It’s interesting the way that a myth can grow and trickle down through the generations. Consider the story that aged across a century, along with the former Mound Street School, 2148 S. Mound St., in Bay View.
Opened in 1886 as District 12-2, a companion to District 12-1 (later called Allen School), the school was renamed for its location in 1912, when many other schools were similarly re-christened.
Barely 20 years earlier, the street was planned by Edward Allis (he of Allis-Chalmers) and future mayor Ammi R. R. Butler, and named Mound Street in honor of the Indian mounds located on 6th and Lincoln, nearly a mile away.
By 1974, an MPS history noted that the street crossed an Indian mound, leading to the name. Four years later, when the school was tabbed for closure by the district, a newspaper article claimed, “the school was built in 1886 over an ancient Indian burial mound.”
In his book, “Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind Their Names,” Carl Baehr debunked the enduring falsehood. “The small hill this street runs over is not one of (the mounds), as street lore has claimed.”
What is not myth is the deep meaning and value a school can embody in a neighborhood. Sometimes that value is felt more in the heart than in real estate values, however.
“Because the school is closing, residents fear there will be no incentive for young families to move into the area,” wrote reporter Douglas Rossi in the Milwaukee Journal in October 1978. “If no young people move in, some fear the neighborhood will turn into a slum. The proliferation of “For Sale” signs on houses in the area is fueling their concern.”
Fast forward three decades and Bay View is one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, and still popular with families. And discussions have come full circle as Parents for Bay View Schools lobbies MPS to give Bay View High School a neighborhood focus to prevent families with children fleeing to the ‘burbs to find suitable schools.
But, then as now, neighborhood concern about the closure of a school – in this case, Mound Street – was easy to understand.
The school board suggested closing Mound Street because of declining enrollment. According to Rossi’s article, the attendance area population was aging and, as Milwaukeeans know, the northern edge of Bay View, where Mound Street is located, is heavily industrial, not residential.
Some Mound Street families had been through this before. Or their grandparents had. When Jones Island School was closed in 1919 as part of the depopulation of the now entirely industrialized peninsula, many of the neighborhood children moved to Mound Street.
The latter school was erected in 1886 at a cost of $98,650 for the land and improvements. It was expanded in 1896 and modernized three years later. At that point it boasted 14 classrooms, a small assembly hall and a basement with a lunch room and bathrooms. By the late ’20s, the relatively small school had an enrollment of 626, an astonishing fact for anyone familiar with modern school enrollments.
In 1957, Mound Street served as a model for other MPS buildings of its vintage when a “pilot room” was added. The pilot room was a remodeled classroom that was meant to serve as an illustration of how these solid old buildings could roll with the changes.
Old, inefficient windows were replaced with modern examples with shades that rolled down to the bottom and up to the top from a scroll in the middle. Tall doorways capped with transom lights were replaced with metal framed contemporary doorways.
Room 16 also got an acoustical ceiling, new blackboards, radiant heat and a refinished floor, though existing floors in less pristine condition were promised linoleum or asphalt tiles. Finally, the walls were painted light yellow and green.
According to a newspaper report, the room was “transformed as an experiment which will help guide the modernization of teaching quarters in many of the school system’s older buildings. Modernization of older schools formed a substantial part of the program which got the go-ahead signal last spring when Milwaukee voters authorized the issue of 39 million dollars in bonds during the next five years to meet future school housing needs. Nearly six million dollars of that amount was earmarked for the improvement of serviceable schools in established areas of the city.”
In order to make the most of that money, the school board decided to create a one-size-fits-all classroom it could retrofit into old buildings. Room 16’s makeover cost $5,000 for construction and $800 for furniture. Contrasting that with estimates of $30,000-$35,000 per room for a new permanent school, the board figured it was on to something.
But tinkering with classrooms couldn’t change the reality of demographics and their effects on school enrollments and budgets and by the late ’70s, MPS was ready to close a number of schools: Liberty-MacArthur, Fifth Street, Ludington, Warnimont Avenue, McKinley, Jefferson, Mound, Wells, Clarke Street Annex.
Neighborhoods were concerned.
Downtown barber Jose Ortiz had two children at Mound Street. “Close the school,” he told the Journal, “and it will hasten the run to the suburbs. A school holds a neighborhood together. I believe in this neighborhood. I own my own home there. They talk about integrating the schools; well, we’ve done it. We have a multicultural neighborhood, with good, hard working people in it.”
But while these days, it’s often hard to find a buyer for a century-old schoolhouse in a down economy, MPS had interested buyers for a number of properties. MSOE and a yoga school expressed interest in Jefferson (located just west of Juneau Village) and a day care operator purchased McKinley (and still owns it) and there were at least three parties interested in Fifth Street: the City Health Department wanted it for a health clinic, a church sought to open a day care there and the Opportunities Industrialization Center hoped to use it as a job training site.
Maybe Bay View did OK despite the closure of Mound Street School in spring 1979 because it, too, had a buyer. Towne Realty bought the building and tapped KM Development to remodel it into Winchester Village.
The building still lords over its quiet Bay View street. But instead of housing children during daylight hours, Mound Street has carpeted hallways leading to 48 apartments for the elderly and handicapped. Within a few months of opening February 1983 it was at full occupancy.
Two of its first residents were 67-year-old Cecelia Wawrzyniakowski and 79-year-old Helen Sedivy. For them, moving in was something of a homecoming.
“I started kindergarten here and went up to the seventh grade,” Wawrzyniakowski told newspaper reporter Marilyn Gardner. Tillie, as she was known to her friends, said she loved the school.
Sedivy’s return was perhaps ironic. “I hated school,” she told Gardner. “I played hooky and there was a truancy officer right there saying, ‘You get back to school, little girl.’ No matter what route I took (to skip school), that son-of-a-gun was always on my tail.”