In Milwaukee History

Wisconsin Avenue School is loaded with grotesques on the outside, and there are a few inside, too.

Urban Spelunking: The recently surplussed Wisconsin Avenue School

Photo Gallery Gallery: Wisconsin Avenue School

With its variegated brick, squared approach and collegiate gothic flourishes, Wisconsin Avenue School, on the corner of 27th and Wisconsin, is what many of us conjure when we think of a school.

Built in 1920, the school was constructed during a schoolhouse building boom that lasted more than a decade, dotting the entire city with buildings drawn in a similar style: from Hartford Avenue, Riverside and Lincoln on the East Side, to Townsend Street, Franklin, Neeskara and Sherman on the North and West Sides, and Riley, Forest Home Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Fernwood, Humboldt Park and Bay View High School on the South Side. And these are just a few of many more examples.

Closed in 2007, the building – located in what is now called the SOHI District in the Avenues West neighborhood – was designed by Van Ryn and DeGelleke, who did much work for MPS from the late 19th century until the 1920s, when the district brought Guy Wiley on staff to oversee construction in-house.

This building, with its ornate entrances, kindergarten room push-out on the Wisconsin Avenue side and cut stone grotesques – each of which wears a unique expression, from hilarious grins to contorted grimaces – replaced an earlier school on the site. Diamond-shaped tile motifs also dot the exterior.

An extensive gallery of photos can be seen here.

That earlier schoolhouse, called Grand Avenue School (there is now a Grand Avenue further east, on 24th and Wisconsin, that was constructed in 1991 during a middle school building spurt) was designed by Ferry and Clas and lost to fire in 1918.

While firmly rooted in what was at the time contemporary schoolhouse design, Van Ryn and DeGelleke's replacement seemed especially heavy on the gothic, perhaps in tribute to the gothic arches that featured in Ferry and Clas' graceful facade.

Since 2007, Wisconsin Avenue School has been mostly shuttered, though the district has used it for storage and Highland Community School briefly used a bit of the space before it moved into the old MacDowell Montessori School a couple years ago. Highland had expressed interest in the entire building, but some say it was too big and needed too much work.

Milwaukee Police Department also discussed taking it over and using it for records storage. A floated Teachtown development to create teacher housing – like the project at Dover Street School – didn't come through, either.

So, it came as little surprise last month, when the school board voted to declare the building – as well as a few others, including 37th Street School and Wheatley – as surplus.
On a recent visit, I spent some time exploring the building, which is quite large, with 26 classrooms, as well as a large auditorium and basement gym/cafeteria with some incredible louvered wooden roll-up dividers to turn one large gym into two smaller ones.

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