By BRITTANY SEEMUTH
The fate of several century old Wauwatosa buildings hang in the balance. The Eschweiler buildings, located on Swan Boulevard, once served as The Milwaukee County School for Agriculture and Domestic Economy.
Prominent Milwaukee architect, Alexander Eschweiler, built four gothic-style buildings in 1912. The school lasted only 16 years, as the demand for farming education lessened.
Recently, the buildings have sat vacant, victim to vandalism and the wear of Mother Nature. In 2011, the properties turned into the hands of new owners when a sale was made from Milwaukee County to the UW-Milwaukee Real Estate Foundation. While the two were in negotiations, the Foundation was approaching a hefty mortgage to the city.
The Foundation then sent out requests for proposals to local developers. Enter Mandel Group: a development corporation based in downtown Milwaukee, with the task of maintaining the historic integrity of the buildings and developing a profitable plan. Mandel would generate this profit by developing 41 luxury apartments, which would secure the Foundation’s payment to Milwaukee County.
Phil Aiello, senior development manager for Mandel Group, has been working on a new development for the Eschweiler buildings for two years. After 18 months of building investigations, contractors came back to Mandel with construction costs to restore the existing buildings.
“[Construction costs] came back north of $11 million,” Aiello said. “We didn’t want to believe that they were that costly, so we actually got two more contractors to take a look at the buildings … and those came back even higher than the original one.”
The idea of rehabbing all of the Eschweiler buildings was put off as time for securing UWM’s payment became more essential.
“We consulted with a number of different historic preservation groups to kind of get our moral compass on this,” Aiello said. “What came out of that is, if you can’t save all of the buildings, is there a way you can at least save the administrative building, which is the most prominent on the site …then turn the dorm and dairy [buildings] into this beautiful wall of gardens and create a very interesting public space.”
Not everyone in the community, however, is confident in Mandel’s plan. Barb Agnew, founder of The Monarch Trail, the butterfly habitat-preserve that surrounds the Eschweiler buildings on three sides, fears the new development would affect the migration pattern of the butterflies and would interfere with what she describes as “the natural corridor.”
“I want people to know that we can so easily be convinced by one developer’s plans, designs and numbers,” Agnew said. “We kind of lose our commitment to this whole project, which was historic preservation…Are they [Mandel Group] going to make this decision because UWM needs the money? That would be beyond dreadful … a few people in Wauwatosa are going to be making a decision that’s going to impact such a huge audience, and I don’t know if that’s exactly fair.”
Aiello, however, said preservation is on the company’s radar, and the community’s input has been welcomed.
“We absolutely don’t want to be the developer that has the removal of the Eschweiler buildings as part of our legacy, and you know, there are a number of people who are opposed to our proposal, because historic preservation is very important to them, as it is to us,” Aiello said. “We just happen to have the nearly two years of research into this development to understand what’s feasible … and we feel like we have reached out to the community to try to make the alternative plan to saving all the buildings as good as it can be.“
Ben Brock, 20-year Wauwatosa resident, said he was torn between restoring the Eschweilers and the Mandel Group’s proposal.
“Yes, I want everything possible to be done to preserve the history for our future generations, but at some point, you have to ask yourself, at what cost should we do that?” Brock asked. “For me, saving one building is better than none.”
A hearing for the public will be held Oct. 17 at the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission.