BY CELESTIAL SIGNS (CELESTE CARROLL) —
While driving along Prospect Avenue in downtown Milwaukee recently, I remarked at the fact that there was a very interesting mix of beautiful old houses from the turn-of-the century and modern day condominiums lining the streets. For me, it has always been these beautiful, intricately designed houses that have made the streets of Milwaukee the most unique. However, I couldn’t help noticing as I made my trip down the street that the amount of these historic homes and structures were limited next to the many modern structures, including condos and apartments. I couldn’t help but realize many of the historic homes that once had existed must have been knocked down in order to make way for the modern and efficient condos and buildings that now make up much of the city of Milwaukee to accommodate a growing population.
For decades, Milwaukee has lost so many aspects of our history due to decisions made that caused our historic buildings to be demolished — and I believe those actions have detrimental effects on the city we call home. Not only has sacrificing historic buildings for efficiency allowed us to lose physical representation of Milwaukee’s past accomplishments, but it has allowed to lose appreciation for our history.
There are many historic buildings in Milwaukee that have been destroyed, ones that represented Milwaukee’s growth as a city and served as physical representation of local ability to create beautiful buildings with advanced architectural techniques. The Plankington Mansion, built in 1886 on West Wisconsin Avenue, for example, was knocked down to make way for the Marquette campus in 1980. The building, which was built by and for John Plankington, who was not only a pioneer in the development and origins of Milwaukee, but also a leader in establishing Milwaukee as the once foremost city west of the Cincinnati in the meat packing industry, was built of beautiful Wauwatosa limestone and included many carved granite columns, terra cotta tiles and ornamental metal work as well as a three story conical turret. Losing this building not only made us lose a beautiful old structure, but the story behind a man who made Milwaukee a well-established city.
Then there was the North Western train depot along Milwaukee’s lakefront, built in the late 1880s and demolished in 1968. The towering structure, which included a massive four-sided clock, restaurants and a hotel in it, served as a station that held railroad lines that connected Chicago and Milwaukee, the first sign that railroads would become of great importance in the ever-growing city. My mother remembers drawing this station as a young girl, and remembered feeling sad when it fell into disrepair and was demolished. Charlie House, who wrote for the February 2, 1968 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, described the station in its final days before it was destroyed: “The 78-year-old building, once a symbol of affluence and progress in Milwaukee, has ceased to serve its historic purpose as the city’s gateway. The striking clock tower thrusts itself for 234 feet into Milwaukee’s skyline. But it languishes in shabby elegance, used up, debased, slighted, unwanted. With a life expectancy which has faded to mere days, it stands as a vandalized, pigeon stained, disconsolate monument to the history of a city which does not care.”
The list goes on and on: Sydney Hih in downtown Milwaukee, which began construction in 1860 and was destroyed in 2012, served as a place for artists, musicians and creative minds alike to meet and greater influence the city of Milwaukee. Our Lady of Pompeii, a beautiful church that served as a place of worship and a community meeting place for Italian immigrants, including prominent Italian families that greatly influenced the city and their culture, from 1904, until it was knocked down to create a highway system. While many artifacts were saved, like the bell of the church, the building itself ceased to exist and therefore serves as a reminder of Milwaukee’s past was lost, and this has happened to many more buildings in our city.
While money is an important part of the building preservation process, I believe it is important to remember that that shouldn’t be the sole factor in deciding whether to save a building or not. It is necessary for all of us, young and old residents of Milwaukee, to realize that it is these historical buildings that represent the times and eras that Milwaukee originally grew from and advanced from. We must acknowledge our roots, and destroying buildings that are beautifully crafted, hundreds of years old and mark the beginning of our city certainly doesn’t do so.
Sacrificing history for efficiency does nothing but dishonor our past. We lose physical markers that remind us of where our city grew from when we make the decisions to knock down these structures. We lose buildings that represent times when Milwaukee was a more populated city than even Chicago, times that mark the start of the city’s growth as a city known for industry.
We lose the opportunity to educate current and future residents of Milwaukee about our history, and taking the effort to preserve and document our past by saving these buildings is crucial to preserving and representing our city as a whole. When the Plankington Mansion was knocked down to make way for the Marquette campus, we lost the chance to educate future students on what life for a person of the turn of the century was like. When Our Lady of Pompeii was demolished in order to create a concrete highway system, Milwaukeeans lost the chance to see where an Italian immigrant of the early 1900s felt at home with their spirituality in a new country. And because the Atwater Beach House was demolished in Shorewood, kids again will never realize what the impact this structure had on summer fun for children that were just like them.
While efforts by some have been taken to preserve our buildings — protests were made by citizens to save Sydney Hih, and recently the local radio station 88Nine has started doing shows featuring urban spelunking in the city and old historic buildings — I believe more efforts should be taken, and a change in mindset in residents is necessary to save these structures. Sooner rather than later, I hope Milwaukee learns to better embrace these historic structures that make the city unique and represent the history behind the place we call home. Taking the effort to preserve these buildings will allow us to better appreciate, and honor, the progress and achievements our city has made for hundreds of years.