Urban spelunking: Neighborhood landmark gets a new lease on life

We often rue the loss of old buildings. Especially ones that were near and dear to us. And no buildings fit that bill more than schools, where we grew up.

It’s a shame, for example, that schools like Jefferson (at Juneau Village), Jackson in the Third Ward, 18th Street (now a parking lot) and 21st Street (replaced by a shoebox of a building) have all been erased from the landscape.

So, it makes me all the happier when I see what has become of the original Peckham – and, later, Jackie Robinson – Junior High School/Middle School, 3245 N. 37th St. Peckham opened in 1926 and Jackie Robinson closed in 2005.

Gorman & Co. bought the building from MPS and has transformed it into the Sherman Park Senior Living Community, with 68 units that are already entirely occupied.

Last week, I got a tour from Gorman’s Tom Piacentine, an old friend of mine, and was thrilled at the result.

Pulling up and parking on 32nd Street, I saw the Jackie Robinson School sign still on the building and the old playset is still out there on the grass. The former schoolyard is now parking and open space.

The 1926 building was designed by then-MPS architect Guy Wiley, who drew plans for many, many MPS buildings before his resignation in 1951, including Lincoln Middle School, Neeskara, Garden Homes, Pulaski, Rufus King, Fernwood, Townsend Street and others.

The scholastic Tudor style building has four giant arched windows in the north facade that once flooded light into the gym. That gym, like the rest of the school – or most of it – is now apartments. In the entry, which is the southernmost part of the old gym, are murals depicting Jackie Robinsin and the school building during construction. It’s an airy space that preserves the gym’s hardwood floor and some wall markings used for games.

Also here is a hair salon that serves residents. Above us is the original balcony overlooking the gym.

The library has been preserved and transformed into a stunning community room with gorgeous built-in bookcases and other woodwork. The auditorium with its curvaceous balcony lines is closed and basically untouched, due to permitting issues. There’s a small cinema for residents, too.

In the hallways, lockers and (now non-functioning) water fountains remain. So does the checkerboard tilework on the floors. So, too, does the original woodwork and the windows high in the walls that allowed light and air between classrooms and corridors.
The halls are painted bright colors and are adorned with murals of neighborhood landmarks and icons of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. On the lower level, I spied James Groppi’s face.

According to Piacentine, who oversees properties like this for Gorman, numerous residents are alumni of Jackie Robinson/Peckham. How odd and wonderful it must feel to make a home in one’s old stomping grounds.

With all the talk about the future of shuttered school buildings, the transformation of Jackie Robinson into apartments, all the while maintaining the building’s original details and celebrating its past as a neighborhood anchor and a school, seems like a perfect blueprint for how to do it right.

I’m hoping that all the construction of new homes around old Fifth Street School, which is currently vacant, helps that stately Romanesque 1888 Herman Schnetzky building find a similarly useful and attractive new life.

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