In Milwaukee History

The Art Deco building, 333 W. State St., was built in 1924. (PHOTO: Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)

Designation aims to preserve historic newspaper buildings

On Monday, the City's Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to give temporary historic designation, which remains in force for 180 days, to the Downtown home of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The designation, which applies to what before the merger of the papers in 1995 were called the Journal building, 333 W. State St., and the Sentinel building, 918 N. Vel Phillips Ave., comes amid fears that a takeover bid for the Journal Sentinel's parent company, Gannett, could lead to the sale and, ultimately, demolition of the buildings.

Those concerns were elevated recently when it became known that developers had come to an agreement with Gannett to buy the entire block between 3rd and Phillips, and State and Kilbourn, including the JS buildings, the adjacent home of Major Goolsby's and a parking lot that is the former site of the Republican Hotel (known as the birthplace of baseball's American League).

The Art Deco building on the corner of Phillips and State was built in 1924, to plans drawn by Chicago's Frank Chase, as a new home for the Journal.

The Wisconsin Historical Society's Architectural Inventory called it an,"Outstanding example of 1920s commercial building combining classical and Moderne design.

"The pink Kasota limestone exterior is enriched with relief sculpture by Arthur Weary. A carved stone frieze, 350 feet long with characters six feet high, portrays a historical narrative of communications. Carved stone lunettes above the third story windows feature 20 'marks' of famous printers. Large cast iron spandrels with low relief ornamentation embellish the large lower story windows and the main entrance on State Street."

Alas, the frieze was removed in 2011 and destroyed. Pieces were reportedly taken by staffers – some of whom put the remnants on their desks, some in their gardens – and others.

An addition, drawn by Eschweiler, Eschweiler and Sielaff, was finished in 1962.

The former Sentinel building was erected in 1918. The morning paper moved to the building from its long-time home on East Mason Street when the Sentinel was purchased by the Journal in 1962.

Both Alds. Robert Bauman and Michael Murphy filed petitions for the temporary, and, later, permanent designation.

The commission and then the Common Council have three months to bestow permanent designation on the structures.

"The Milwaukee Journal Company Building ... is significant for both its history and architecture," reads the permanent designation report prepared by the city's preservation office.

Despite the fact that the buildings are a mere shell of what they once were in terms of occupancy, I'm hopeful they will be preserved and given a productive new life.

When I started work at the Sentinel in 1988, the booming glory days of newspapers were already on the wane, as young people found ways other than reading newspapers to pass their time.

But it was still an exciting place to be; from the bustling front lobby, which handled all sorts of public business, including selling bus passes and ordering reproductions of photographs that had appeared in the newspapers, to the second floor with its buzzing administration offices and especially to the two newsrooms – separated by a short skywalk that might as well have been the Hoan Bridge, so competitive were the papers' reporters – right down to the composing rooms at the top and the thrumming printing presses at the bottom.

It was a great place to get an education in journalism, watching how veteran reporters and editors worked, having to step up despite still being in college – no excuses! – to reading page proofs and making corrections at midnight in the composing room, to the smell and warmth of a freshly printed paper in your hands as you walked out the door for the night.

That I met my spouse there also makes me more than a little, ahem, sentinel-mental about the place.

The HPC will take up the permanent designation of the buildings at its next meeting, Monday, March 18 at 3 p.m. at City Hall.

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