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The History of Cathedral Square

Oct. 13, 2010
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Cathedral Square, the green gathering space in the heart of Downtown Milwaukee, serves as a point of convergence for popular events like Bastille Days, the East Town Market and the city’s favorite Thursday night tradition, Jazz in the Park. The land’s purpose as a meeting place for Milwaukeeans has roots in the 1830s, when speculators from the East arrived with intentions of making a city from the swamp that covered central Milwaukee.

Solomon Juneau, a fur-trader-turned-real-estate-mogul (and later Milwaukee’s first mayor), and his business partner, Morgan Martin, an influential Green Bay lawyer, were committed to developing a village on the east side of the Milwaukee River. They were in fierce competition with Byron Kilbourn, a surveyor and railroad executive developing the river’s west side. Hoping to attract settlers, Juneau and Martin did everything they could to ensure that their side of the river remained the center of the growing settlement, and that meant creating traffic.

In 1835, Juneau became Milwaukee’s first postmaster, a designation that made his trading post, as Milwaukee historian John Gurda describes it, “the single most important gathering place in the settlement.” The next year, Juneau and Martin built a courthouse in the Greek Revival-style on the north end of what is now Cathedral Square and presented it to Milwaukee County. The small courthouse (it only measured 51 feet by 42 feet) was used for hearings, trials, meetings and political gatherings, and was, at times, a school and a jail. In the 1840s wings were added to the tiny building to accommodate other government offices.

The blocks surrounding Courthouse Square, as it was called back in the day, attracted different kinds of development. In 1847, Bishop John Henni broke ground on Wisconsin's first Roman Catholic cathedral, St. John’s, a project of epic proportions that would take more than five years to build.

By the mid-1850s, the courthouse was so overcrowded that Milwaukeeans were calling for a new seat of local justice. Naturally, West Siders wanted the new courthouse to be on their side of the river, but East Siders won out again. In 1870, construction began on a new courthouse directly behind the old one. This time, it was massive. Its imposing dome, together with the cathedral’s tower, would command Milwaukee’s skyline for decades.

In 1931, the West Siders finally got their way: A new courthouse was completed on the west end of Kilbourn Avenue (and is still used today). In 1939 county officials had the old courthouse razed, making Courthouse Square on the East Side the new Cathedral Square.


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