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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

The story behind the mysterious brick pillars at Shepard Avenue & Locust Street on Milwaukee's east side

Brick Pillars at North Shepard Avenue and East Locust Street
Eric Kowalik
Brick pillars sit at North Shepard Avenue and East Locust Street on Milwaukee's East Side.

For this week’s Bubbler Talk, we received a question from listener Eric Kowalik, who asked about a pair of brick pillars at North Shepard Avenue and East Locust Street on Milwaukee’s East Side.

Kowalik has been living in the Murray Hill neighborhood for almost 12 years. "I always walk past them on my way to Sendik's [Food Market] or that Downers Ave. area," he said. "And, you know, it’s kind of weird that there’s these two pillars on one end of the street and another one on the other."

Bobby Tanzilo, a senior editor and writer at OnMilwaukee, reported about these same structures. Like a true journalist, Tanzilo popped up on the Zoom call reporting from the field.

Bobby Tanzilo at Brick Pillars
Mallory Cheng
Bobby Tanzilo, a senior editor and writer at OnMilwaukee, in front of one of the brick pillars at North Shepard Avenue and East Locust Street. He is on a Zoom call with WUWM's Mallory Cheng.

He had a theory as to what the pillars could have been for. "I just always assumed that they were posts that held up gates ... like a gated block or an exclusive block at some point," Tanzilo said. "Then I came out here and I looked around and I realized there’s no hardware that suggested that gates were attached."

Tanzilo enlisted the help of a friend, who thought that the pillars were architectural follies, something built purely for decoration. His friend believed these possibly could be fake ruins to create some sort of status symbol in the area.

"Rich folks who had these estates in the country would build like fake, crumbling medieval castles and things like that to make it look like they’re living on a site filled with history," Tanzilo said.

With a bit more investigation, they came across some city maps from the early 20th century. In one map from 1924, they saw the pillars were on a map showing Shepard Avenue and Locust Street (then called Folsom Street).

Portion of city map 1924, Locust Street and Shepard Avenue
Department of Public Works
Department of Public Works
A city map from 1924 shows the brick pillars on Shepard Avenue and Locust Street (formerly known as Folsom Street).

Tanzilo and his friend had another theory, that the brick structures were there to make the street seem like an exclusive block. Tanzilo said, "So it was all sort of a way to kind of make it look different than the blocks around and sort of give it a more unique and perhaps swanky look."

With the help of Milwaukee Public Library librarian, Daniel Lee, records from the City Assessor's office showed that the plot of land is owned by the City of Milwaukee. So, that begs the question if the city continues to maintain the brick pillars.

Prospect Hill Subdivision Development
Bobby Tanzilo / OnMilwaukee
At the turn of the 20th century, the Prospect Hill subdivision was selling homes in the area.

Shrell Taylor, a representative from the city's call center, spoke with one of the supervisors at the city's Forestry department. "They do maintain the two lots across the street from each other. It’s called Shepard's Gate," she explained. "So the city just maintains the grass. But the neighborhood association is actually responsible for the pillars."

Brian DeNeve, who is a Marketing and Communication Officer for the City of Milwaukee, said in an e-mail that the grass area is mowed 11 times per season. DeNeve also mentions, "Sidewalks are cleared in winter. We've done some work to trim back shrubs near the pillars in the past, but only to make sure they weren't encroaching the public sidewalk."

So, the pillars may not serve a function but they are a significant part of the community. "They are part of the character of the block," Tanzilo reflected. "They're just these unique things. There's stuff like this all over the city that I hope people pay attention to and appreciate."

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Corrected: October 4, 2021 at 10:51 AM CDT
Previously it was stated: "At the time of publication, the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association had not gotten back to us on if they maintain the brick pillars."

The pillars are actually located in the Historic Water Tower neighborhood association's boundaries.
Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
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