In the 19th century, Germans were fleeing for America with many making their way to what would later become known as Milwaukee. Wisconsin was rich in farmland, similar to what Europeans were accustomed to in their homeland so very quickly the area gave rise to dairy farms and breweries. While much of its rich history has given way to automation and the advancement of technology, Germany's roots in Milwaukee can still be traced through her many churches.
On a nice fall afternoon, I ventured into the city on a mission to find a few of these historical sites. Each of the three churches discussed here have been designated historical sites by the City of Milwaukee's Historic Preservation Commission.
The Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1883 with its side towers added in 1908. It is of German Gothic Revival design. Today the congregation of Bethel Baptist Church owns the buildings and conducts church services here. Located at 2030 W.North Avenue, this church is in an area that has seen decline over the past several decades. Thankfully, the local community has been committed to preserving and maintaining this beautiful "cream brick" structure.
Cream bricks are unique to architecture in Milwaukee, which is why the city was nick named "Cream City" a name that has been with her since the 1880's. These unique bricks are made from clay found along the coast of Lake Michigan and into the Menomonee Valley. During the development and growth of Milwaukee, most bricks were made here. Due to the large content of lime and sulphur, when these bricks are fired, they turn a yellowish or cream color hence the name. Today many of the city's most known historical buildings are cream bricks.
The next church that I visited was Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church. Originally founded in 1854, the German congregation of the near southside Milwaukee church continued to grow into the early 20th century. Services were conducted in German until 1919, which English worship was held once per month. By 1928 the community had transitioned from being predominantly German to one of greater diversity. Services were held weekly in both German and English.
As the city's tannery businesses grew, so did the population of Spanish speaking residents. Many settled into what is now the Walker's Point community. In the 1930's St. Stephen began to hold services in Spanish as well as German and English; a practice that continued into the 1960's. Today this church holds services in Spanish and English.
The church that is found today at 5th and Mitchell was built in 1901 in the same location where their original church was constructed in 1866. Of note is the church tower which was built as an addition to the original church in 1879. The new church was built in a manner so as to incorporate the older cream brick tower.
I spent some time walking around the building, enjoying the beautiful stained glass windows on the south side. My photos do not do them justice, but I will include one or two with this article.
The last church that I visited on my journey was St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at 816 W. Vliet Street. This High Victorian Gothic was built in 1889 and was nearly lost due to highway expansion and disrepair. Today it is not only listed as a Milwaukee Historical Site, it also has been listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of German Lutheran church architecture in the United States.
As with so much of what was the City of Milwaukee, this area was abandoned as German immigrants expanded and moved to what would become the suburbs. When the citizens left the community in the 20th century, the neighborhood became condemned in 1950. More recently, through an urban renewal project, the City of Milwaukee reinvested in this area and created the Hillside public housing project.
While "recognized" somewhat tongue in cheek by OnMilwaukee.com as the third ugliest thing in Milwaukee, the Hillside Housing Project serves a valuable role in the inner city. Home to the Hillside Family Resource Center and a very beautiful Boys & Girls Club, many of Milwaukee's less fortunate residents benefit from the programming invested to make their lives just a little better.
I for one am glad to know that through this urban revitalization effort, the St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church has been spared vandalism and destruction.
Through the exploration of these three lovely churches, a visitor will gain an appreciation for the rich and diverse community that Milwaukee has become. Much of our German heritage has been retained through the many historical landmarks throughout the city.
For more information on the City of Milwaukee's Historic Preservation efforts and the sites recognized, check out: http://city.milwaukee.gov/hpc/LocalDesignations .