In Milwaukee History

Benjamin Franklin School is located on 23rd and Nash Streets.

Urban Spelunking: A peek inside Benjamin Franklin School

From the outside, at first glance, MPS' Benjamin Franklin School, 2308 W. Nash St., might look like a cookie-cutter place, similar to many other schools.

But look more closely, and go inside, and you'll see that it is a beautiful 1920s-era schoolhouse with some handsome details (and, yes, many commonalities with other MPS buildings of its time).

The earliest Franklin School (the brick one seen below) was opened as Joint District No. 1 in the Town of Milwaukee but was annexed to MPS in 1912, when the Town of Milwaukee became part of the city.

For a time, the school was operated out of temporary barracks, which you can see above, around the old schoolhouse.

In 1924, the current building – designed by Van Ryn & DeGelleke, who did much design work for the district – opened in fall with 23 classrooms to house an enrollment of a whopping 1,101 students. The building and the grounds cost $445,040 at the time.

An addition was built on the northwest corner of the school in the late 1960s.

That annex, used for middle school grades, has a semicircle of classrooms, each of which has two moveable walls, except for the ones on the ends, of course. Not only can two or three classrooms be connected by opening the walls, but all the doors could be opened creating one giant space.

The biggest change to the building in more recent years was the conversion of the auditorium into a shared space and a post-fire renovation a few years ago.

The building's heating system and windows have also been updated and the huge ship-like boilers you typically see in an old school basement have been replaced with much smaller modern furnaces.

I love the beautiful woodwork in the school, common in schoolhouses of the era – many of which were the work of Van Ryn & DeGelleke, a notable example being Wisconsin Avenue School – as well as the beautiful brick and tile fireplace in the kindergarten room, with stern-looking owls right at kids' eye level. Also quite nice are the stunning arts and crafts entry tile (pictured at the bottom of this post) and the fact that the transoms were never covered over.

The auditorium stage has a beautiful plaster proscenium, and the footlights embedded into the stage still work.

The old projection booth survives, but the space around it is now used for as the school library and the ladder up to the booth has been removed.

In the basement, there are rooms that look like shelters – bomb or fallout – and the water meter room under a staircase still has barrels of Civil Defense water, just like at some other schools of the same vintage.

The gym, part of which also serves as the cafeteria, has windows overlooking it from offices above.

Though the school doesn't look huge from the outside, it is quite spacious, with nearly two dozen classrooms. But, still, many formerly specialized spaces – like locker rooms and backstage rooms – now serve as offices.

Franklin has an enrollment of more than 400 and a large portion of those attending live in the neighborhood, but there are also a number of buses that serve the 40 percent of enrollment that is in special education classrooms.

This year, the school added a K3 Head Start program.

When I visited, the week before the first day of school, teachers were working hard to prepare their classrooms for students and the new K3 families were visiting for an open house to hear about the program, learn more about the school and meet their new teachers.

Despite the fact that classes had not yet begun, Franklin was a hive of activity and, as always, I was welcomed with open arms by teachers and staff who are proud of their school and of the hard work they put into their classrooms. Franklin was in the news earlier this week when the Packers' Ha Ha Clinton-Dix visited to read with children.


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