Historic Churches and Synagogues of Milwaukee

Places of worship account for a large portion of the most distinctive historic buildings in any American city. No other building type, other than the mansions of the very wealthy, exhibits such an abundance of expensive materials, outstanding craftsmanship, and lavish decoration. Milwaukee possesses an unusually rich collection of historic religious buildings, many of which are among the city’s finest works of architecture. Milwaukee’s numerous churches and synagogues are important landmarks in their respective neighborhoods, not only in the sense of “distinguished buildings,” but also in the more literal sense of marking a location and contributing to neighborhood identity. The tall steeple of St. Lucas Lutheran, for example, marks the center of the Bay View neighborhood, while that of St. Hedwig’s Catholic plays the same role on the Brady Street commercial corridor and surrounding neighborhood.

The appeal of religious buildings goes beyond the material, expressing ideas and values. The mansions of wealthy industrialists display the economic power of their owners. Government buildings express the power and authority of the nation, state, county, or city. Religious buildings express ideas and beliefs about God and the afterlife. The tall church steeple, for example, serves no utilitarian purpose. Its function is to point heavenward and thereby remind people to consider spiritual matters. Interiors of religious buildings are designed to evoke an emotional response, from awe and inspiration to a meditative serenity.

This website documents and celebrates a selection of Milwaukee’s historic religious buildings. Included are profiles of 71 churches and synagogues built over the course of 125 years, from 1846 to 1970. The focus is on the architecture, but there is also some discussion of the histories of the congregations and the buildings’ associations with particular immigrant and ethnic groups. A wide variety of architectural styles are represented, grouped into five chapters:

I. Classical Tradition. This chapter covers the revival styles based on ancient Greek and Roman architecture as well as later interpretations such as the Renaissance, Baroque, and American Colonial styles. Included are 12 churches and one former synagogue, dating from 1846 to 1954.

II. Romanesque Revival. This chapter profiles 11 examples of the style, dating from 1876 to 1942.

III. Gothic Revival. The Gothic Revival was by far the most popular style for churches during the period covered. Included in this chapter are 27 churches dating from 1867 to 1954.

IV. Miscellaneous Architectural Styles. This chapter profiles nine buildings representing some of the less common architectural styles, such as the Shingle Style and the Byzantine Revival. The eight churches and one former synagogue in this chapter date from 1863 to 1956.

V. Modernism. This chapter profiles 11 examples from the city’s remarkable and little-known collection of modern churches. Dating from 1952 to 1970, these buildings exhibit new and unusual forms as well as innovative structural methods and materials.

There are almost 400 buildings in Milwaukee that were built as places of worship (excluding storefront churches and other building types that have been converted to religious uses). Of these, more than 300 were built in 1970 or earlier. The 71 buildings profiled here make up more than a “greatest hits” collection. They show not only the variety of architectural styles used in religious architecture, but also the range of variations within each major stylistic category as well as the evolution of these styles over time.

Although the churches and synagogues profiled here include a broad range of architectural styles and periods, they do not provide a complete history of religious architecture in Milwaukee. There is some risk of error in interpreting the past based on what has survived to the present. For example, several of the city’s earliest churches were in the Greek Revival style, popular from about the 1820s into the 1850s. However, no Greek Revival churches remain in the city today.

A substantial number of the city’s religious buildings have been lost over the years to fire, freeway construction, and other causes. Milwaukee’s earliest religious buildings were in or close to the present downtown business district, and many were lost to redevelopment as the district expanded. Fires were much more common in the era of gaslights and oil-fired boilers than today, and have taken a heavy toll on the city’s nineteenth century buildings of all types. The city’s earliest buildings were much more commonly built of wood, and therefore more susceptible to destruction by fire. Only about one-fifth of the surviving nineteenth century churches in Milwaukee are of wood construction, a proportion substantially lower than it would have been at any time during the nineteenth century. More recently, the clearing of corridors for freeway construction (portions of which were never built) resulted in the demolition of at least nine historic places of worship.

The loss of older religious buildings has varied by religion and denomination as well as by architectural style. Almost two-thirds of the Catholic churches present in 1900 are still standing, compared to fewer than half of the Protestant churches. The Milwaukee city directory of 1900 lists five synagogues, none of which are extant.

In addition to showing a variety of architectural styles, the churches and synagogues profiled here were chosen with the goal of including a broad representation of different religious groups. There have always been more Catholics in Milwaukee than followers of any other Christian denomination, and Lutherans have historically been the largest of the Protestant denominations by a substantial margin. This is largely a reflection of the fact that Germans and Poles were the city’s largest immigrant groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the 1870s to the 1970s, Catholic and Lutheran churches together have consistently made up about one-third to one-half of all places of worship in the city, with Lutheran churches being more numerous. (The Catholic churches, while fewer in number, tend to be larger.) Of the 71 places of worship profiled here, 30 originally served as Catholic churches and 16 as Lutheran churches. Other Christian denominations represented include African Methodist Episcopal (1 church), Baptist (2), Christian Science (3), Congregational (3), Episcopal (3), Evangelical (3), Latter Day Saints (1), Methodist (1), Presbyterian (3), Serbian Orthodox (1), Unitarian (1), and one non-denominational chapel. Two of the buildings were originally constructed as synagogues.

The first mosque listed in Milwaukee city directories was the Ahadiyya Movement in Islam Mosque, listed in 1957 and 1959. Muhammad’s Temple of Islam appears in city directories in 1961 and 1962. Both of these mosques occupied rented space in commercial buildings. The earliest building specifically designed to include an Islamic place of worship, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, was constructed in the 1980s. The Milwaukee Baha’i Center has been at its current location at 26th and Vliet Streets since the late 1960s, but the building was constructed in 1953 as a savings and loan association. Similarly, the city has no Buddhist or Hindu temples, or places of worship for other religions, that were built specifically for those purposes and date to 1970 or earlier.

Milwaukee has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual city, and this diversity is reflected in the city’s places of worship. In 1900, for example, more than 30 percent of the city’s residents were of foreign birth. There were German-language churches in the city before 1850, and the first Polish-language church (St. Stanislaus Catholic) was established in 1866. Foreign-language churches proliferated in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, since each immigrant group needed clergy who could minister to them in their own language. By the time of the First World War, there were or had been churches in Milwaukee for Arabic-speaking Syrians, Czechs (then called Bohemians), Danes, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, Poles, Russians, Serbs, Slovaks, Swedes, and Ukrainians.

One of the legacies of this ethnic diversity is the remarkable number of religious buildings in the city’s older residential neighborhoods. The older South Side neighborhoods, which served as the initial destination for many immigrant groups, are particularly dense with churches. The square mile bounded by 3rd Street on the east, Cesar Chavez Drive on the west, Bruce Street on the north, and Maple Street on the south has 18 churches, the greatest concentration in the city. Their construction dates range form 1849 to 1914, and they have served immigrant groups speaking eight different languages.

More than a dozen of the buildings profiled here have changed ownership at least once. Three are now used for non-religious purposes and two others are currently vacant. The changes in ownership reflect the growth of certain denominations and the decline of others. Throughout the city, the number of Baptist congregations has grown from nine in 1900 to almost 90 by 1970. This period also saw the rise of the Church of God in Christ (from no congregations in 1900 to 30 by 1970) and the proliferation of churches not affiliated with any of what had historically been the leading Protestant denominations.

The changes in ownership of many places of worship, as well as the rise and decline of various denominations, also reflect the changing racial and ethnic character of the city’s neighborhoods. For example, many of the churches on the city’s North Side were originally built for German-speaking Lutherans and other European immigrant groups. After World War II, many of the members of these congregations moved to the city’s outer neighborhoods and to the rapidly expanding suburbs, where new churches were built to accommodate them. The older, inner-city churches were often sold to black congregations of Baptists or other denominations more popular among the city’s black residents. More recently, Spanish-language Protestant congregations have acquired many of the churches on the South Side. In a small number of cases, older churches have been acquired by Asian immigrant congregations, including the Hmong who emigrated from Laos in the late 1970s and 1980s. The histories of the city’s religious buildings thus provide a window on the changing demographics of their respective neighborhoods.

Within each of the five stylistic groupings, the buildings are arranged chronologically by their date of construction. The date on the cornerstone, when there is one, is taken as the date of construction, even though large buildings such as churches usually take more than a single calendar year from groundbreaking to completion. The date on the cornerstone is therefore not necessarily the year that construction began or the year of completion. (Cornerstones on religious buildings often include an earlier date for the founding of the congregation and a later date for construction of the building.) In cases where the building does not have a cornerstone or other inscribed date, the dates given are from newspaper articles or other written sources that reference the beginning of construction. Other sources may therefore give slightly different construction dates for some of the buildings, based on the date of the building permit or of the building’s completion.

The cornerstone of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
The cornerstone of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church gives a date of 1838 for the founding of the congregation and 1883 for construction of the present church.

Notes on vocabulary:

1. The historic names of churches have been Anglicized on this website. For example, the Polish “Kosciol Sw. Kazimierza” and the German “Evangelische Lutherische St. Johannes Kirche” are written as “St. Casimir Church” and “St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church,” respectively. However, the Spanish-language name is given (with an English translation) in cases where a church is currently occupied by a Spanish-speaking congregation.

2. Churches are often referred to as missions, mothers, or daughters. A mission church is one that was established by an older church. As the Milwaukee metropolitan area expanded in size and its population grew, churches frequently established missions in newly developing neighborhoods and suburban communities. When those mission churches grew to the point of being self-sustaining, they became independent churches of the same denomination. The newer church is then said to be the daughter, while the older church is the mother. In the case of Catholic churches, when parish boundaries are divided to form two parishes, the newer parish is the daughter of the older. Some churches had several daughters. The term “mother church” can also refer to the first church of a given denomination and language. For example, St. Stanislaus is described as the mother church of Milwaukee’s Polish Catholics.

3. Some Catholic parishes were established as geographical, meaning that they served all of the English-speaking Catholics living within a specified area. Others were established as national parishes, meaning that they served all Catholics who spoke a particular foreign language. National parishes were established in immigrant neighborhoods, with their churches sometimes in close proximity to the churches of other national parishes or those of geographical parishes.