Urban spelunking: St. James Court apartments
Stepping into the St. James Court apartments, 831 W. Wisconsin Ave., is like stepping back in time; to a time when luxury apartments meant an attention to classic ornamental detail.
St. James Court was drawn by Alfred Clas in 1895, but it wasn't built until eight years later when the plot of land adjacent to St. James Episcopal Church became available. There, Steinmeyer Wholesale Grocery heir Emil Ott – who was the late William Steinmeyer's son-in-law – built St. James Court. Clas' brother, the builder Louis Clas constructed the building.
The project was just one of a number that Clas and Ott would partner on. The latter hired the former's firm – Ferry & Clas – to design the Steinmeyer Block, built in 1893 at 3rd and Highland.
In 1906 – while Ott was serving on the Milwaukee Auditorium committee that would hire Ferry & Clas to replace the Exposition Center (lost to fire in 1905) with what is now the Milwaukee Theatre – Ott purchased a piece of land on Lafayette Place, atop the bluff that today overlooks McKinley Marina and the lakefront tennis court.
On that land, Ott built a limestone tudor mansion with a stunning interior designed by Clas.
It is St. James Court's location next to the eponymous church which gives the elegant old neoclassical block of flats a unique touch at street level. The building's arched entrance faces west into the intimate courtyard flanked on the opposite side by Mix's 1867 church.
Across the street is Ferry & Clas' landmark Milwaukee Public Library and more or less in between is the Court of Honor, in which Clas designed the corinthian column. The building and its location were so alluring that Alfred Clas himself took a sprawling first-floor apartment there when it opened.
One wonders if Clas looked out his windows at Henry Koch's Eighth Street School across the alley and rued the fact that Ferry & Clas' drawings for that commission weren't selected by the Common Council.
By the early '90s, the six-story apartment building – now on the National Register of Historic Places – fell onto hard times, going into foreclosure. In 1994, developer John Hennessy, who is committed to neighborhood development and restoring the luster to old buildings, bought St. James Court for about $100,000 and set about making it great again.
He swept out the drug dealer operating out of one apartment and the old syringes out of another and got to work on nearly a decade of restoration and renovation.
"We did this restoration in phases between 1994 and 2002 and the last thing we did was the elevator," says Hennessy. "We didn't have enough money to do the whole project all at once. As we got it more fixed up and more occupied we could do more things.
"It was bad. The structure was pretty good but it was cosmetically horrible and the plumbing was in real bad shape. It needed more (electrical) capacity. But the apartment designs were pretty much intact for the most part."
Luckily, much of the detail work survived, too.
The apartments – there are 30 now, but only 24 when it opened (six large flats, including Clas', were carved in half in the 1930s or '40s) – have hardwood floors, gorgeous built-ins throughout, gas fireplaces (that are now merely decorative), pantries, ornamented cornice moldings, leaded and stained glass windows, clawfoot tubs and large floor plans.
Some apartments have balconies. Others that formerly had balconies now, instead, have a door to nowhere in their dining rooms.
Thanks to bays on the third through fifth floors some north-facing apartments offer stunning city views both up and down Wisconsin Avenue. Others look out over Henry Koch's Eighth Street School. Others gaze straight out at the bells in the tower of St. James Church and still others peer down onto the Central Library.
The largest apartments have a servants' bedroom and separate entrance. Dining room floors had a button, activated by foot, to ring a bell summoning the servants from the kitchen. In some apartments you can still see the receptacle on the walls that were part of a central vacuum system.
Interestingly, while the building is neoclassical in style, the stained glass throughout is executed in the Prairie Style that was then in vogue.
In the back staircase is a caged-in freight elevator shaft, though the car has since been removed.
"Buildings such as the Saint James Court Apartments were part of a trend that helped create and define urban upper-middle class neighborhoods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," reads a description on the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places website.
"These buildings provided amenities that were often only available in the homes of the wealthy. These features included electricity, central heating, telephone service, hot water, storage areas and laundries. The elevator also changed the way in which apartments were viewed. No longer were the lower level apartments the most desirable, now the better exposure to light and air and view became the most desired features. The Saint James Court Apartments were among the first in Milwaukee to be serviced by an elevator."
The elevator has been completely rebuilt and while some features had to be changed to adhere to modern building and fire codes, the brass interior is original. Fabricated by Milwaukee's Globe Elevator Co., Hennessy found a descendant of that company still working in West Bend. That company restored the elevator in 2002.
Hennessy estimates he spent more than $1 million on renovations on the building, which is now almost entirely occupied by a mix of young professionals and Marquette University students, many of whom are graduate and law school students.
Hennessy's most recent work was to renovate lower level office space, for which he is currently seeking a commercial tenant.
For what seem to me like very competitive rates – though I admit I haven't studied the market carefully – the St. James offers incredible spaces for folks who want to live in the heart of the city and feel at home in vintage style.
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