Neeskara reminds me of my grade school

I can’t tell you when P.S. 199 in Brooklyn was built, but when I look at Milwaukee schools like Neeksara and Fernwood – both built in the 1920s – I’m reminded of the stately, boxy, brick school that I went to daily for seven years, from kindergarten through sixth grade, and I’d be willing to make a guess.

After spending time looking at much older public school buildings in Milwaukee  – ones that were generally more ornate and featured more peaks and valleys, more florid decoration – Neeskara, 1601 N. Hawley Rd., especially, caught my eye.

It is solid and stately, but there are some lovely details on the exterior of Neeskara – originally Nee-Ska-Ra and named for a spring that was on the site.

Check out the terra cotta tiles above the entries, for example. Interspersed are blue tiles with whales and swans, and other interesting features, like open books and lamps.

Fernwood has a similar – though less decorated – entrance design that, as at Neeskara, integrates into the upper floors with sweeping, blocky columns.

Especially beautiful and, I suspect, often overlooked at Neeskara is the sleek and majestic tapered and fluted smoke stack on the north side of the building.

Inside, there are solid terrazzo landings in the stairwells. Checkerboard tile work adds a regal touch. And although the hallways aren’t especially noteworthy now (maybe details have been removed over the years), the woodwork in the stairwells is sturdy and eye-catching.

Best as I can tell, Nee-Ska-Ra was built in 1924, the same year that MPS created its own in-house Bureau of Buildings and Grounds to design, build and maintain its properties. While MPS buildings records suggest it was built in ’26, the district’s own history lists a principal there from ’24 on.

That would mean it could have been designed by Van Ryn and De Gelleke, the architectural firm that served as part-time MPS architects from 1912 until 1924 (and designed Juneau High in 1931). But Guy Wiley, who designed Rufus King (1932) and Lincoln High (1928) and became full-time MPS architect with the creation of the bureau, is also a possibility.

I haven’t found figures for Neeskara, but Fernwood cost $375,000 to construct.

The first principal at Nee-Ska-Ra was Edwin G. Luening, who had previously been chief administrator at Weil Street, Walker Street and Maryland Avenue Schools and stayed on at Neeskara until 1952, when he was replaced by Annette Garnier (nee Bartz), who was principal until 1961. By the time the school celebrated its 50th anniversary it had had just four principals.

Some older folks may remember Neeskara as Neeksara-Binner School.

Paul Binner School of the Deaf was incorporated into MPS in 1885 and Binner was principal through 1895. In 1950, the district decided to take an inclusive approach with its deaf elementary students and moved the Binner School classes to Neeskara from Lincoln and Cass Street Schools on the East Side.

These days, Neeskara serves about 435 kids in Milwaukee’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

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