Urban Spelunking: Grand Avenue Congregational/Irish Cultural & Heritage Center
If you look closely at the stained glass windows in the former Grand Avenue Congregational Church, 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave., you'll spy little green shamrocks amid the variegated designs.
"The first day that this building was ours, the archivist from the church came, and he said, 'You need to know about the building'," says Mary McAndrews, a volunteer at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, which purchased the building (for a dollar) and has called it home since 1996.
"He was showing all of this to us and explained some of the things in the windows and he particularly wanted to point out that there are shamrocks. After he explained all of this, "I said, "Yes, but were they here yesterday?'"
Deem it a sign, or a divine prediction, or perhaps just coincidence. But whatever you call it, the ICHC has found itself a stunning Victorian Romanesque home, designed by one of the most respected architects in Milwaukee history.
The cream city brick church, adorned with cut limestone trim is a pretty unique church for Milwaukee. The main feature isn't a rose window, but a colossal Romanesque arched window that caps an arched cut limestone portal with heavy wood doors and a stained glass transom window.
There is no bell tower. Instead the facade is balance by a pair of corbelled turrets capped with slender, elongated pyramidal roofs. It's not soaring like many Milwaukee churches of the era. Nor is it imposing. It is a church building that welcomes.
Just beneath a gable that could've adorned a public school of the era – the church was erected in 1887 – the name of the church – Grand Ave. Congre'l Church – is carved into stone, ensuring that regardless of who inhabits the building, its original intent will endure.
And the original intent is one that we can appreciate even now, 173 years after the congregation was founded. "At the center of this pioneer church," says the city's historic preservation study report, prepared in 1982, "was the anti-slavery issue. Both First Congregational Church (now Plymouth Congregational) and the First Presbyterian Church served as open forums for the denouncement of this social evil.
"By 1846, both churches had decided that the church was no longer the place for political issues to be publicly discussed. The denial of a public forum was seen as a serious setback for the anti-slavery movement and a year later the Free Congregational Church was founded largely by parishioners from First Congregational and First Presbyterian."
The congregation built its first permanent home on Broadway between Mason and Wells in 1848, and four years later bought the old First Congregational Church at 2nd and Wisconsin where it remained for two years before selling the building to the Methodist Society. It took five years for a new church building to be built at 6th and Wisconsin and in 1881 the congregation changed its name to Grand Avenue Congregational Church.
As business supplanted the residential flavor of the street, the congregation moved further west along the avenue, tapping Mix to design the building we see now.
The church always maintained its socially progressive bent. Long-serving pastor Rev. Dr. Charles H. Beale was, according to the city report, "a national figure in the Congregational Church in America and an important spokesman for Milwaukee's progressive movement."
In 1902 a Christians and Jews held a joint Thanksgiving service at the church and in 1945 another joint service was celebrated, this time with St. Mark's African Methodist Church. After Meta Berger's death in 1945 a huge memorial was held for her here. In August 1957, the church hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s first Milwaukee appearance.
Inside the sanctuary – which slopes down from the rear to the front – there's a huge organ case above the altar. The soaring pipes are perhaps the most immediately striking sight inside. But there are lovely windows, dark wood pews that form semicircular rows emanating back up the slope toward the narthex.
A main balcony at the back sits beneath that incredible arched window, which, unsurprisingly, is even more striking from the inside than from the street. Mix also hid smaller side balconies on either side of the altar.
The wood-beamed ceiling recalls the incredible work at Mix's St. Paul's Episcopal Church on the lower East Side. More than anything it is the woodwork – woodwork everywhere – that distinguishes the interior.
Until recently, water damage from a roof leak had marred some of the interior, but that's been tidied up, says McAndrews.
"I wish you had been here a year ago so that you could see what happened in the past year. When I walk in here, I'm just amazed," she says. "There was plastering and painting done where there was water damage. The roof has been replaced for several years. There was a lot of water damage here and it showed and people said, 'The building is falling down.' We said, 'No it isn't. The roof has been replaced. This isn't going to get worse.'
"Of course, it didn't look all that great and partly people just didn't believe that was true. So last summer, they found somebody who was basically out of work and was willing to do it less expensively and got the scaffolding. They didn't repaint the whole place, but they made repairs that were necessary. It's just spectacularly nicer."
A volunteer has also just completed a tasteful Celtic border around the sanctuary that bolsters the place's Irish feel. But, honestly, it didn't even really need it. In part because of those shamrocks, though they're pretty small. But also because the church isn't especially, well, "churchy" on the inside.
"They wanted, and I understand it was typical of Congregationalists congregations, they liked the Romanesque style in contrast to the Gothic," says McAndrews, who also leads tours for Historic Milwaukee Inc. "They felt it was less churchy.
"One of the things that I've been grateful for is that the stained glass windows are basically non-representational because, of course, we use it for concerts (and other events). (But) there are many, many things in the windows. There are crosses at the top of the windows and little Christian symbols."
In addition to concerts featuring Irish and Celtic musicians from around the globe, the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center rents out the space for many weddings. And it during these events that a potential hiccup – for a church that would expected to host many weddings and funerals. There's no aisle down the middle.
"They must have had some reservations about after they did it," says McAndrews. "With this style you got two aisles other than one central aisle. We do rent for weddings and of course the first question is, 'Well, how are we going to handle the precession?' Sometimes the men and women come down in parallel, which I think is a nice idea. I wonder if it was at one of the first weddings that somebody said, 'Why did they do it this way?'"
In the back is an addition that McAndrews put at 1910, but seems more likely to be a 1907 structure attributed to H. A. Betts. The Aug. 3, 1907 issue of Improvement Bulletin noted that Betts has drawn plans for the brick and stone addition estimated to cost $10,000. Here there are meeting rooms, offices and a giant upstairs hall with hardwood floors.
In 1930, Van Ryn & DeGelleke drew plans for work on the choir loft and Cornelius Leenhouts added to the church in 1935, but it's unclear what that work entailed.
In the basement, there is a section of cobbled floor remaining and beneath the sanctuary, there is only a dirt floor basement, but we didn't get to see it.
The Irish Cultural and Heritage Center houses two libraries, a number of meeting and entertainment spaces and also has the "Irish Stew," which is McAndrews' baby. The Stew is an Irish-themed resale shop stocked with donated items. There are tons of books, records, CDs, decorative items, art and more.
"It has to be Irish, sort of, at least green. Mostly it has to be something that has some sort of direct connection. It started with the idea that when people go to Ireland, they come home with stuff and they wonder what to do with it. We had one garage sale and I was the one who said it. I said, "You know this isn't the way to do this. We should have it at each of our events so there would be this constant turnover. Someone said, "Well, who's going to do that?" and I said, "I am." I've had more fun with this. We made almost $1,000 at the post (St. Patrick's Day) parade party and the vast majority of our stuff is $5 or less."
The Irish Stew, like the ICHC itself, is a labor of love and pride. Like the Grand Avenue Congregational Church congregation, whose building it occupies, it is fueled by passion.
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