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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.