The Wisconsin Architectural Archive is a historical treasure trove.
The Wisconsin Architectural Archive is a historical treasure trove.
The collection is part of the library's Art & Music department.
The collection is part of the library's Art & Music department.

Urban spelunking: Digging into Wisconsin architectural history at MPL

Milwaukee has a rich history and, fortunately, a passion for preserving it, too. Take, for example the Wisconsin Architectural Archive, housed at the Milwaukee Public Library.

Founded in 1975 by Thomas L. Eschweiler – yes, of THAT Eschweiler family – and a few others, the collection, housed within the Central Library's Art & Music department, archives more than 20,000 architectural drawings by nearly 500 Wisconsin architects.

Recently, I heard about the collection and decided to check it out. Today, I went over to meet Gayle Ecklund, an archives technician at MPL, who told me a bit about the collection and showed me some stunning original plans, drawn by Hugo Schnetzky, of Walnut Street School, which burned and was razed in 1978.

The collection got started, Ecklund told me, when Eschweiler was trying to find a home for the drawings made by his family's famous Milwaukee firm, Eschweiler and Eschweiler.

That sparked Eschweiler and his cohorts to actively seek out items for the collection. "They'd drive around in a station wagon to pick up plans," Ecklund said.

Now, folks approach the archive with donations, too.

Sadly, and perhaps ironically since they designed the stunning Central Library building itself, there are few works by George Ferry & Alfred Clas, because, says Ecklund, the story (perhaps apocryphal?) goes that after a balcony collapsed in one of their buildings, the architects feared liability issues and burned all their drawings.

I was pleased to see that Henry Koch, who designed many prominent Milwaukee buildings, is fairly well represented. The collection holds Koch's plans for City Hall, Turner Hall, Gesu Church, the old South Division High School and a few other works.

There is a searchable, computerized index to the collection, however, it is not yet accessible online. To use the collection, call the Frank P. Zeidler Humanities Room at (414) 286-3061 to see if the archives has what you're looking for. If so, she can pull the drawings and make an appointment for you to look at them.

Ecklund says the archive gets anywhere from 150 to 300 requests annually. Many are from folks searching for plans for or more information on their homes. Copies of drawings are available for a fee.

The WAA is a great historical archive housed in the heart of Milwaukee; we're lucky to have it.


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