Milwaukee City Hall Square: A Postcard Reveals More Than 100 Years Of History

Aug 2, 2019

It might be difficult to picture City Hall in downtown Milwaukee more than 100 years ago. A lot has changed. But prepare yourself for a glimpse into the past.

Before we step back in time, meet August Behrens. While researching some cool architecture in Milwaukee, he came across an old postcard that piqued his interest. So, he reached out to Bubbler Talk:

What happened to City Hall Square and fountain that used to be there? In an old postcard from the early 20th century, it looks like Munich!

The postcard shows what the area looks like if you were standing at the Wells Street entrance to City Hall, gazing south from under the building’s arch. People are walking on the street, horses are pulling carriages. You can even see the old St. Charles Hotel and one of the city’s original streetcars.

"It looks like a very pedestrian, friendly plaza ... What it seems a lot of modern, urban planning is trying to move towards. It just reminded me a lot of when I’d been in Germany with some friends for Oktoberfest a couple years back," says August.

The left is the postcard of Milwaukee's City Hall that August discovered. The right is what City Hall Square looks like today — it's changed a bit.
Credit Left: Wisconsin Historical Society Right: Teran Powell

To learn more about the scene of the postcard, we met with Carlen Hatala, the city’s senior preservation planner.

"In the arch of today’s City Hall, there used to be a building that was constructed in the 1850s for use as a market hall. There were stalls for different vendors," says Carlen.

Carlen says “all sorts of horses, carts, and people” would bring their items there. As a result, she says the area got the nickname “Market Square.”

City Hall Square has changed over the years, new buildings replacing old ones and automobiles replacing horses.
Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society

In 1895, when City Hall construction was complete, Carlen says people began using the terms “Market Square” and “City Hall Square” interchangeably.

There was an attraction in the middle of the square: a 9-foot tall statue of Henry Bergh. He's the founder of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The statue stood on a pedestal placed in the center of a trough filled with water, where horses — and even stray dogs — could get a drink.

The statue of Henry Bergh (middle left), where it used to stand in City Hall Square.
Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society

But how did Henry — a diplomat who lived in New York — get a statue in Milwaukee?

Henry Bergh is the founder of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Credit Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr

According to Anne Reed, the president and CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society, Henry was saddened by the cruelty to animals he witnessed while traveling. His humane movement inspired others across the country, including in Milwaukee.

City leaders and community members, such as Frederick Pabst and Samuel Marshall, shared Henry’s passion for animals. They were also involved in founding the Wisconsin Humane Society in 1879, which commissioned the statue in 1891. The statue is believed to be the only one of Henry.

"The idea that we have here, someone who really helped found the whole movement that now exists all over the country — thousands and thousands and thousands of organizations — it’s really neat to be able to memorialize him," says Anne.

Anne Reed, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society, discusses the importance of memorializing Henry Bergh's legacy.
Credit Teran Powell

City Hall Square has changed over the years, new buildings replacing old ones and automobiles replacing horses. There was no longer a need for the water trough.

Then, the streets were widened to accommodate changing traffic, so the statue was moved. It now sits outside the Wisconsin Humane Society on N. 45th Street and W. Wisconsin Avenue.

So, the next time you drive past the shelter — or stop in to adopt a pet — you might spot Henry Bergh and his canine pal surveying the scene. And now, you know a bit about his story.

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