Looking at – and into – Trowbridge Street School

Trowbridge Street School of Great Lakes Studies, 1943 E. Trowbridge St., in Bay View has been staring me in the face for years. Living in Bay View for six years, I walked past it regularly. But I never really looked at it.

I saw it, certainly. How could anyone miss the sea of concrete behind the school? I even looked at a house for sale directly across the street. But I never really did more than give it a passing glance.

So, it came as something of a revelation last week when I decided to drive down to Bay View and take photos of current and former elementary schools in the neighborhood, including this one, which was originally District 17 Primary and then, in 1905, designated as District 17-2 (Nearby Dover Street was District 17-1) and was renamed Trowbridge Street in 1912.

The school – which currently runs from K4 through eighth grade – originally housed first through sixth grade classes. Kids then went to Dover for seventh and eighth grades until Trowbridge was expanded to include seventh and eighth grades in 1905. Likely its most famous alumnus is Oscar-winning Hollywood actor Spencer Tracy.

I realized I’d let the sprawling schoolyard distract me from what might be the loveliest vintage building in MPS. Principal Tom Matthews invited me down for a tour, so I returned this week to see the inside and he told me that he believes it is the only vintage cream city brick schoolhouse that has never had a painted exterior.

Most of the schools burned coal for heat and the soot was more easily painted over than cleaned off the buildings. Somehow, this 1894 Queen Anne building, with its stunning Romanesque portal and pleasing details escaped that fate.

However, the interior of the building – designed by architect Walter A. Holbrook – couldn’t boast the same success over the years.

“When I got the building it was somewhat in disrepair,” he says, noting that he’s since replaced all the windows and doors and opened up the windows in the Romanesque arch above the main entrance, which had been boarded up.

Matthews says when he took over, the main hallway was painted a sort of “Pepto Bismol pink” that can still been seen in some parts of the building and the second floor corridor was “macho muscle car purple. I had Marquette’s rugby team come in and paint the first weekend I was here because I couldn’t handle it.

“None of the rooms had been painted in over 30 years,” he says. “So we’ve systematically gone about a plan of continuous improvement, just aesthetically and the way the building looks.”

He spent a year renovating a disaster of a library, too.

But Matthews has also taken what was a struggling school with declining enrollment that was on the verge of being closed and nearly doubled the number of students – two-thirds of whom come from the Bay View area – and created partnerships with First Stage, the Coast Guard, the Milwaukee Symphony, the MMSD and other local businesses and groups. The student body is roughly a third African-American, a third Latino and a third white, making it among the most diverse schools in the district.

Matthews had been principal at Roosevelt Middle School and was about at the end of his rope there, he says, when he expressed his frustration to then-superintendent William Andrekopoulos, who offered Matthews Trowbridge.

“He said, ‘I’ve got a problem in Bay View. I’ve got a school that only has 180 kids in it. We should close it, but the community won’t allow it because it’s been there since 1894. Do you think you’d be interested in that?’

“I said, ‘I’ll take it’,” remembers Matthews. “‘Sight unseen?’ Sight unseen.”

And now?

Now Trowbridge’s reading and math scores are on the rise and walking through the building, the hallways are empty and quiet, the classrooms orderly but lively with learning and Matthews clearly earns the respect of his teachers – many of whom have transferred to Trowbridge to be a part of the rebirth – and his students, who don’t hesitate to ask him questions, express concerns and joke with him good-naturedly. And, he appears to know the names of each and every one of his 320 kids.

Matthews says it took some time to adjust to the new environment. At his old school, kids would swear at him in the halls. “Here, they break out of line, hug my knees and say, ‘We love you, Mr. Matthews’.”

Having known Tom Matthews in a previous Milwaukee rock and roll life, during which we often shared a stage further up KK Avenue at the Odd Rock Cafe, I’m thoroughly impressed by Principal Matthews, who seems the perfect balance of engaged, stern, friendly, fair, concerned.

According to a 1991 historic designation study report, Trowbridge was built in two  phases. The three easternmost sections, including the main entry, and a classroom section on either side of it, were constructed in the first phase. In 1909, two more classroom sections were added to the western side.

The school was built in 1894 – four years after Dover Street was constructed west of Kinnickinnic Avenue – to replace a much smaller school that was located on Wentworth, just south of Russell Avenue. The playground behind the building was added in the 1920s and expanded in the ’70s.

The top floor of the building has just about the tiniest gym I’ve ever seen, so that outdoor expansion must have been welcomed.

The report notes that, “The Trowbridge Street School is architecturally significant as a fine example of a Victorian era schoolhouse by a noted Milwaukee architect. It is historically significant for its associations with the development of the Bay View neighborhood.”

Holbrook was a partner of important Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix in the 1880s. Born in Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., in 1849, Holbrook arrived in Oshkosh and then, in 1869, in Milwaukee, where he began working with Mix, rising up from his role as a draftsman to becoming Mix’s partner in 1881.

Holbrook designed the former Sentinel building at 225 E. Mason St. and a number of local residences, and also worked on many famous local Mix projects, like the Mackie Building, the Mitchell Building and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Knapp Street.

Holbrook died riding his bicycle on State Street in 1910.

Luckily, for fans of Milwaukee history and architecture – as well as for the Trowbridge community of staff, students and families – his gorgeous schoolhouse endures.

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