You’ve all seen it: that classic Cream City Brick building north of I-94 and just east of the Milwaukee River. I can’t be the only person who’s ever driven in or out of the city and thought one of the following:

1. That’s a gorgeous building – how is it empty?

2. Why is it surrounded by parking lots?

3. I wonder what it was?

I’m assuming I’m not alone in my curiosity, so I had to explore further…

Wisconsin Leather Company Building. All photos by Joe Powell.

Wisconsin Leather Company Building. All photos by Joe Powell unless otherwise noted.

The Wisconsin Leather Company was founded in New York in 1809 and expanded to Milwaukee in 1846. It had a number of different locations on Water Street before commissioning this new storefront to be built in 1874. Located at 320 E Clybourn St, the building is now the only thing standing in any direction – except for a freeway overpass and parking garages.

I-94 overpass south of Clybourn & parking lot to the east.

I-794 overpass south of Clybourn & parking lot to the east.

In the 1870s, this was a bustling center of commerce. Location was key: a block from the merchants in the Third Ward, neighbor to the bankers and businessmen in Juneautown, and a stone’s throw from both the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. To emphasize the stature of their business and location, Wisconsin Leather hired renowned Milwaukee-based architect Edward Townsend Mix to design the building at the height of his popularity.

Edward Townsend Mix's name at the pinnacle.

Edward Townsend Mix’s name at the pinnacle.

By 1892 Wisconsin Leather had moved on and Charles L. Kiewert Co., a brewery-supplier, had moved in. Tenants have changed many times over the years, with the most recent being an exotic art and furniture store called From Afar. However, owner Lorette Russenberger has been sitting on the empty building for a few years now waiting for the market to be ripe again. It appears she’s ready, as The Boerke Company is now listing the property for a cool $1.1 million (almost $500,000 over its assessed value).

The west face has plenty of windows overlooking parking lots.

The west face has plenty of windows overlooking parking lots.

The building, though it could use some updating, is still in magnificent shape. Though The Boerke Company did not respond to my request for a walk-through, their website has images of the interior and mentions that the original elevator still runs on water pressure; the only like it left in the city.

Interior shots (The Boerke Company).

Interior shots (The Boerke Company).

I honestly love the style of this building. It saddens me that it’s an empty island in a sea of poor city planning; fortunately, it’s been spared the wrecking ball (thus far). The Wisconsin Leather Company Building is another beautiful example of classic Milwaukee architecture and the brick-color that made us famous. I hope someone coughs up the money to turn it into something worthwhile. I’m thinking coffee and bikes?

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