The architects Herbst & Kuenzli designed some of the most fascinating school buildings in the Milwaukee area. Between 1924 and 1929, they designed several schools in their offices on the top floor of the Bartlett Building. Marquette University High School (1924), St. Catherine School (1928), Messmer High School (1929), and Wauwatosa High School (1929) were a few. Each of these school buildings had facades made of architectural terra cotta and brick. Faience tile was also found in all of the interiors. In terms of design, they were some of the most prestigious in the 1920s.
They also designed a pair of elementary schools for Wauwatosa Public Schools in 1929; Roosevelt Elementary on 73rd & Wright St and McKinley Elementary on 89th & Meinecke Ave. Not only are they twin schools, but they also share design motifs with Wauwatosa High School, now East High. Both buildings are stunning examples of academic architecture. Many schools built after World War II did not plan for such beautiful facilities. Unfortunately, one of them is about to be demolished soon.
McKinley Elementary is one of four school replacements in Wauwatosa that is a part of the $124.9 million redevelopment referendum. By Fall 2021, Underwood, McKinley, Lincoln, and and Wilson will all be replaced with completely new buildings. While the upgrades will make the schools better learning environments, each of these historic buildings feature precious, handmade architectural details. Such craft may make learning in these schools seem like a privilege. McKinley is by far one of the neatest and most beautiful elementary schools in the state. Few schools can compare to the quantity of artistic features installed in the building. And, while Roosevelt Elementary is a twin school, McKinley has just a little bit more.
Despite the loss of historic design, it must be acknowledged that this development is exciting and crucial for the students, staff, and school communities. The new facilities will be more proactive toward the needs of their communities and learners. Much of the rationale for new buildings was covered by Darryl Enriquez in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. While the new school buildings will be tremendous for Wauwatosa, hopefully they will not lose the unique historic features that made learning in these schools so incredible.
Gorgeous tiles, like the ones pictured above, are abundant at McKinley. In the article by Enriquez he posted a photograph of a bubbler with faience tiles from the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio. He cautioned that, "McKinley Elementary School and three other elementary school have interior and exterior architectural artifacts that would be retained or incorporated in new construction and renovations" as long as the referendum was approved. This was back in October 2018, which, it was voted by 61 percent in favor of the referendum. Read more here.
While this comment made by Enriquez provides a brief sigh of relief, what really will happen to all these tiles? Since last winter I have visited many Wauwatosa Public Schools to document their architectural tiles. While speaking with staff members at those schools, they expressed appreciation for them and hope to see them in their new school buildings.
McKinley Elementary, in particular, has tons of tiles. The Art teacher, Jenny Leigh, helped me around the building to discover their stunning collection. All the bathrooms and several stairways feature unglazed tiles. Numerous bubbler backgrounds appear on all three floors. Most extraordinary is a fireplace in the kindergarten room.
These tiles are of historic significance and they contribute to the culture of education. Some of the tile is simply functional, such as the floor tile in the bathrooms and the coping found on many windowsills. However, much of the tiles are works of art. They were designed to make schoolchildren feel welcome at school, to enjoy the learning environment, and to feel at home. They were meant to capture student's imaginations, nurture their creativity, and foster their appreciation for art. Nowadays, these tiles can still teach students craft, beauty, and how to imagine creative ways to use wall spaces.
Kindergarten teacher, Susan Zeimet, admits that she loves having the coolest room in the school building. She has been teaching in the room with the fireplace for 19 years. During this time she has learned many stories about the showpiece in her classroom. She understands there is history in her room and appreciates the importance of those tiles. She suggests that the fireplace should be installed in the library of the new school building.
Will this happen? As of now, many staff hope so. In the meantime, I will continue to investigate the story of what is happening to these tiles. Hopefully, these tiles remain with the kids. Even if the tiles of nursery rhymes are outdated, these works of art belong to them. The kids should be able to see these tiles when they go to the drinking fountain for water, or sit in front of the fireplace for story time. Whether it is a new school building tomorrow or a hundred years from now, those tiles belong to the kids and the school community.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!