Houses On The Hillside: Why Some Milwaukee Homes Are Built Above Street Level

Jan 24, 2020

Larissa Sevick was driving when she noticed that a lot of houses in certain Milwaukee neighborhoods have a flight of stairs leading up to the front entrance. Instead of being at street level, the houses are on hills. Why? That's what we explore in our latest Bubbler Talk.

The subject also intrigues Jonathan Bohrer — he even created a history podcast episode on the homes that caught Larissa's attention. Jonathan is a UWM master's degree candidate in public history and gives tours of the historic Brady Street neighborhood.

On his Brady Street tours, Jonathan says he highlights how Pearson Street flows toward the river. He says Pearson is the highest elevated point of the Brady Street area.

“When I was doing my research, I found that Pearson Street was regraded in the 1870s. And at that point, it had been dirt road and had changed to a gravel road,” he explains.

Here, the houses are sitting up on the higher points of elevation. The thick red line denotes a steep increase of about 5 feet. Around the streets, the elevation is a little more even because they've been graded to make it easier for horses and carriages to travel up and down. Historian Yance Marti says the land Milwaukee sits on is very hilly due to the rivers and glaciers that shaped the land long ago.
Credit Yance Marti / City of Milwaukee

Jonathan says dirt roads were often muddy when it rained and kicked up dust when dry. Gravel roads were introduced as Milwaukee implemented newer sewer systems. And the street grading, Jonathan says, affected some of the homes.

"What I've seen is that the houses would have been built up on natural topography, and then later as the streets needed to become more interconnected, then the streets would have to be lowered so that they would meet grade with other streets," Jonathan says.

As Milwaukee introduced sewers, roads were paved. This map shows completed sewers in Milwaukee up to Dec. 31, 1894.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

So, as streets were lowered, houses that once had their entrance at street level, now required a flight of stairs to get up to the first floor.

Yance Marti, a city of Milwaukee historian and engineer, says residents had the option of leveling out the hill to meet the street, but it was expensive. The service cost $300 — about the same amount it cost to build a house in 1870.

"Back then they didn't really have too much power equipment, so any changes they would have to do, it's all done by hand or with animals with plowers. So, it was very difficult work to try to grade things out. It took a long time, took a lot of manpower," Yance says.

Due to the natural landscape of Milwaukee, homeowners had to build houses on hills. Here, it shows that when the streets were leveled out, the basement was turned into the first floor. Above the ground entrance are the original doors that served as the entrance pre-street grading.
Credit City of Milwaukee

Yance says when Pearson Street was regraded in the 1870s, it was most likely the city's first large-scale public works project.

He says while the grading affected homes already built, many of Milwaukee's neighborhoods weren't yet developed. Yance says the city pre-built roads knowing Milwaukee would expand at some point. 

Most cities that they want to try to build like a rectangular street grid. And so that was established before they even started to change the landscape. Once they had this rectangular street grid then they could decide, 'OK, I got to make it passable, so I've got to cut that. On the high points, make it even.' So back in those days, they had horses and carriages so that those could easily be driven along the streets," says Yance.

These days, many people in areas like Brady Street, Bay View and Riverwest are accustomed to walking upstairs to get to the first floor of homes. But Jonathan says the street grading was controversial at the time.

This newspaper clip from the "Milwaukee Journal" in circa 1902 shows street grading in progress that has upset citizens.
Credit Jonathan Bohrer / Milwaukee Public Library Archives

In part of Jonathan's podcast, he describes the reaction to the street grading in the early 1900s:

"The neighborhood is up in arms. They are not happy and the mayor is out of town. Reporters are at the scene. Near South 32nd Street and National Street appear like huge ditches and houses are now perched high above the street. They were protesting about street grading."

Meanwhile, so-called "Polish flats" were created in some parts of town. Polish flats allowed people on regraded streets to still enter the first floor of the home from street level.

Yance says homeowners were able to take what was originally a basement and turn it into the main entrance. He says since immigrant communities helped each other out, they were frequently able to lend skills to level out the terrain themselves, creating first floor entrances.

What does our question-asker Larissa think?

"It's interesting and it definitely makes sense to grade out the streets for traffic and horse traffic. Looking at the layout of my neighborhood that definitely makes sense 'cause my street is up a hill and there's another hill if you go around the corner," she says.

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