A Vacant Duplex on 40th Street
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, there was a large expansion of housing units in the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s industries grew rapidly and an intense need to house the burgeoning population led to innovative forms of housing. The duplex apartment became a popular building type during this time. The term “duplex,” refers to a single residential structure that includes two separate home units stacked on top of each other. This building type became popular for two reasons. First, one or both units could be rented out to provide additional income to the owner. The appeal for rental properties as a form of income has deep roots in American Culture. In the case of the early twentieth century duplex apartment, we find owners occupying one floor and renting out another. Second, two homes on the same property lot allowed for an increased housing density, accommodating more residents per unit land area than possible in a single-family home.
The unique design and layout of the duplex apartment allow for considerable flexibility of use and ownership. In 2017, the 2506-08 North 40th Street duplex sits a boarded-up and vacant building, owned by the City of Milwaukee. But the rich history of this house demonstrates the capacity and flexibility of this building type. City records show that a Frank Zimmerman obtained a permit to build a two-storied flat on this lot in 1914. The footprint of this proposed building was 54 feet x 46 feet and Zimmerman projected the construction cost at $48,000. But by 1919, a permit for a new garage in the same lot indicated George Schmitt as the owner. The ownership records beg further questions: Why did Zimmerman sell the building off soon after constructing it? Was he a speculative builder?
The 1920 manuscript census shows that Schmitt lived in the lower unit with his wife, son and his fifty-five-year-old widowed mother-in-law. George worked as a merchandise broker. Of German origins, George was raised in Wisconsin, and his young twenty-eight-year-old wife came from South Dakota. Census documents show that the upper unit was rented out to Richard and Hattie. Records show that Richard was employed as a foreman for a food and coal merchant.
By 1930, George Schmitt’s name disappears from the manuscript census records and is replaced by two new names, listed as renters. Fred Gaertner, a jobber and his wife Marge shared the apartment with Mary Schilling who worked as a bookkeeper in an electroplating company. Mary lived with her adult daughter who worked as a store clerk in a stove manufacturing plant. In addition, a lodger named William Relihan who worked as a foreman in a motorcycle manufacturing plant also resided in the same premises. Within the span of two decades the duplex served as a residence, a rental unit, and as a home for an extended family with lodgers. Throughout its history, the apartment owners and number of renters on each floor of the building change.
The structure of the building gives us some insight into the flexibility of the building type. In its original state, the first and second floors are nearly identical in layout, although the entrance door locations vary. Interior moldings and ornamentation details on both units are identical. The ornate front living room and dining area has intricate wood work, built-in cabinetry and elaborate crown moldings. The back section of the house is made of kitchen, hallways, bedrooms and bathrooms that lack elaborate woodwork and ornamentation. The front and back staircases allow two independent entries into the upper and lower units. This front/back layout allow parts of each apartment to be rented out to multiple renters, boarders and residents.
In its current state, we found many structural modifications in both units that suggest further flexibility of use and occupation. For instance, the bathroom in both units has structural modifications to include a bathtub upgrade. The kitchen spaces too show modifications to suit the changing needs of cooking and use. We found recent construction to convert the attic into a more livable space, independently accessed through the back staircase. These changes hint at an attempt to gain additional rental income or a need to accommodate an extended family.
The fungible edges between front rooms and back rooms, lower unit and upper unit initiate a sense of shared space. Particularly interesting are the front porch, basement and back stairs where the units come together. At the bottom of the stairs, there is a small corridor that extends the basement into two shared storage and laundry spaces separated by a partition. The shared porch provides another area where the neighbors may potentially meet each other daily. The back stair provides a back exit to the home that leads to a shared backyard and garage. Therefore, the layout of the duplex intertwines the lives of the residents in ways that promote more opportunities for neighborly interactions compared to the experience of living in a single-family home.
Today, boarded up and vacant, this duplex hints at a fundamental transformation in the way neighborliness, residential preference, and demographics have changed in this neighborhood. Absentee landlords renting out both units, tenants moving in and out, and a lack of maintenance may easily destroy the social capacity of the duplex building. When a duplex is converted into a single-family residence, there ceases to be any need for community-based interaction within the home. An extra effort is needed to sustain exchange with neighbors across property boundaries.
At its core, the duplex urges exchange between its occupants and an enhanced sense of trust and sociability. The vacancy of this home and many like this unit, does not dampen an aspiration for a strong neighborhood. It just means that those who live within the neighborhood have to put extra effort into communication and interaction with each other to maintain strong neighborly ties and sense of community.
- owner: Frank Zimmerman
-permit: flat (2stories 54'x46')
-permit: garage (1 story 20'x26')
-owner: William Maxey
-owner: William Maxey
-permit: plumbing alterations
-owner: Jim Domnitz
-permit: implement steel siding
-owner: Patricia Brown
-owner: Michael and Patricia Leidel
-permit: install collectors for solar domestic hot water system
-owner: Michael and Patricia Leidel
-tenant: Al and Cindy Runyon
-owner: Michael Leidel
-permit: replace rear porch