by H. Russell Zimmermann, photo by Eric Oxendorf
Imagine, if you will, a transcontinental flight is forced to make an unscheduled landing here. One of the passengers, who was asleep and has no idea where he is, agrees to play a game. He is blindfolded, driven to the Basilica of St. Josaphat and taken inside. When the blindfold is removed, the man gasps at the awe-inspiring grandeur. Sunlight streams in through majestic stained-glass windows; the glint of gold leaf and splendor of hand-painted murals is everywhere, beneath a monumental dome, sixth-largest in the world. When asked to name the city, the passenger guesses Rome … London … Paris. But no matter how many answers he gives, he’ll never place this noble Italian Renaissance church in its proper city.
Such is the unexpected splendor of Milwaukee’s churches. St. Josaphat’s may trump them all in the richness of its decoration, but there are countless other churches of high quality, rather remarkable for a midsized metro area. Over the years, I have written about hundreds of them. But which are the best?
In selecting my top 25, I was most influenced by three factors: the history, originality and beauty of the buildings. And while there is a preponderance of Gothic-based designs, I’ve also tried to include a variety of styles and a wide range of architects. My choices include those in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Racine counties.
The domination of Gothic design arises because all of these churches were built prior to 1932. In the years since then, budget concerns and changing tastes began to alter the architecture of churches. Instead of beautiful, hand-painted cathedral glass with silver staining, windows became slab glass set into a concrete-like matrix. Many churches installed electronic synthesizers that create artificial bell sounds. To fully appreciate the contrast, listen to the pleasant musicality of Old St. Mary’s bells, cast in Munich in 1868, sounding the evening Angelus.
Perhaps the most controversial omission here is the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church at 9400 W. Congress St., completed in 1961. It was designed by an architectural master, Frank Lloyd Wright, and has become an international tourist attraction. But it was executed not by Wright (who died in 1959), but his disciples, and for that reason, some scholars question whether it is a late Wright masterwork or a fascinating oddity. It is a strikingly original conception, but detractors have called it a cheeseburger, a clam shell and, most frequently, the flying saucer church. I would give it a strong honorable mention, but here are my top 25 in chronological order.
St. Joan of Arc Chapel (1400s)
The little stone chapel on Marquette University’s campus may have been built before Christopher Columbus was born. Originally known as the Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel, it served the little French village of Chasse for half a century. In 1926, railroad heiress Gertrude Hill Gavin had it taken down and moved to her New York estate on Long Island, where it was attached to a chateau. Reconstruction plans were drawn by world-class architect John Russell Pope, whose works included the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee’s University Club. In 1964, subsequent owners Mr. & Mrs. Marc B. Rojtman donated the chapel to Marquette and shipped it stone by stone to the campus. In the package was one special piece known as the Joan of Arc Stone. Legend says the famous saint prayed to a statue while standing on the slab and afterward kissed it. The chapel was dedicated to St. Joan of Arc on May 26, 1966.
old St. Mary’s Church (1846)
Compared to St. Joan of Arc, Old St. Mary’s Church (836 N. Broadway) is a spring chicken. But it’s our oldest Milwaukee-built church, its cornerstone laid the same year that Juneau Town, Kilbourn Town and Walker’s Point joined forces to create Milwaukee. The city’s first German Roman Catholic church came to the attention of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and he commissioned a painting of the annunciation, which still hangs above the main altar. In 1867, the church saw a major remodeling that eliminated the school occupying the ground floor. The upper sanctuary floor was lowered to its present level, and a large block was added to the old front. This held a narthex, the clock tower and steeple.
The architect was Victor Schulte, an immigrant from Westphalia, Prussia. He first settled in Pennsylvania, where he worked building railroad bridges. In 1840, he moved to Milwaukee and was able to land four prestigious commissions with the newly formed Catholic Archdiocese. These resulted in three other landmarks, all still standing and among the oldest buildings in town: Holy Trinity Church at Bruce and South Fourth streets, Henni Hall at St. Francis Seminary at 3257 S. Lake Dr., and our next church.
St. John’s Cathedral (1847)
The cathedral (812 N. Jackson St.)is considered Schulte’s masterpiece. Interestingly, many early architects listed themselves in directories as “builders” or “carpenter contractors.” Schulte had already completed four commissions before he had the confidence to call himself “architect.”
St. John’s originally had a tower capped by a bulbous cupola with Baroque details. Its framing rotted and resulted in the removal of everything above the clock faces. For 12 years, the tower remained decapitated until a private gift paid for a new tower. George B. Ferry (of the firm Ferry & Clas, which designed the Pabst Mansion and Downtown library) was given the commission. The tower cap was to Ferry what the church was to Schulte – considered to be his masterpiece. Ralph Adams Cram, the nation’s most prominent Gothicist, declared that, “In spite of its not being Gothic, it has the finest tower west of Philadelphia.” When the cathedral caught fire in January 1935, firemen made sure to hose down the tower to protect it. The fire gutted the interior, which included stained-glass windows by John Hardman of London and paintings donated by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. A 1942 restoration extended the surviving nave eastward to Van Buren, changing the style and spatial relationships of Schulte’s original interior. In 2002, another major project was announced as “a glorious renovation” of the interior. The modernist design was derided as “a theater-in-the-round” and “too Protestant” by detractors. To me, the shockingly mismatched interior is a mistake. The archdiocese’s most beloved edifice deserves a meaningful restoration to its original, richly ornamented interior.
First Presbyterian Church (1852)
Another example of a builder-turned-architect’s masterpiece can be found in Racine (716 College Ave.). First Presbyterian is among the finest examples of Greek Revival style in Wisconsin. Its cream brick entrance façade is recessed behind two monumental Doric columns, and its tower with steeple bespeaks the style of Sir Christopher Wren’s London churches. This well-proportioned element springs from a square plinth with an octagonal, louvered belfry framed by eight ionic columns. The tower’s bell was once used to call volunteer firemen. Architect Lucas Bradley’s masterwork was recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey and is in the National Register of Historic Places.
Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary (1859)
The oldest chartered academic institution in Wisconsin, it stands on the east shore of upper Nashotah Lake (2777 Mission Rd.). At its core is the chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, a distinguished stone Gothic structure patterned after a typical buttressed English parish church. Its architect was the progenitor of the Gothic Revival in America, Richard Upjohn. Only 20 years earlier, he’d drawn the plans for New York’s famous Trinity Church on Broadway. After relatively humble beginnings, the Nashotah chapel was regularly improved with ornamental woodwork. A Scottish craftsman gave the interior a 15th-century perpendicular Gothic look with fine tracery grilles and furniture of Wisconsin red oak. Later, oak pews with richly carved poppy-head finials and a wooden ceiling were added.
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church (1866)
Another fine example of the English parish church can be found in the charming little Waukesha village of Sussex (W239 N6440 Maple Ave.). Named after the first Christian martyr in Great Britain, St. Alban’s has a design based on the Peasmarsh Parish Church (described as Norman and Early English) in Sussex County, England, the home church of some of this area’s founders. The building was dedicated in 1866 by Bishop Jackson Kemper, the first missionary of the Episcopal Church in America. The three-tiered square tower was added in 1875.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (1866)
This Racine church (614 Main St.) was designed by one of Milwaukee’s most prominent 19th-century architects, Edward Townsend Mix. The Connecticut native was married to a second cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Mix’s early apprenticeship to New York architect Richard Upjohn exposed him to Gothic revival style. His version here is distinguished by richly molded entrance doors, the broach spire and his unusual corner tower set on an angle to the main structure. A tower clock and bells were added in 1887.
St. Anthony’s Catholic Church (1867)
Unlike most rural stone churches, St. Anthony’s (N74 W13604 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls) was built on a large scale and atop a hill that had been a gathering place for the Menomonee and Chippewa tribes. Its unusually large octagonal belfry and tall spire dominate its neighborhood. Beautifully crafted with split-faced limestone “bricks,” the church leans to both Romanesque style and the Victorian Italianate, which was then at the height of its popularity. The most unique design features are the side walls, which are divided by buttresses into five bays, each topped by its own gable.
Jesus Our Shepherd (1867)
Near Nenno in Washington County (7003 Highway 175), the former S.S. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church was built the same year as St. Anthony’s. Both have three-tiered, buttressed square towers with octagonal belfries supporting spires. But the similarities end there. Jesus Our Shepherd is made of Cream City brick set on a fieldstone foundation. The real rarity is the three buildings standing side by side: On opposite sides of the church is an 1867 brick rectory with lacy Gothic bargeboards and an 1870s brick school with an unusual Gothic false front. Amid the surrounding farmland, the three gems are a surprising sight.
St. James Episcopal (1867)
Believed to be the first stone church in Milwaukee, St. James (833 W. Wisconsin Ave.) was designed by a Detroit architect, Gordon William Lloyd. Born in Cambridge, England, he studied under an uncle, who was a well-known church builder and later president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Eventually, Lloyd settled in Detroit, where he became a major figure in that city’s ecclesiastical architecture. The pattern for St. James was probably Lloyd’s Central Methodist Church in Detroit, begun a year earlier. The Detroit and Milwaukee churches both have corner towers, heavily buttressed Gothic belfries, and broach spires that are almost identical. A little-known secret is that St. James was built on what had been an early cemetery. When the church acquired the land, the existing remains were reinterred at Forest Home Cemetery. However, the basement still contains grave-pocked soil with a few surviving headstones. In 1872, the almost-new church was gutted by fire, leaving only the walls and tower standing. It was rebuilt in just two years.
All Saints Episcopal Cathedral (1868)
The first Episcopal cathedral in the U.S. (at 818 E. Juneau Ave.) was, by a remarkable twist of fate, built by Congregationalists. The Episcopalians had purchased a lot on Juneau and Prospect. Bishop Kemper laid the cornerstone, but within a year, financial problems caused them to abandon the property. Meanwhile, the Olivet Congregational Church was erecting a building two blocks west at Juneau Avenue and Marshall Street. They, too, ran into financial problems and were forced to sell their beautiful new $63,000 church to the grateful Episcopalians for only $35,000. Designed by Edward Townsend Mix, this 1868 Gothic Revival gem, with its 190-foot tower, is one of the best of its style in the region.It’s also considered the city’s finest example of all-pressed Cream City brick construction.
Calvary Presbyterian Church (1870)
Calvary (935 W. Wisconsin Ave.) was constructed with Milwaukee’s renowned Cream City brick. While some Chicagoans paid a premium to face their buildings of local pink brick with our beautiful light-yellow product, Calvary went the other way. Its leaders decided to paint the entire church red. The architect, H.C. Koch, might have been disappointed with their rejection of his color choice, but he won the steeple issue. It seems a church elder was afraid of the unusually tall western tower and said a team of horses could pull it over. Koch called his bluff, brought in horses and rigged them to the steeple. After much grunting, they couldn’t pull it over. It still stands after 139 years.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church (1874)
Organized in April 1837, Immanuel Presbyterian is the oldest continuing congregation in Milwaukee. When its 1874 structure (1100 N. Astor St.) was built, it was touted as the state’s largest Christian church, and one newspaper called it “the most magnificent church edifice ever erected in the West or Northwest.” One of Edward Townsend Mix’s most important commissions, it soon became a major tourist attraction. The limestone structure was accented with dark red and gray sandstone trim, giving it the polychromatic look of buildings in Venice. The congregation could also brag about its original pipe organ, powered by a water motor using available pressure from the street main. In 1887, there was a fire, and the fire engine got stuck in the snow several blocks away. It took six horses to get it out, but by then, the entire inside of the church had burned. After two subsequent reconstructions, the church was completely restored.
Trinity Lutheran Church (1878)
Like Immanuel’s, the style of Trinity Lutheran (1046 N. Ninth St.) is Victorian Gothic. But while Immanuel has Italian leanings, Trinity’s inspiration is notably Germanic. And while much of Immanuel was rebuilt, this church is close to 100 percent original. The interior woodwork is heavily and boldly carved in what architectural historians call “muscular Gothic.” It’s as powerful an example of Victorian Gothic carpentry as can be found in the state. The stairway leading to the choir loft and the pulpit, with its staircase and canopy, are classic examples of this style. Also fascinating are the two cornerstones: One reads “Erected in 1878,” the other reads “F. Velguth architect” in larger and bolder letters. It’s unusual to find an architect’s name on a church. This mother church of Lutheranism in Milwaukee is sited on a bluff that drops dramatically to the east.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (1883)
Organized in 1838, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (914 E. Knapp St.) is Milwaukee’s oldest Episcopal congregation. Built with red Lake Superior sandstone, it’s also the city’s finest example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. While Edward Townsend Mix was the church’s architect of record, a published drawing in the Architectural Sketchbook raises questions. Henry Hobson Richardson (after whom Richardsonian Romanesque was named) designed a church in Buffalo that was never built, but whose design seems identical to Mix’s. Richardson’s drawing was published in 1873. St. Paul’s was built in 1883. Also intriguing: At least 10 of St. Paul’s stained-glass windows were made by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio in New York, including the largest window ever created by Tiffany, depicting “Christ Leaving the Praetorium.”
St. Mary’s Church (1890)
Built in 1890, St. Mary’s dominates the city of Burlington (108 McHenry St.), much as great French cathedrals tower over their humble villages. This beautiful Victorian Gothic church, with its 187-foot spire, caught fire on July 24, 1977, leaving only the walls and a stump of the tower. The church meant so much to the community that, with private contributions, the insurance settlement and volunteer assistance, it was fully rebuilt and restored in about two years.
The First Unitarian Church (1892)
While First Unitarian (1342 N. Astor St.)was built in the Victorian period, this gem was designed by Ferry & Clas in the Perpendicular Gothic style (the late Medieval style that gave way to the Renaissance). This design follows closely the English precedent for small stone parish churches. Inside, massive oak hammer beams support the roof. The tower’s spire culminates in a traditional English weathercock.
St. Michael’s Catholic Church (1892)
This limestone church (1445 N. 24th St.) offers a strikingly different interpretation of Gothic. Architects Schnetzky & Liebert were born and educated in Germany, and it shows in the details. A particularly Germanic aspect – and a Liebert specialty – is seen in a secondary transept off the vestibule: The tripartite capitals atop the main entrance columns are embellished with winged angel faces flanked by carved grapevines.
Roman Catholic Church of the Gesu (1893)
As it’s popularly known, Gesu (1145 W. Wisconsin Ave.) is another Gothic-style church, one inspired by the cathedrals of France. Architect H.C. Koch, who was also working on Milwaukee’s City Hall at the time, designed an imposing two-tower façade, with a third small tower called a fleche over the crossing of the nave and transept. Interior and exterior details closely follow French precedents. The triple-arched entrance portico was designed by Herman J. Esser in 1902. In 1911, the church acquired a fine 4,000-pipe organ from the Studebaker Theater in Chicago. From the north, Gesu’s dramatic silhouette can be seen for more than three miles.
Basilica of St. Josaphat (1897)
The history of this church (2333 S. Sixth St.) borders on the unbelievable. By 1896, the huge influx of Polish immigrants swelled the congregation to 12,000, making it the city’s largest parish. Father Wilhelm Grutza began planning for a larger church, and upon learning of the impending demolition of the Chicago Post Office and Customs House, he negotiated a deal to buy materials. For $20,000 he got 200,000 tons, including stone, doors, hardware, railings and light fixtures. It took 500 railroad cars to ship. Imagine the daunting task architect Erhard Brielmaier faced as he surveyed the stones spread out over the building site. Most architects would wilt under the pressure of reorganizing so many pieces into something that wouldn’t resemble the post office. Brielmaier created a masterpiece, but close inspection will reveal a few reminders. Some ornamental brass hardware bears the U.S. Treasury seal, and carved capitals atop the portico’s columns contain American Eagles. When it was finished, the reshuffled stone gave the church a ridiculous checkerboard appearance. Today, with its newly cleaned exterior, St. Josaphat’s looks better than it ever has.
Calvary Cemetery Chapel (1899)
As the monumental St. Josaphat’s was nearing completion, Erhard Brielmaier was working on a diminutive jewel box chapel for Calvary Cemetery (5503 W. Blue Mound Rd.). Sited atop a 100-foot-high hill, this Cream City-brick Romanesque structure derives its beauty from fine proportions and complex geometry. It is basically a tall cube with projecting pavilions on all four sides. Three are terminated in cylindrical half-domed bays, while the fourth serves as both the nave and western porch. The central block is crowned by an octagonal lantern. Similar Renaissance designs can be found in Italy (the Basilica of San Biagio near Montepulciano). Having suffered from neglect for many decades, Calvary Chapel began to deteriorate. In 1992, the archdiocese applied for a certificate to raze it. After a strong preservationist campaign, money was raised to stabilize the chapel. It was saved, but is still in need of interior restoration.
St. Vincent de Paul (1900)
By the late 1880s, Milwaukee’s Polish population was so large, it needed a fourth parish. St. Vincent de Paul (2100 W. Mitchell St.) was the answer, and the original church was quickly replaced as the growing parish decided a bigger one was needed. Polish architect Bernard Kolpacki designed a 182-foot-tall twin-towered structure. Built with light-tan pressed brick, the front elevation is complex but was handled with delicacy.
St. Joseph’s Convent Chapel (1917)
Milwaukee’s finest example (at 1501 S. Layton Blvd.) of Italian Romanesque Revival. Architect Richard Philipp (of Brust & Philipp) took a special trip to Italy to study the design and ornamentation of the period. One of his seven scrapbooks, “Romanesque,” is filled with large albumen photographic prints from Italy and packed with inspiration. Scaled like a small cathedral, this chapel’s interior is almost entirely imported. Eight mosaics and 115 stained-glass windows came from Innsbruck, Austria. Many wood carvings were made in Switzerland and the beautiful marble comes from six countries. Especially impressive is the use of Cosmati work, in which mosaic pieces are put into white Carrara marble. Built during World War I, it’s today valued at $3.5 million.
First Congregational Church (1921)
The conservative New Englanders who founded Wauwatosa’s First Congregational Church (1511 Church St.) employed recycling long before it was chic. The Congregationalists were the first to organize in the village, and this street was appropriately named after their first church, an 1853 clapboard structure. In 1888, when more space was needed, the old structure was jacked up and set on a new brick first floor, and a large vestibule addition was grafted on the front. A clumsy attempt was made to convert the complex into the then-popular Queen Anne style. When that remodeling reached a deplorable condition, parishioners decided to erect a new church. The result suggests a New England Colonial church. Architect Edwin O. Kuenzli based his design on the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, Mass., and his finely proportioned steeple – with its belfry, lantern and spire – is almost identical to the beautiful original. Meanwhile, the old 1853 church was recycled and moved to rear, turned sideways and attached to the new building as a gymnasium and dining room.
Holy Hill (1931)
The venerated Wisconsin landmark (Highway 167 near Hubertus) has the ponderous title Basilica of Holy Hill – National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians. To locals and some 500,000 annual visitors, it’s known simply as “Holy Hill.” The hill on which it stands is part of the Kettle Moraine, rising 1,350 feet above sea level, one of the highest elevations in southeastern Wisconsin. The red brick neo-Romanesque church, with its twin spires, rises an additional 192 feet. It was designed by Chicago architect Herman Gaul. Since Discalced Carmelite Friars operate the shrine without the help of a parish membership, its support comes from donations of visitors – busloads of the faithful on pilgrimages from all the states and around the world. Between 2002 and 2006, a $6.1 million restoration of both the interior and exterior was completed. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Holy Hill celebrated its proudest moment on Nov. 19, 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI elevated the shrine’s status to that of “Minor Basilica.”