of coming down. The details of that situation can be read here.

The school is an unusual one in Milwaukee and deserves to be saved. Ald. Bob Bauman, in whose district the old school is located, has petitioned the city's Historic Preservation Commission for historic designation.

The distinctive building, with broad, hipped roofs with cupolas and louvered lanterns, had been sold by MPS in the early 1980s to the private school and day care which ran it until a fire shut it down last year.

When I spoke to Ald. Bauman about the property in June he said he'd gone inside and found pipes had been looted and the building was in a poor state in general.

Carlen Hatala, of the city's historic preservation office, has been digging up history for the documentation of the building in preparation for the Sept. 8 hearing at City Hall.

Full details of the 3 p.m. hearing, including PDFs of the application for landmarking, letters to adjacent property owners, etc., can be found here. Check out the application for an extremely detailed description of the building's architecture.

For a time, I had thought the original building to be the work of Walter Holbrook, who designed the other District 15 school, nearby on 27th Street (now named for James Groppi). Sorting out the details of these old schools is often difficult due to quirky documentation and sometimes flat out erroneous info.

Last week, after I worked with Hatala -- who was diligently digging and who helped get to the bottom of what seems like the proper attribution -- she agreed that it's often challenging work.

"It is odd," she said, "(the Common Council) authorizes MPS to advertise for plans, etc.  Next thing they are approving the installation of a boiler.  The proceedings skip over the accepting of the plans, etc."

As for the fact that MPS' documentation suggested a different architect than Holbrook for 27th Street School...

"I think what happened at MPS was that later architects working on remodeling made up as-built drawings and those survive with the later architects’ names on them and not the original architects," she said.

"And darn it, the schools had their names changed regularly adding to the confusion.  At first the school districts coincided with the ward boundaries then the schools had their own districts.  Then districts were split.  Here at 15th District / McKinley School, it started out as the Second District then became the 15th after it was completed."

The school was also known as Cold Spring Avenue School from 1912 -- when all schools were renamed for their streets -- until 1927, when the street, and thus the school, became McKinley.

The result of Hatala's work is that Fred Seyring appears to have designed the first phase of the building, though there's no definitive documentation.

"MPS accepted the plans of F. Seyring right about the time McKinley or 15th District was going to be built. Poor Mr. Seyring’s petition to be paid the remainder of his money went on for about three years, being bounced from one CC committee to the next.  They finally paid him his $250."

Some newspaper research I did recently, suggested the first addition was done by E. V. Koch and Co., though the first two phases look almost identical and, as Hatala suggests, they could both be Seyring's work.

Because school board reports and Board of Public Works reports are missing from some years during the 1880s, it's difficult to put specific dates on the construction of these wings, although the first part was erected in 1885 and the first addition appears to have been completed in August 1888 and open to students that September.

There's no debate that the 1898 classical addition on the west end was drawn by Mollerus and Lotter. The first 2 phases of the school could be Seyring.  They are not as skilled as what Holbrook was designing.  The Board of Public Works annual reports show payment to Mollerus & Lotter for the third addition.  

A low, boxy fourth addition, in 1958, was designed by Lefevre-Wiggins.

I, for one, hope the building is landmarked as the first step toward preserving it and finding it a productive new use going forward. Please contact your alderperson and encourage them to support the landmarking of this bit of Milwaukee history.


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