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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.

Who were Milwaukee's first engineers, architects?

A view from a stone arch looks out onto a plaza and downtown Milwaukee
Valeria Navarro Villegas
A view from a stone arch looks out onto a plaza and downtown Milwaukee.

Milwaukee boasts many architectural gems: City Hall, the Calatrava, the Wisconsin Gas Building.

“I’m discovering more and more every day,” says lifelong Milwaukeean and listener Reginald Jones. He’s always been interested in architecture. At 14, he learned how to maintain marble and terrazzo floors.

“One of the first jobs I ever had in my early teens was one of the landmark movie theaters, the Garfield Theater,” says Jones, who still offers glass, marble, and tile services when he's not working at the Port of Milwaukee.

A portrait of a Black man. He's sitting down on a bench outside with his hand clasped in his lap. He wears brown tinted glasses and black clothes.
Lina Tran
Listener Reginald Jones has always been interested in architecture.

That led Jones to share his question with Bubbler Talk: “Who were the architects and civil engineers in the early days of Milwaukee, at the city’s outset?"

To find out, we’ll go back to the 1830s. White settlers from the east coast were flocking to frontier towns on Lake Michigan’s western shore.

Bubbler Talk: What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

Patrick Jung, a historian at Milwaukee’s School of Engineering, dug through early histories of Milwaukee.

He names a couple land speculators, most notably Byron Kilbourn, one of the three city founders. Kilbourn was trained as a civil engineer and arrived in 1835 — making him among the city’s first. But he didn’t actually do much engineering. He wanted to get rich.

“If you wanted to get rich, one of the ways to do that in early 19th century America was to buy land and sell it to somebody else for more,” Jung says.

a handrawn map. At the bottom, "MAP OF MILWAUKEE drawn by ML Martin Aug. 1833" is written.
Wisconsin Historical Society
An Aug. 1833 map shows the extent of swamp, or marshlands, throughout present-day Milwaukee.

Speculators were buying from the federal government, which had forcibly acquired land around Chicago and southeastern Wisconsin through an 1833 treaty, as part of the Indian Removal Act.

But the land in Milwaukee was all swamp. Wild rice grew thick west of the Milwaukee River; on the east bank, the earth squelched underfoot. The land also sported much more topographical variation, with steep bluffs and gaping ravines. In his 1909 Memoirs of Milwaukee County, politician and historian Jerome Watrous wrote, "A good deal of the hard lands was occupied by high hills or knolls that made straight thoroughfares impossible."

Early settlers began the work of sculpting the landscape, bringing down bluffs and using the dirt to fill the marsh. They flattened hills, filled gullies, and turned soggy bogs into solid ground. Over the years, laborers moved many tons of earth. A city rose from water.

In 1835, Solomon Juneau — another city founder and the first mayor of Milwaukee — contracted Nelson and Thomas Olin, two young brothers from New York state, for the first grading work in the city. They graded Water Street from Wisconsin Avenue south to the Menomonee River.

“You didn’t necessarily need civil engineers to do all that,” Jung says. “The Olins graded the first street in Milwaukee, and they were just simple farmers. It didn’t take a lot of technical skill to take a team of horses and level off a swath of land to create a street.”

This work took place bit by bit, as the three founding villages grew: Walker’s Point in the south, Juneautown in the east, and Kilbourntown in the west. Later, the three merged to form the city of Milwaukee.

“Probably the most important thing they did that we can still see today are the layouts of the streets,” Jung says. “Once they bought the land, they would start dividing it out. They would say, ‘This is where a street’s gonna go, this will be a lot, this will be a lot.’”

What did they put on those streets? The very first buildings were humble. According to one account, the first public buildings were the jail and two-story courthouse, built in 1836.

In the mid-1800s, as Milwaukee boomed, architects helped shape the city’s identity.

To learn more, I head to Cathedral Square to meet Michael Carriere, another MSOE historian. St. John’s Cathedral is across the street. Cheerful, cream city brick pops against the bright blue winter sky.

The church is the work of German-born Victor Schulte, one of Milwaukee’s earliest trained architects. He ventured west from Philadelphia in the 1840s. The city was incorporated in 1846; the church went up in 1847.

A yellow brick church in downtown Milwaukee
Lina Tran
St. John's Cathedral is the work of German-born Victor Schulte, one of Milwaukee's first trained architects.

“You can tell by the architecture that the people building them, and ultimately paying for them, see them as incredibly important to the city,” Carriere says. “It was meant to suggest that this is an important building. That religion for Milwaukee is an important institution.”

Schulte’s peers included other transplants like George Mygatt, John Rague, and James Douglas. Often, they drew from European styles.

“That was the way most American architects prior to the 20th century were trained,” Carriere explains. “They were trained in the Beaux-art style. They were looking to Europe as the ultimate authority on what design should look like.”

The church embodies another signature of Milwaukee's architectural identity. “This is a really important brick structure, not only for the City of Milwaukee, but across the United States,” Carriere says. “Milwaukee does get this reputation of cream city brick. Where does that start? It starts with buildings like this in the mid-19th century.”

So, that’s the first civil engineers and architects. But, here's the thing about firsts — sometimes, they obscure other chapters of history.

A newspaper clipping from 1923 says, "Milwaukee Built on 200 Indian Mounds."
Wisconsin Historical Society
A 1923 Milwaukee Journal clipping

Head north from the church, and a spot at Lake Park shares an earlier story. A gentle slope rises from the earth. There’s a baseball diamond just behind it. Beyond that, Lake Michigan glints through the trees. It’s one of the last Native American burial mounds in the area.

Last year, Bill Quackenbush, tribal preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk nation, spoke with WUWM’s Mallory Cheng about another such mound, at the nearby Wisconsin State Fair Park.

“It’s within our ancestral footprint, and within our areas that we call our home,” Quackenbush said.

Once, hundreds of these earthworks scattered the region. A 1923 Milwaukee Journal headline reads, “Milwaukee built on 200 Indian mounds: Ruthless march of civilization has nearly destroyed all traces of early Native occupancy.”

Today, Quackenbush works to protect what has survived. “We are where we're at today, still in Wisconsin here, attempting to assure that our culture remains intact as it is, and beginning to strengthen it in areas where it has been decimated,” he said.

From the sidewalks of Water Street to age-old mounds, the built environment is a reminder of the many who have walked before us.


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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