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Wauwatosa Avenue District Wins National Historic Status

From farmhouses to quaint Queen Annes to Arts & Crafts, blocks north of Village tell Wauwatosa's story in architecture.

Peppered with names that recall founding families and leading citizens – Damon, Rogers, Underwood and others – 32 homes along a stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue north of the Village present a procession of progress from scattered farmhouses to settled urban living.

Those homes and their surroundings are now all incorporated into the Wauwatosa Avenue Residential Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Register has approved Wauwatosa's application for historic district status and officially listed the district on June 20.

Thirty of the homes line the odd-numbered side of the 1800 block of Wauwatosa Avenue and both sides of the 1900 through 2200 blocks. Two more homes on Stickney Avenue just off Wauwatosa are also included.

They range in age from the Lowell Damon House, begun by Oliver Damon in 1844 and added to by his son, Lowell, through 1847, to homes built as recently as the mid-1920s in more modern styles.

The Colonial-style Damon home, believed to be the oldest residence in Wauwatosa, is already a museum owned and operated by the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

A plethora of classic styles, with history behind them

Younger homes in the district are all included as examples of significant architectural styles such as Craftsman and American Arts & Crafts.

There are even a few bungalows so-honored, one of them, at 2105 Wauwatosa Avenue, officially classified as a "California/Craftsman Bungalow." It is listed as the John L. & Emma Meyer House, built in 1919 – and with its split fieldstone corners is considerably more eye-catching than the typical bungalow, especially on its show-off corner lot.

Another bungalow is both architecturally and historically significant. Bearing the 2155 address, it is one of several homes listed as a Frederick D. Underwood Investment Property – as in Underwood Avenue, , Underwood Creek, etc.

The district features multiple gingerbready Queen Annes, a stoic American Foursquare, and more "revivals" than the Eagles had – Georgian Revival, Tudor Revival, Neo-Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, Period Colonial Revival, Mediterranean Revival, Greek Revival and Mission Revival are all listed.

Among the older and less-revived homes are the 1868 John & Johanna Pelton House at 2027 Wauwatosa, listed for its gabled ell construction, as is also the 1880 William Kirchner Farmhouse at 2128.

Just across the street from the Kirchner house, at 2131, is the 1886 Queen Anne listed by the noteworthy local name Alexander & Martha Rogers House. It was the Rogers family that also bought and later donated the Lowell Damon Home.

Designation a long time coming

Wauwatosa city planner Tamara Szudy said that some recognition of both the locally historic and architecturally significant nature of the district date back to the defunct Landmarks Commission.

Replacing that board was today's Historic Preservation Commission, created in 1995.

"Through a grant from the National Park Service in 1996, they did a general historic assessment of the whole city," Szudy said. "Then later, more intensive assessments were done of those areas identified as noteworthy – including this one."

No swift action was taken, though. Szudy said that only when initial proposals for the new Fire Station No. 1 included plans to tear down several older homes in the Village, the Historic Preservation Commission began to get earnest about national designation in the area.

"In 2008 and 2009, we began talking about this more seriously," Szudy said.

In 2010, the application process was begun, and after federal review the district north of the Village was included in the latest set of National Register listings.

Szudy said that the district's new status is partly symbolic and honorific – it does not confer ironclad protections, she noted – but it does have some practical applications.

For instance, she said, "Property owners would be able to apply for historic tax credits" to restore properties in compliance with their original design and construction.

Conferring National Register status on a district, as opposed to listing individual structures, also adds another level of protection to the whole, she said.

"It now has local, state and national recognition," Szudy said. That gives Wauwatosa more say, she said, in any proposal to alter the character of the designated area by another authority or entity such as a private developer, a utility or the Department of Transportation (Wauwatosa Avenue is also state Hwy. 181).

History written in homes

Reading Wauwatosa's 56-page nomination of the district to the National Register (attached, and also downloadable from the city website) is like reading an exhaustive history of our city's development.

Early homesteaders bought what would have then, in the age of true horse-power, been considered large farm tracts around a river mill – Hart's Mill, as Wauwatosa was first known.

Some prospered and lent their names to local lore and landmark as they became business and community leaders. All those who did – like Frederick Underwood with his land holdings – eventually, if only by default, prospered further in real estate as farms gave way to city and they subdivided their acreages into residential developments.

A stroll through the district, armed with the knowledge of who owned and built what and when, can paint a timeline of pictures of those farmhouses giving way to those subdivisions, in a latter time that itself is now seen as historic.

If, in 1844, Oliver Damon and his son Lowell had any idea that the rural hamlet of Wauwatosa, centered just south of their rural property, would once become the center of a dynamic city smack in the middle of a major metropolitan area – or that their simple clapboarded Colonial home would become a museum surrounded by parades of pink ladies and batches of bungalows – well, they didn't say.

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The places we cherish

Other local landmarks recognized with Wauwatosa historic designations, many of which also are recognized by the state and nation, are listed on the city's website with downloadable information about each.

Lauren July 09, 2012 at 07:16 AM
Good idea. That way no one can tear them down.
Jim Brittain July 10, 2012 at 07:51 PM
good luck trying to sell your home or paint your shutters without 'approval' from the board. You just lost ownership of your home.

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