On the door of the duplex home standing on the corner of 40th and Wright is an eviction notice dated 4/14/2017. Upon entering the house, an eerie feeling of emptiness emerges from the well-lit living room. This space does not seem like it should be empty. There are no musty smells or spider webs. There is only silence. This silence faded, as I realized that this house had much to say.
Remnants of the past residents tell stories of their lives and the happiness and struggles that came with it. I found notes scribbled in a distinctive handwriting on pieces of paper throughout the house. Identical wi-fi passwords, written on post-it notes appeared on the hallway walls on both floors indicating that the duplex was recently occupied by a single family, or at the very least, two families who shared resources. A letter taped on the door of one of the bedrooms showed acceptance to a youth program. Graffiti on the rafters in the attic written by a child accounts for homework and classes offered in school. Colorful wallpaper and a Mickey Mouse light switch in the rear bedroom also indicate a young child’s retreat. Evidence of tools, car parts, and a punching bag in the basement suggest a man’s space. A recently insulated attic and renovated bathroom show signs of investments made to the home. All of these impressions narrate a story of a family with children inhabiting this home before they were evicted from their home a few months ago. This house has seen difficult days. It has survived fires and rebounded from economic recessions with resilience. Its history suggests that there are architectural qualities that are worth preserving.
Built in 1922 by W. Johnson, this modest Milwaukee duplex is an example of a vernacular structure of its time. The building plan follows the standard public-front and private-back layout. Two identical apartments, except for minor entrance layouts, are stacked one on top of the other. The front section includes a living room and a dining room. Elegant wooden built-ins in the dining room with leaded-glass windows mark this as the formal social front-zone. The back zone includes spaces of housework and domestic labor. It includes the kitchen, back stairs leading to the basement with storage and laundry, and a back entry with a milk chute where fresh milk was delivered daily. The back door leads to the back yard and a small garage, constructed in 1922, at the rear of the lot. The private bedrooms are clustered along a small hallway next to the kitchen. A small niche in this central hallway has a ledge for telephones.
The house remained largely unchanged until one fateful day in January 1944. Sparks from the home’s furnace floated over to the nearby kindling in the basement, setting fire to the home. The fire extended to the walls and furniture of the upper floors, resulting in an estimated $3400 in damages. City records show that the owner at the time, J. O’Reilly, spent the month of March repairing the home and replacing the plumbing, plasterwork, and furnace. This plasterwork can be seen today in the kitchen with a distinctive swirl pattern. Seven years after finishing repairs on his home, O’Reilly applied for permission to convert the house from a two to three family home. Although his application was denied due to an insufficient lot size, the conversion of a duplex into a triplex was not uncommon in the city. O’Reilly’s application shows that the duplex building was a flexible building type that could accommodate multiple families and diverse occupants.
In the 1950’s, a new owner, P. Dow updated some of the electrical work in the upper unit in 1954 and had a gas conversion done to the burner in 1956. These changes reflect a shift in heating and ventilation technology that was a trend at the time. In 1974, Richard Schmitz put new white siding on the upper half of the building, leaving the lower half to be finished in yellow siding in 1978.
In addition to providing a place of residence to owners and tenants over the years, this home also might have housed a business. In 1991, Tonia Benford applied for a permit to open a wedding consulting and planning service in the dining room of the first floor.
Over the past decade, the house exhibited gradual signs of disrepair. Images from 2007, 2009, and 2011 show great care for the landscape of the front yard and a generally well-kept exterior. The first signs of the home’s deterioration are in an image from 2014, where some of the siding on the lower level were removed and the once well-kept lawn was uprooted. In 2015, the porch door and window were missing and more of the siding was gone. Although the house was still occupied in November of 2016, there were increasing signs of wear. Slow disrepair, disinvestment and negligence has taken its toll on this house. Today the house is being offered to local developers as part of a new Milwaukee Employment/Renovation Initiative (MERI) plan to renovate vacant city-owned properties.
November 2, 1922
Exterior of home from street corner.
Built-in with leaded glass window.
First floor plan.
Drawn By: Jared Schmitz
Measured by: Teonna Cooksey, Chelsea Wait