“For in the end," said Senagalese ecologist Baba Dioum, "we will save only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Citizens from a consortium of historic preservation and environmental groups will gather Wednesday to discuss in an open forum:
- Whether enough of us love the Eschweiler Buildings enough to save them...
- Whether we understand them fully enough to press the need that they be saved...
- Whether they still have something to teach us that makes them worth the saving...
- Critically, is there a practical way to save them that hasn't so far been heard and explored?
- And finally – if none of the above – are we ready to admit that we have to just let them go?
The County Grounds Coalition is hosting "The Eschweiler Forum: Saving the Past for the Future," at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Firefly Room at the Wauwatosa Public Library.
The coalition comprises representatives of a broad-based group ranging from local to national organizations that have signed a memorandum of understanding to support preservation of the Eschweilers and their surroundings.
The format is open, and the public is invited.
Barb Agnew, the founder of The Friends of the Monarch Trail, part of the coaliton, said that the forum was very intentionally devoid of an "official" agenda.
The City of Wauwatosa, Milwaukee County, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and its associated Real Estate Foundation, proposed developer The Mandel Group – all are invited, but none have a special place at the head of the table, Agnew said.
"We've heard over and over that 'We all want to see the Eschweiler Buildings saved, but....'
"So, do we? I do. Many people do. But do we have the will to do it?"
Agnew said she hoped the forum would be, overall, a positive give-and-take, a sort of community brainstorming session – a Town Hall meeting without the town, an old-fashioned Chatauqua without the hard rules of debate.
For Agnew, it's a Norman Rockwell moment – with a possible unhappy outcome on the next canvas.
"Is it time to just begin the grieving?" she asked.
Agnew fervently hopes not, and she isn't alone. Supporting signatories to the County Grounds Coalition so far, are:
- The National Trust for Historical Preservation
- Wisconsin Trust for Historical Preservation
- Milwaukee Preservation Alliance
- Milwaukee Renaissance
- The Urban Ecology Center
- Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy
- The Sierra Club – Great Waters Group
- Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee
- Milwaukee Riverkeeper
- Waukesha Green Team
- The Park People of Milwaukee County
- Friends of the Monarch Trail
- Wayne Reckard (Kubala-Washatko Architects)
- Curt Meine (Aldo Leopold Foundation)
- David Millen (historic building preservationist)
With so much will, where is the way? That's what Agnew and her backers want to know.
A historic anachronism
The Eschweiler Buildings were an ill-timed experiment commissioned to an elegant executioner.
Alexander Eschweiler was Milwaukee's foremost architect, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, when he was asked to design the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy, built in 1912.
At that time, Milwaukee County had the largest farming population in the state – smaller farms, obviously, feeding the populous but much more constricted City of Milwaukee.
Eschweiler, unlike Wright with his innovative, unheard-of designs, preferred to update classical styles with personal, whimsical statements.
The Eschweiler Campus on the County Grounds – the Ag School – was such a take, a Neo-Gothic extravaganza of peaks and gables.
But within less than two decades, Milwaukee the city overwhelmed Milwaukee the rural county to the point that a school of agriculture was both an extravagance and an anachronism. Enrollment did not justify the expense.
Since then, the buildings have been home to a host of tenants, including the regional Department of Natural Resources for a time. They were mothballed in 1963 but reopened in 1987, and as recently as 2006 had business tenants.
Those tenants were evicted by the county when the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District began its mammoth flood management project on the County Grounds.
In 2010, the UWM Real Estate Foundation purchased the property along with about 80 more acres of the Northwest Quadrant of the County Grounds, and then put out a request for proposals for the Eschweiler Campus.
The chosen proposal came from Mandel Group, which initially intended to keep the historic campus buildings intact and build a residential apartment development in and around them.
But after exploring the options, Barry Mandel said, it became clear that it was economically infeasible to redevelop all the old buildings. He proposed tearing down three of the four historic buildings (there are five, but one is a later addition and is not attributed to Eschweiler).
Mandel would keep and restore only the largest structure, the centerpiece Administration Building.
That has not been made as a formal proposal, but Mandel has made it clear in two "informational" presentations to the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission that this would be his intention – and that without permission to do so, he would have to abandon the proposition.
Without Mandel, UWM would have to seek a new buyer, and the buildings would still sit vacant.
For Agnew and her coalition of supporters, the clock ticks either way – three of the four historic buildings could fall if the city supports Mandel and gives permission for their demolition – or all of the buildings could stand, but continue to stand vacant and crumble from neglect, if Mandel pulls out and no one comes forward with a feasible plan to resurrect them.
Ultimately, only a plan that is economically viable to preserve the buildings while at the same time using them is worth exploring.
The County Grounds Coalition is looking for that answer.