Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Hauntings and condemnations: the Eschweiler buildings

Escheweiler buildings, Wauwatosa Historic Preservation, Development, Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy

For more than twenty years you’ve been in love with the red brick ruins of the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy on the Milwaukee County Grounds.

In a time of woeful, slapdash architecture, the peaked roofs and pleasing proportions of the Tudor Revival buildings delight your eye. A bookish person who doesn’t worry much about anachronism (and who does these days?), you imagine insane wives locked in the attics, former teachers scratching the blackboards at night with shivery ghost nails and hatching eternal torments for generations of unwashed, long dead, students.

Third floor chapel, gymnasium, Administration Building

You imagine the buildings restored, the ghosts banished or rendered harmless, and new life all around. The buildings housing people and ideas, imagination and intellect and spirit blossoming there.

Then, hearing the latest dire news about the probable demise of the buildings so many have fought to save, you do a little research.

Those damn facts. How they interfere with romance!

Because the bottom line seems to be this: the buildings were a mistake from the beginning. And our collective imaginations have never been strong enough to surmount the orginal “sin” of the campus. Which was failure to determine a need for the school plus failure to suit the building to its use.

Built in 1912, by 1916 the county was asking “Shall the school be abolished?” Established as an agriculture (and domestic science) school just about the time agriculture was declining in the area, the school was a disaster from the get-go.  The 80 page Report of a Survey Made for the Milwaukee County Taxpayers by Walter Matscheck of the Wisconsin Efficiency Bureau details horrible teaching deficiencies and extravagant finances. The county was spending $335 per year per pupil to badly educate dairy farmers when dairy farming was already on the wane in the county.

And it raised so many questions we continue to ask about our schools. “Is the purpose to train the boys to be farmers,” Matschek asked, “or is it to train them to do other work?” Even then both pedagogues and accountants understood the value of flexible workplace skills.

More from the report:

The early days of the school were unhappy. Due to the lack of forethought or sufficient investigation of the field for such a school, it started out on an inflated basis. As is often true in such cases no thoro (sic) investigation (of need) was made. Instead a very complete plant was built and then by “booming” advertising methods a large enrollment was built up the first year – 1912-13.

This was not the usual practice, Matscheck pointed out. You usually start small and grow classes. But in this case, the splendid buildings came first. Three years later, enrollment had dropped by half and the school carried a debt of $10,000.

“If you build it they will come” continues to be the refrain of hopeful developers. But that’s a bit of received wisdom we might question.

And we probably should question it now, as some argue the Innovation Research Park needs to be fully built out immediately. Why not build according to need and demand, the cautious among us ask? One building now, then see how the money and demand develop.

In its uneasy century of existence, the little campus has never found its right use, never become the home for learning and dreaming so many of us believe it could be. Housing developer The Mandel Group now says some of the buildings must go, not only because of disrepair but because they aren’t suitable for apartments. 

It’s always been clear the main building needed to be a school, conference center, museum or some other kind of educational place. But who can match the container to the right idea for what it should contain? Especially after so many years of deliberate neglect have ruined the container, perhaps beyond repair?

Apparently, none of us.

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