Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood of North Point has always been a place of distinction and style. In an excerpt from his new book, 'Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods,' local historian John Gurda leads readers through North Point’s storied past.
A picturesque water tower, a lighthouse, and a hospital—those are the landmarks you see on North Point’s skyline from the far side of Milwaukee Bay. The view from within the neighborhood, below the treeline, is substantially different. North Point is a narrow band of gracious homes inlaid on the lake bluff like architectural gems; the fine homes and the prevailing sense of privacy have made North Point one of Milwaukee’s most desirable addresses for well over a century. But the neighborhood is also an integral part of the intensely urban East Side. Apartment-dwellers are actually more numerous than single-family homeowners, and the community lies barely two miles north of Downtown. Its hybrid character and prime location have given North Point a place of distinction in the city’s history, geography, and civic life — a place the community continues to occupy with unmistakable pride.
In the Tower’s Shadow
North Point’s history began Downtown. In the 1840s, when Milwaukee’s social order was beginning to crystallize, the city’s most prominent families clustered on the high ground between the Milwaukee River and the lake, overlooking the future site of City Hall. There, within a stone’s throw of their shops and offices, prosperous businessmen and professionals built the most imposing homes of their time. As other neighborhoods filled in with immigrants, the high ground became a haven for American-born newcomers of British stock, most of them transplanted from New York and New England. Their neighborhood was called, fittingly, Yankee Hill.
As Milwaukee grew, so did Yankee Hill. Fortunes were being made in milling, meat-packing, finance, railroads, and the grain trade, and architects worked overtime designing homes for the city’s burgeoning elite. Year by year the neighborhood expanded to the north and east, reaching the lake bluff in the 1860s and then edging up Prospect Avenue. By 1890 the avenue, with its magnificent “prospect” of the lake, boasted one of the finest collections of Victorian mansions in the Midwest.
Speculators who owned property in the North Point area had long sensed that a wave of affluence was headed their way. As they played their waiting game, development of another kind was well underway in North Point. In 1846, the year Milwaukee was chartered, the city bought a forty-acre parcel to be used “for welfare or charitable” purposes. The tract was bordered by today’s Downer and Maryland Avenues between Bradford and North. A primitive hospital for the indigent, this poorhouse was erected in 1846, followed by a “pesthouse” for patients with infectious diseases. The Daughters of Charity moved up from Downtown and opened St. Mary’s Hospital in 1858. A public school, Protestant and Catholic homes for the elderly, and an orphanage were added later in the century. The school, the homes, and a much-expanded hospital are still on the original forty-acre site, giving North Point one of the densest clusters of health and human service institutions in the city.
Public works projects also shaped the area’s appearance, beginning decades before homeowners arrived. In 1855 the North Point lighthouse was erected between two ravines on the lake bluff. Its beacon was a welcome sight for mariners at a time when lake traffic was absolutely essential to Milwaukee’s welfare. By 1888 erosion of the bluff was so far advanced that the lighthouse had to be moved 100 feet west to its present location.
In 1871 construction of the city’s first water system began. A powerhouse on the beach below St. Mary’s Hospital pumped untreated lake water up the bluff and under North Avenue to a large reservoir just west of the Milwaukee River. From there it flowed by gravity to the city’s homes and businesses. The original pumps were as steady as a heartbeat, sending the water uphill in an endless series of surges. The constant fluctuation in pressure created stress on the water main, and so engineers connected it to a vertical pipe, 125 feet high and 4 feet wide, at the top of the bluff. The standpipe absorbed the surges and stabilized the flow of water to the reservoir. In a moment of inspired whimsy, city officials decided to enclose the pipe in an ornate limestone tower. New pumps installed in 1908 made the standpipe obsolete, but the tower retains its fairy-tale quality—and its power as a neighborhood icon.
The last public improvement of the 19th century was Lake Park. In 1890 the city’s Park Commission, then only a year old, purchased 120 acres on the lake bluff. The commission hired the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most prominent landscape architect, to design a park on the site. (His firm’s other projects included Washington Park in Milwaukee and Central Park in New York.) The Olmsted plan called for an elaborate system of carriageways, pedestrian promenades, and tree plantings that would divide the park into visually distinct sub-areas. The plan was not executed in its entirety, but Lake Park became, and remains, one of the most artfully crafted links in a world-class park system.