Prison Cells with a River View… Coming to Milwaukee in 1983.

Jul. 18, 2016
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tannery

Pictured Above: The building that nearly became Milwaukee’s riverfront prison.


Milwaukee’s riverfronts are in the midst of a building boom as condominium and apartment buildings continue to spring up in nearly every available lot near the waterway. But as recently as the 1980s, the land along the Milwaukee River was considered nearly unsalvageable – a point made startlingly clear in 1983, when the State of Wisconsin made a major push to convert one riverfront structure into a medium-security prison.

The building was located at 1776 North Commerce Street, presently the site of the Beerline B Apartments. The 8-story factory was constructed in 1909 by Milwaukee’s Trostel & Sons Tannery – one of several tanneries that operated along the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers. After Trostel abandoned the plant in 1969, it remained mostly vacant and by the early 1980s was partially occupied by the Loop Cartage Company. The Brewers’ Hill Neighborhood in which the building sat had suffered similarly in the post-war years, with poverty and home vacancies on the rise as the area’s once-plentiful industrial jobs were lost to the suburbs or overseas. The area’s most prominent plant – the Schlitz Brewery – closed in 1982 and dozens of other homes and buildings had already been razed to make way for the Park East Freeway ramps.

Pictured Above: The Milwaukee River near its industrial peak.


Meanwhile, the state had been scouting for new prison sites since the mid-1970s. The existing prison faculties were badly overcrowded and state officials had determined that placing a prison in the heart of Milwaukee – where a large portion of the state’s prison population came from – could ease the burden on families of the incarcerated, placing their loved ones much closer to home. Milwaukee mayor Henry Maier vehemently objected, saying the plan of a Milwaukee prison was “proof that city of Milwaukee is being dumped on by the State of Wisconsin.” Despite the noisy objections of the mayor, a clear majority of Milwaukee state senators and assembly members supported the plan and in May 1983 the state passed a bill authorizing the conversion of the former tannery into a 200 bed prison. A defeated addendum to the bill would have wryly named the facility the “Henry W. Maier Rehabilitation Center.”

 
Mayor Henry Maier opposed the prison plan with such a vehemence that prison proponents vengefully attempted to name the facility in his “honor.”

Brewers’ Hill residents also strongly opposed the plan. As the sale of the land was pending, a neighborhood group joined in the city in a lawsuit against the state, claiming the sale was in violation of state law because the required environmental impact study on the new prison had not yet been completed. Despite a court order to delay the purchase of the site until the report was finished, state officials had gone ahead with the transaction anyway. A judge sided with the neighbors and ordered the sale voided.

By the summer of 1983, with the prison plan in flux, the state pressed for a reversal of the ruling. A pro-prison state-issued report on the matter claimed that the neighborhood had already been so badly depressed by the preceding decades of deindustrialization that the prison could not possibly further harm the area. Responding to the claim that the prison might cause residents to leave the neighborhood and depress property values, the state said that property values had already reached their nadir and that the bulk of the local populace was too impoverished to relocate.

The state also used the proposed design of the facility to allay fears. The 16-foot-tall, razor-wire topped fences and twin 30-foot guard towers would secure the prisoners and the added patrols of the grounds, it was claimed, would actually make the neighborhood much safer. The plan also called for the building to be neutrally painted, giving it the look of an unassuming office tower that could blend into its surroundings. And as for the prisoners, it was proposed that tinted or reflective glass could be placed in the windows of each cell, to prevent residents from seeing in, and to obscure any prisoners who might be looking out.

In July, another court ruling gave the state the OK to proceed with planning the conversion, although the transfer of the property remained on hold. The state was pleased with the ruling and announced that their plans for beginning work by the end of the year were still on track. Months later, the state announced that a second Milwaukee prison would be built in the Menomonee Valley near County Stadium. The Brewers responded by threatening their own lawsuit against the state.

The matter dragged on throughout 1984 with the Trostel site held in abeyance and the state official responsible for approving the purchase of the property, despite the court order forbidding it, was charged with contempt of court. In May, an appeals court dropped the charges and reversed the ruling on the sale, but after an appeal by the city, the state placed the Trostel prison project on hold, instead choosing to focus on the Menomonee Valley site. In May 1985, with the prospects dim for the project ever moving forward, a state legislative panel voted 5-4 to remove the Trostel property from consideration for conversion. The Valley prison plan would find a similar end, litigated to death by the interests opposed.

Pictured Above: The Beerline B Apartments (beerlinebapartments.com)


By winning in court, however, the state had been gifted with a property that quickly became a millstone. Soon after dropping the prison idea, routine soil testing at the Trostel site – which had been skipped during the purchase process – revealed the ground to be severely polluted by decades of tanning chemical spillage. The state tried numerous times to unload the land, but each sale was scuttled by the polluted earth. Finally, in 1992, the Trostel Company agreed to buy back and rehabilitee the land for development. The state sold the plot for less than $200,000 – nine years after buying for over $1.3 million. In 2012, after the property had been cleaned of its pollutants, the Beerline B Apartments opened on the site.

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