Greene Building History

(taken from the original application for the National Historic Landmarks)

This free-standing, two-story brick building was erected originally as a fireproof college museum for the purpose of preserving and displaying the fossil and mineral collection and library of Thomas Arnold Greene.    The Greene Memorial Museum is a part of the old Milwaukee-Downer campus and is located adjacent to the original college buildings erected between 1897 and 1905. Designed by Alexander C. Eschweiler, Sr., these buildings are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Wisconsin Registered Landmarks, and Historic American Buildings survey as the Milwaukee-Downer “Quad.”1 Alexander C. Eschweiler, Sr., was a Milwaukee architect and founder of a family architectural firm that for nearly a century designed many of the area’s most important public, commercial, and industrial buildings as well as prominent homes and churches2. The Eschweiler holdings of the Wisconsin Architectural Archive contains the original architectural plans for the Greene Museum along with a general list of contractors’ construction accounts.

The museum is constructed of brick laid in 115 courses of Flemish bond with brick and concrete foundation. The facade is red brick, some of which was laid in decorative patterns such as chevrons and tiers, especially on the east side of the building to the north of the front door. Red sandstone composes the coping at the roof, at the second story ceiling line, and at the stringline between first and second stories. The roof is a bi­ level, flat roof of composition materials with tin flashing over a layer of cinder fill surrounding a central skylight. Three feet above the skylight is the upper roof level composed of wire glass.

Designed to be fireproof in order to protect the collection, the building was constructed almost exclusively of brick and concrete.      Steel beams support some of the internal structure, including an unusual system of concrete beams supporting the main floor.         The windows are patented fireproof windows with metal frames and chain pulleys; each window bears a metal plate indicating it was manufactured by Biersach & Niedermeyer Sheetmetal Works, 212-220 5th St., Milwaukee. The east door is wooden batten style with wrought-iron door handle and hinges. Lake Superior red sandstone pilasters topped by stylized leaf scroll carving flank the door, and the sandstone typanum above the door is carved with Greene Memorial Museum and branches with oak leaves and acorns crossed over a centralized coat-of-arms. On the north side of the door is a large electric coachlight with copper trim. Sawed red sandstone is used as window sills and keystones in upper story windows, as stringlines, and as decorative touches within the brickwork. Mortar between the bricks has struck mortar joints and was tinted to match the color of the red sandstone. The doorstep is a large, pink sandstone slab. The concrete front stoop with wrought iron railings, which faces east, is a replacement for the original, much larger staircase; this is the only significant alteration to the building. The original front staircase was L-shaped with concrete steps running east above the landing and north below it. Brick walls topped by stone coping flanked the stairs, and below the upper set of steps was a brick and concrete archway; this staircase was removed in 1949 because of archway deterioration.

The east door enters the building on the upper level, where two rooms are located. The smaller room is used as an office; the eastern one-third of this room was originally divided off as a vestibule. The present office contains Greene’s library in one of his large wooden specimen cases with 6 shelves, lockable glass doors, and two lockable storage drawers with elaborately carved handles below.   On the south wall are three, double-hung, fireproof sash windows in a row with a smaller window near the southeast corner. On the west wall of this room is a wooden panel door that leads to the interior staircase, and on the north wall is a wood door with small glass window, which was installed in the 1960s, that leads to the larger exhibit room.

The larger room has eight, pivot-sash skylight windows running in a row down the center of the room and a row of three, 18-paned hopper windows high on the west wall. The windows and skylight are surrounded by wood cornice whose pattern is continued on the ceiling on either side of the skylight as well. On the south wall are the doors to the office and another of the same type that leads to the stairs. The nine original drop lights in the ceiling were replaced with fluorescent lights in the 1960s.

Since 1913, this room has served as the main exhibit and storage area for the bulk of Greene’s collection of 13,000 mineral specimens and all of his 75,000 fossil specimens, mostly stored in nineteenth century wooden cases that line the north and west walls. These wooden cases were made by Milwaukee manufacturers expressly to store Greene’s collection3. They are 6.5 feet high and contain a total of 435 drawers, generally in columns of 14 drawers. Each drawer has two, black wooden and brass knobs and a porcelain plate with the drawer number painted on it with black paint, highlighted by gold leaf; the plate is also outlined in gold leaf. The drawer numbering system was initiated by Greene himself, and nearly every drawer contains a card bearing the drawer number, with its contents, written in Greene’s hand. The drawers are secured by a slat of wood that fits over adjoining edges of every two columns of drawers and locks into place with a skeleton key. Each key has an engraved brass number tag and hangs on its own hook in a small lockable wooden key case affixed to the south wall; the tags and keybox were installed in 1930. Two detached wooden cases with carved panel fronts and finials were also built for Greene in Milwaukee; one of these has 36 drawers, the other 24, and each has a locking system whereby a hinged slat at either edge can be locked in place over the drawer ends. Greene had these cases custom made to store his collection in his home, and they were moved to the museum by his heirs for that same purpose.

In addition to Greene’s personal cases, there are three, massive, nineteenth-century, two-sided wooden museum display cases which were manufactured in Milwaukee for Milwaukee-Downer College. On both sides of each case is a vertical display area surrounded by glass on three sides and a slanted subhorizontal display area with glass at the top; storage drawers with lockable panelled doors with brass fixtures are located below. These cases are now used for fossil display and storage.

The east wall and part of the south wall of this room are lined with modern glass and steel display cases, and several other similar cases are located on the floor in the east half of the room. None of these cases was installed permanently, all are free-standing and can be moved easily. They were purchased in the early 1960s to display Greene’s minerals for the Museum’s reopening. Also at this time, tile flooring was installed over the concrete floor.

The 20-step staircase that leads to the lower level has wooden railing and balusters with diamond shape carvings and a pyramidal finial.     Wooden wainscoting at railing-level is present throughout the stairwell, and there is a double-hung, sash window with 15 panes on the west wall. A small wooden corner shelf on the south wall originally held the visitor registration book.

Downstairs there are two large rooms and two lavatories. The largest room, located in the north half of the building, was originally an exhibit area for Milwaukee-Downer’s existing collection. It was converted into a classroom in the mid-1960s when the Milwaukee-Downer campus was purchased by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. On the west wall are four, tall, double­ hung sash windows with 28 panes each, grouped in pairs. Three, smaller, double-hung sash windows, each with 15 panes, are located on the north wall, and high on the east wall are three, 6-paned casement windows. In this room is one of Greene’s specimen cases, like those upstairs but shorter, which is used for storage of some of his minerals. A very large, two-tiered wooden case, containing 3 columns of 22 drawers each, houses Greene’s shell collection, some of which is in cotton-lined drawers as he stored them. These shells were collected by his sea-faring uncle, Welcome Arnold Greene, an early nineteenth century ship’s captain, on his voyages. In the northeast corner of the room are two large specimen display cases that extend from the floor to the ceiling.    Each one contains six shelves with three tiers of display area and two lockable glass doors each with 12 panes and white porcelain knobs. Below are storage shelves with wooden panel doors and brass fixtures; these cases are from Milwaukee College (forerunner of Milwaukee-Downer), but are very similar to the cases Greene used for display of his collection in his home.            A blackboard is hung on the south wall next to the original wood paneled door.    Free-standing student laboratory tables were installed in the 1960s.

The other room is entered through a hallway just at the foot of and east of the stairs. The door is wood panel. This room has been used recently as a faculty office but was built originally as a classroom for teaching geology and physiography at Milwaukee-Downer. The room contains a Greene specimen case identical to that in the adjacent room which is also used for storage of his minerals. This room has three double-hung sash windows on the south wall and one on the east wall.

To both the west and east of the stairs are short hallways leading to the lavatories. The original west wall of the original Milwaukee-Downer classroom was moved east to create a hallway and the east lavatory in the 1960s. Each lavatory contains a double-hung sash window, toilet and sink, and wooden wainscoting. Beneath the stairs are closets with wood paneled doors containing utilities.

The walls, ceilings, woodwork, including cornices and floor mouldings, wainscoting, and door and window frames, and most of the doors are original. Metal protective grates were installed over all lower story windows in the 1960s. All floors and stairs have been covered with floor tiling.    Originally, the building was steam-heated with radiators receiving steam from a power plant elsewhere on campus. The heating and lighting systems were replaced probably in the 1960s.

The door to the outside on the lower level is in the west wall. It was replaced with a metal security door in the 1980s. Outside, the door is sheltered by a flat roof supported by wrought-iron decorative brackets. The door sill is sandstone.

  1. Zimmermann, H. Russell. 1989. The Heritage Guidebook: Landmarks and Historical sites in Southeastern Wisconsin. Harry W. Schwartz, Milwaukee, p. 102.
  2. Davis, Richards. Fifty years of architecture. Milwaukee, privately published.
  3. Greene’s correspondence and records document where he purchased specimen cases, labels, and boxes that still, after 100 years, house his collection. Many of these items were specially made by Milwaukee area manufacturers to Greene’s specifications.