A March 25, 2008 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel began, “Though no doubt many lives were saved by the rescue missions launched from its docks, repeated efforts could not save Milwaukee’s historic U.S. Coast Guard station, which finally fell victim to a wrecking crew Tuesday after standing watch over Lake Michigan for almost 100 years.” Whether you considered the old coast guard station a historic treasure in need of restoration, or an eyesore that met its destiny, its role in Milwaukee’s heritage and maritime history should not be forgotten.
According to the report prepared for Historic Designation for the former US Coast Guard Station Milwaukee was identified as a possible site for a lifesaving station in 1873. The Life Saving Service, a forerunner of what would eventually become the U.S. Coast Guard, began as a volunteer activity. A lifesaving station was not constructed until 1877 in the aftermath of a serious shipwreck in the fall of 1875. A two-story, Gothic Revival style building was constructed at the end of South Pier, near the “Straight Cut” or new mouth of the Milwaukee River. By 1886 the lifesaving station had been relocated to Jones Island, where it was headquartered in an attractive, Shingle Style structure.
When Jones Island became polluted due to overflow of the city’s sewerage system, efforts began to find a new location on the lakefront. “A Milwaukee Sentinel article of May 13, 1915 reported that Captain Olsen had been dissatisfied with the illness of his crew from the polluted conditions and the fact that the water level had been falling at that location for several years.” This coincided with federal plans to create a new agency called the Coast Guard – a consolidation of the previous U.S. Lighthouse Service, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the U.S. Lifesaving Service, and the Steamboat Inspection Service.
The federal government was already in the process of finding a site along the lakefront. Formal action was taken in court for the condemnation of lakefront property at McKinley Park on February 13, 1913. The site was chosen because it was one of two large parcels that the city had reclaimed from the lake bed, the other being the Northpoint Pumping Station. Both sites had become popular recreation destinations for residents who had no other access to the lakefront.
On May 26, 1913, the Common Council decided that “in view of the benefits to the city from the relocation of said lifesaving station, and in view of the fact that the United States of America has heretofore given the city a permit to fill in the harbor for park purposes for a distance of 600 feet from the shore, the City of Milwaukee waives any claims it may have for damages for the taking of said piece of land for a site for the life saving station, and will accept a nominal sum therefore (sic) as damages.” The resolution was adopted on May 13, 1915. A newspaper account in the Milwaukee Sentinel of May 13, 1915 reported that the Federal government would turn over its Jones Island site in exchange for the new lakefront property.
Alfred C. Clas, who had designed the Lake Park pavilion with its grand staircase and was busy with plans for the Lincoln Memorial Drive, submitted plans for the Coast Guard Station that although not used, must have influenced the Prairie style stucco structure.
Work on the structure did not begin until 1915, and was completed and ready for occupancy on April 17, 1916 when the Sentinel ran a photo of the building complete with caption. The new facility was a three story, rectangular, Prairie Style structure with a prominent five-story tower located at the southeast corner of the building. It was more spacious than the Jones Island station with accommodations for two powerboats, and other craft associated with rescue work, private quarters for Captain Ingar Olsen and his family, and quarters for up to eight crewmen. The new facility had a boat room and apparatus room, but for motorized boats, not sailboats that required horses to draw them out of the water. A one-story boathouse wing extended from the building on its Lake Michigan façade and extended north beyond the main block of the building.
The Coast Guard would occupy the building until 1970. A new station was built at 2420 South Lincoln Memorial Drive in Bay View, where they remain at present.
According to the 3/15/08 Journal Sentinel article, “after the federal government closed the old facility in 1971, the building was occupied in a political protest by American Indian Movement activists and later became the first Indian Community School in Milwaukee.” The school left the site after 1980 and the Milwaukee County Parks then considered using the facility for its headquarters.
The county purchased the site in 1987 for $200,000 when the federal government divested itself of the surplus property. A National Register nomination was prepared for the station in 1988 and the building was subsequently listed in the National Register on August 7, 1989 based on architectural and historic significance.
Since that time the old Coast Guard station has met with many challenges. A number of proposals have been entertained for the building including a restaurant and maritime museum in 1989. Objections from the DNR over private businesses on the public lakefront quashed the restaurant proposal. A fire in the building in 1989 led the County DPW to report the structure as unsound.
An environmental education center was considered for the site from 1997 to 2000 when the sponsor decided to move the facility to another location. In 2001 the County voted to raze the building and was asked by the State Historical Society to make a final attempt to seek proposals for the structure. A number of proposals were received and reviewed by Milwaukee County and the DNR among others. The HONOR proposal for a Wisconsin Indian History and Cultural Center was considered the most appropriate for the lakefront site. Since that time HONOR has attempted to secure the necessary funding for the 4.1 million dollar project. The lease between Milwaukee County and HONOR expired in March 2007, and the county gave the group a six-month extension. HONOR was unable to reach its fundraising goal.
Today, if you drive along the lakefront you will notice all that remains is the metal pedestrian bridge that was likely built as part of the 1938 replacement of the old Coast Guard station boathouse. The Parks Department plans to integrate the bridge into the reconstructed bulkhead and landscaping around a proposed picnic shelter.
Laurie M. Albano compiled this article with information from the City of Milwaukee’s Interim Designation Study Report, Coast Guard Station, August 2001, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and other Milwaukee County Files