Why Does Milwaukee Have So Many Duplexes?

Oct 13, 2017

Is there some question about Milwaukee that you’ve always wanted the answer to? For Kennan Ferguson, the answer is a resounding yes. That’s why he wrote to Bubbler Talk to ask: “Why are there so many duplexes in Milwaukee?”

It’s a question I couldn’t answer so, I set out to find someone who could. After sending about 10 e-mails, I got a speedy response from Arijit Sen.

He’s an associate professor of architecture and urban studies at UWM and directs The Field School.

I asked Kennan and Arijit to meet with me to talk about Milwaukee’s housing infrastructure.


An historic image of a row of duplex flats on West Lloyd Street. At the time this photo was taken, this section of Lloyd was known as Pabst Ave.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

Arijit says the duplexes were about money: “Milwaukee is an immigrant city. And so a lot of immigrants came in end of 19th century early 20th century. Polish, for example, they came in and would…these kinds of houses would be literally a way to have capital, to have a second earning. So people would live downstairs and then rent out upstairs and so on."

He says that while Milwaukee has maintained a lot of its duplexes, they are not unique to Milwaukee.

A Milwaukee duplex.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

“Cleveland has a lot, Columbus has a lot. Most of the old rust belt cities where the migration pattern was very similar has duplexes. Our difference is that we have it everywhere. We have it in rich neighborhoods, we have it in poor neighborhoods. That’s the big difference. Not only in working class,” Arijit says.

So why can duplexes in Milwaukee be found all over the city?

“You know, nobody knows that, this is just speculation that the kind of rich upper class that we had were also upwardly mobile. If you look at the Historic Water Tower District, it’s not all mansions even though they want it to be all mansions. There’s a very mixed housing stock."

And Arijit says some of those mansions on Milwaukee's east side show signs of once having rooms that were rented out as well.

Example of an interior room lock.
Credit Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Field School

He says there’s usually one small give away: “So when we go to places one of the things we look for are locks. Interior room doors should have a lock inside, not outside. Whenever we see a lock outside, the sign is that is probably was subdivided so that on the way out, you could lock your space. We’ve seen in these houses there are locks. Not used now but at some point they were subdivided."

Now at one point I read that Milwaukee’s density spurred the need for duplexes, but Arijit says not true.

Duplexes in Wauwatosa.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

“The density was produced because of that. One lot would have two buildings with multiple apartments. But then there were a couple of instances of flues and diseases, which is when all these rules started coming about density,” he says.

When it comes to the question of why duplexes instead of large scale apartment buildings, Arijit says that maybe it had something to do with the "American Dream"—in other words, the goal of home ownership.

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