Can Wauwatosa's Eschweiler buildings find a place in the brave new world?

C.T. Kruger
A former administration building is one of four remaining buildings designed by Alexander Eschweiler on the Milwaukee County Grounds.
Published on: 11/13/2012

Broken glass litters the entryway of the Eschweiler administration building; inside it is utterly dark. There are no lights - the windows are boarded up - and without a flashlight you'd go no further. Stairways trip you up, graffiti stains the walls, the air is cold, and you can smell dust and the dampness of long disuse.

Still, the beauty and solidity of the building grows on you, and by the time you reach the third-floor gymnasium, with its soaring, vaulted, cathedral-like ceiling and balconies on either end, you believe the bones of the building could stand forever. You want to see the vast space lighted, warmed, used.

At least, that's how I felt making my way through the former School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy administration building, designed by architect Alexander Eschweiler.

But just as Luther's Morning Prayer, neatly printed on a blackboard, and a list of Biblical names from Adam to Jesus seem out of place amid the graffiti, the beautiful, old-fashioned buildings don't quite fit the modern economy. An architecture firm once occupied the dairy building - plans from 2001 for a project in Cedarburg are still there - and there are other signs of attempts at occupancy, but nothing in recent years has taken hold.

The dormitory, the dairy building and the administration building are what's left of the school, founded in 1912, when the county was still largely rural.

It is easy to imagine the rolling land planted in rows of crops, but the acres are now laced with utility steam tunnels. The buildings, especially the interiors, would need massive rehabilitation to be fit for a modern use.

City Attorney Alan Kesner, on a tour recently with aldermen, the mayor, a few high school students and half-dozen others, said even tearing the sturdy buildings down would require an outlay of $1.5 million.

The University of Wisconsin Foundation owns the 88 acres that include the Eschweiler Buildings and an 11-acre butterfly preserve that surrounds them.

The foundation would like to sell the roughly 8-acre parcel that includes the buildings for development as a residential complex, ideally serving the community of scientists, physicians and others who will work in the park and at the Regional Medical Center across the street, said Curtis Stang, chief operating officer of the foundation.

That's the hope; the foundation is working with The Mandel Group, a developer, to come up with a plan that works.

Meanwhile, the long-planned development of Innovation Park is about to get under way. Stang said construction of the 25,000-square-foot Innovation Accelerator building, west of the county parks headquarters on Watertown Plank Road, will break ground next month and should be ready for occupancy in October.

The building, costing $5 million to $7 million, according to city Finance Director John Ruggini, will go up even as the city builds Discovery Parkway, which will open up the land for more development.

The Accelerator, with its proximity to the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Regional Medical Center, will be a place for UWM researchers, chiefly in the life sciences, to develop marketable products and ideas, Stang said.

Future plans include a $75 million interdisciplinary research building funded by the University of Wisconsin System, and the Foundation hopes to attract research-intensive private businesses that would benefit by proximity to UWM, the Medical College or other entities at the medical complex.

Reporter Jon Olson covers the people, places and events that drive life in Wauwatosa. Call him at (262) 446-6618 with your story suggestions.