39. Norwegian Free Lutheran, 1900

Now Iglesia Evangelica Bautista (Evangelical Baptist Church)
700 West Madison Street
Architect: Andrew Elleson

Norwegian Free Lutheran
Norwegian Free Lutheran

Throughout Milwaukee’s early history, immigrants from the German and Polish-speaking lands of north-central Europe far outnumbered those from Scandinavia. In 1860, when the city’s population stood at about 45,000 and a majority were of foreign birth, fewer than 1,000 were from the Scandinavian countries. Among the Scandinavian immigrants, those from Norway comprised the majority, with smaller numbers from Denmark and Sweden and a very small number from Finland. By 1900, Milwaukee had about 1,700 residents of Norwegian birth, most of whom lived on the South Side.

The Norwegian Free Lutheran Church was organized in 1887, as one of at least three Norwegian Lutheran congregations in Milwaukee at that time. The congregation initially occupied a small commercial building on this site prior to constructing the present church in 1900. Some services were offered in English beginning in 1910, but the church continued to offer services in Norwegian at least into the late 1930s

A 1925 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on a musical program held in the church in early December, attended by 300 people, with “the honorable calling of the seaman” as the theme. The article noted the “strange melodies” and “deep chested songs of men who have sailed the seas.” Throughout the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, many of the Norwegian immigrant men in Milwaukee had been sailors in Norway and found work on Great Lakes ships or in the shipbuilding industry in their new home.

The building’s architect, Andrew Elleson, was born in Norway in 1849 and immigrated to the United States in 1860. Elleson maintained an office on National Avenue on the South Side from the early 1880s to 1908, and appears to have been favored by Scandinavian clients. He primarily designed residential and small-scale commercial buildings, with nearly all of these on Milwaukee’s South Side. In addition to the Norwegian Free Lutheran Church, Elleson designed the Scandinavian Lutheran Church at 2nd and Scott Streets (built in 1882; subsequently altered and now vacant) and St. Peter’s Lutheran at 8th and Scott (built in 1885).

The congregation changed its name to Ebenezer Lutheran in 1932, reflecting the increasing assimilation of the older members and their children as well as the addition of non-Norwegian members. Around 1950, the congregation moved to the Colonial Revival style church at 43rd Street and Oklahoma Avenue, a bit more than three miles to the southwest. Since the late 1950s, the Gothic Revival church at 7th and Madison has been home to a Spanish-language Baptist congregation. First appearing in city directories in 1955, at 6th and Washington Streets, Iglesia Evangelica Bautista appears to be Milwaukee’s oldest Spanish-language Protestant church.

The current owners restored the building in the early 1970s. Among other interior and exterior work, this included reconstruction of the wooden ornament in the gables and cleaning the exterior walls, revealing the original color of the Cream City brick. Although modest in size, the little church stands out as a Gothic Revival gem. Lacking a tall steeple, the church cannot be seen from a distance, making its discovery a pleasant surprise when strolling the Walker’s Point neighborhood.

“300 Seamen Attend Christmas Service,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 3, 1925, page 16, column 1.

Mary Ellen Young Papers, Milwaukee County Historical Society Archives.

Matichek, Kathleen. “The Latin Corner,” Milwaukee Journal, June 2, 1975, accent section, page 1, column 2.