The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Mysterious Building Down the Block

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This photograph was taken a block from my apartment in Milwaukee, WI. It contains a mysterious, abandoned building that I have been wondering about since the day I moved in. Last weekend, I decided to do some digging and find out the story behind 1640 N Franklin Place.

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First, I explored the property as best I could, in spite of the “Keep Out” signs. This building is quite large (about an acre), although not out of proportion with the neighborhood, considering that there are some comparably sized apartment buildings on the surrounding blocks. The building is flanked on either side by an apartment and the parking lot of a public housing senior complex (whose cars you can see in the above photos). 1640 N Franklin looks something like a school—it has the boxy, brick quality to it, the big front windows, the covered entryway up a flight of steps out front.

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One could even imagine that the parking lot next door might once have been a playground. When I first moved into the neighborhood, there was a faded sign out front (which you can still see in the Google street view picture, obviously taken a while ago) that read “Jesus’ Soul Saving Traveling Mission of the Apostolic Faith.” It also listed a couple choice Bible verses and advertised “Heavenly” Day Care services, though it was clear that at that point, the building was not functioning as anything.

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A peek inside the dusty windows revealed a wrecked interior. It was hard to get a good photo with the glare so I’ll describe it as best I can. The floor of a large hall—perhaps a gymnasium or auditorium—was littered with debris. The ceiling appeared to be crumbling bit by bit, and odd objects and boxes were scattered about. It truly looked as though the Traveling Mission had felt the Lord’s call (or something else compelling and urgent), packed up and left in a matter of days, never to be seen again.

My investigation of the interior complete (or as complete as it was going to get with all the doors boarded and locked, I sneaked around the side of the building, and happened upon an imprinted sign cut into the stone near the foundation. It read “Milwaukee Boys’ Club – 1951.”

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So I had a few clues to begin my research. A Google search for “Jesus Soul Saving Traveling Mission” revealed nothing more than a lone YouTube video of a praise song supposedly recorded during a worship service in the space. So that was something of a dead end, unfortunately. Next, I pulled up a couple property registries. The Wisconsin Historical Society lists the 1640 N Franklin building under the name “Milwaukee Boy’s Club,” and describes its historic use as “Meeting hall.” Apparently it was built in 1951 by F. Scott Jr. In Milwaukee, the 1950s and 60s were a time of increased immigration by Italians (and a slowing of immigration by Polish people), as well as an increase in African American residents. As was the case in many American cities, it was also the beginning of white flight from the inner city. I can guess that this Milwaukee Boys’ Club was built when these immigrant populations were gaining momentum and integrating more into American institutions like Boys Clubs. I can also guess that as the African American population grew and white residents moved out, this caused a decline in membership of the Boy’s Club (because I can almost guarantee that it wasn’t integrated)—until eventually, the building had to be abandoned or sold due to lack of funding for upkeep. I found a newspaper clipping from the Milwaukee Journal on October 16, 1982 to this effect . It explained “The Milwaukee Boys Club Franklin Place will close Dec. 1 despite a three month effort to save it. […] The decline in the youth population of the East Side [of Milwaukee] and the need for costly repairs to the building led to the closing. Those repairs would have cost an estimated $500,000.”

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Another property listing provides a bit more information, although it’s over a year old. This listing identifies the property type as “Special Use,” and sub-type as “Religious Facility.” It also explains that the 82,000 sq ft space contains a “Full size basketball gym, large indoor swimming pool, theater, church, and daycare. 2 levels plus basement.” (I’m not entirely sure whether that theater, pool and basketball gym still exist, and I’m definitely sure they are not in working condition right now.) As an added bonus, the listing described this property as a “great development opportunity.” Well, what isn’t these days?

Sure enough, the most recent news I could dig up regarding 1640 N Franklin Place was from Urban Milwaukee last April, under a short blurb entitled “New Owner for Old Boys’ Club”. Urban Milwaukee reports: “The building was bought by Patricia A. Cataldo, operator of Jo-Cats bar on E. Brady St. The building may be demolished.” This is where my investigation ended.

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After taking this little historical jaunt and uncovering a few secrets about this neglected building, I have two main thoughts. First, it’s a real shame that historic buildings like this are languishing with no use. I can envision so many purposes for this space. Besides the former uses of church, daycare and after school program (all of which make sense), it could also function as a small school, an indoor shopping center, a health clinic, a community center or a library, to name a few options. I understand that the investment to get this place up to code and make it functional again might be costly (though I bet the building isn’t very expensive to purchase in the first place)—but to knock it down and build something entirely new in its place is just wasteful. I love the old architecture on the East Side of Milwaukee. This neighborhood has stately apartments, grand mansions, cute shops and gorgeous, historic churches. My own apartment building is almost a hundred years old. I believe that new construction has its place here, but not at the risk of losing the historic character of the neighborhood, and not when perfectly good buildings sit empty, waiting for a use. Buildings like 1640 N Franklin Place, which have stood solid for decades, deserve our trust that they can stand solid for several more.

Like many metropolitan areas, Milwaukee is seeing a resurgence of middle- and upper- class people choosing to live in its downtown, so new condo buildings are being constructed everywhere I looked. The quality of the materials looks mediocre at best and the buildings all blend together in my mind. I wonder whether they will still be here 20 years from now and whether people will still want to live in them, once the shine of the new appliances has faded. I wish developers would spend more time rehabbing old spaces like this one, than demolishing them.

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The second point I want to make is that mysteries and forgotten stories lie within the buildings and streets the fill our cities if only we would look for them. However, these histories will be lost with time if we don’t seek them out. A couple weeks back, I shared the surprising history of Jews and African Americans in North Minneapolis, and that was a tale few Minnesotans know of because the information isn’t very accessible online or in books. I had to hunt it down to an eye witness source, and if sources like Earl Schwartz are tough to find, they’ll be even more challenging to find fifty years from now. In conclusion, if you’re curious about something, investigate it now.

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3 thoughts on “The Mysterious Building Down the Block

  1. Ms. Rachel:

    Please know that I have a generally high respect for your commentary, curiosity and thought process. However, I pray that you are not making a connotation between any loss of character of the East Side of Milwaukee and the Cataldo family that was referenced in your article. This is a family that has supported their community, church, and neighborhood for the last 30+ years.

    First, with all due respect…as you know….sometimes (especially) historical properties are the very, very properties which can solidify deep roots for property revival and subsequent stabilization in certain (even somewhat) depressed neighborhoods within a city, municipality, and/or metropolitan area. However, as you must know – sometimes these properties can be an immediate upside-down investment to the most savvy investor…especially when the government and/or historical society will not assist in subsidizing a purchase…and the sale is often an “as-is” purchase. Furthermore, in historical areas…the private or investor purchaser is often notified post-sale that their company is required to jump through endless hoops and (for instance) paying tens or hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to perform period historical façade work including brick, tuck-pointing, gingerbread, woodwork, etc.

    Second, obviously, investors are the first people who should be aware of these costs and the areas which might generate higher (or unforeseen) improvement costs. However, sometimes, these investors just may be the folks who might be able to better determine (or recognize) the upside economic potential of new construction within an area. In other words, a lot that holds a building or home that should really be torn-down and rebuilt for the greater good of the economy within a particular zip code. In sum, sometimes old properties have to be torn down. It stinks…but it has to happen for life as we know it to continue.

    Third, I grew up in Michigan City, IN and my parents (while I was a child) founded an organization called the “Preservationists,” which helped unite historical home owners, contribute to preservation of the city’s lighthouse and other historical landmarks, and my father as a city councilman created and passed an ordinance to preserve some of the city’s “brick streets” which still exist today. I’ve grown up with a good understanding of preservation. BTW…I just noticed, it appears you worked at some point for HUD (although different department). I also worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and sold approximately a few hundred single family homes for the government between 2010-2014 in Southeastern WI.

    Finally, I’ll say this. The family you referenced is a great upstanding family on the east-side of Milwaukee. The proprietor you reference (who has been in business for 30+ years) should be considered not only a pillar in the area, but (as a single mother) was a major contributor through time to the current economic success of the surrounding area. Hadn’t it been for her tenacity through the years, I’m not so sure the streets around her business would be experiencing the same success rate. Even 15 years ago, there was a high-rate of crime in the current area. It wasn’t the same street you might be experiencing today. Furthermore, I can attest this family is more than interested in historical preservation. …as I happen to know the Amish-type carpenter that “turned and cut” on a lathe the Victorian area spindles which can be seen on the front of the establishment between the first and second story of the building facade.

    In closing, please take the time to meet the person (family) you reference. Stop in to their establishment. This family is the one of the reasons you are experiencing your current curiosities, enjoyment, and safety on the east-side as a transplant. I assure you, they care about the preservation of their community more than anything else.

    Dave Scheuer.

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    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment! My angle on this piece was meant to describe the building in question as an example. I don’t know much about the context surrounding the purchase of this particular building (and you clearly know a lot more so I will defer to your perspective), but my point was a general statement that there are many vacant historic buildings which could be put to good use in a variety of circumstances and sometimes we write them off because we don’t know their previous uses and history. For all I know, the Cataldo family will put this building to great use! No doubt, it will be better off in their hands than it was as an empty, forgotten space. I also completely agree that historical preservation efforts and costs sometimes go too far for unnecessary reasons. I’m not so much talking about the building as a historical architectural gem that should be preserved, but rather as a space that should be recognized for its values before a swift decision is made to knock it down. It sounds like the buyers of the building are planning to do that so I have no qualms with their purchase.

      And yes, I worked for HUD! I’m hoping to go back to work there in the next couple of years…

      Thanks for reading,
      Rachel

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  2. Rachel,
    I know that building well. I once worked there when I was fresh out of college in the late 70’s when it was the Milwaukee Boy’s Club. It pains me to see it in such disrepair for it was in fact a beautiful building. Please know that it once played home to many young boys eager to experience some semblance of “home”. It actually did have a large indoor pool, full theater, game room, gym, and even a wood working shop. There were numerous offices that housed its staff of professional social workers, coaches, guidance staff and more. Wonderful civic leaders like Carl Zimmerman (Channel 6), the Uihlein Family and many more sat on the Board of this organization and spent countless hours working with the children. Back in the day, this building was alive and filled with laughter and excitement. The property represented one of several facilities operated by the Milwaukee Boy’s Club. It may be in decay, but the memories it generated in helping children are countless. Even staff acted as a family and treated it like home. In fact, some of us stay in touch, even to this day. We cherish the memories and will keep them forever.

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