Historic Structures

First Unitarian Church, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: November 10, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin Church

The work of a distinguished local architectural firm, First Unitarian is a particularly attractive Neo-Gothic church that survives in an excellent state of preservation. It is, further, the oldest remaining church of the denomination in the city and has been designated a Milwaukee Landmark.

By the first week of January 1891, the society had purchased the site for its new church. Bids were submitted late in June and contracts awarded shortly thereafter. The application for the building permit (No. 128) is dated July 15, 1891. May 15, 1892, saw the first services in the new edifice, which was dedicated four days later. Church and grounds had cost some $50,000, according to a contemporary newspaper story.

The church at Astor and Ogden was the third built for the city's Unitarians, whose history began with the formation of the "Unitarian Society of Milwaukee" in 1842. In the next year they erected their first church, a Greek Revival building designed by Massachusetts architect George Guyld, at the northwest corner of Spring (now Wisconsin Avenue) and Second streets. Unfortunately, the last years of the decade found them unable to meet mortgage payments, and under foreclosure their building was sold to St. James Episcopal Church in 1850. Although services were discontinued altogether for a few years in the early 1850s, Unitarianism in Milwaukee survived the crisis it was to survive other difficult days in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--and reemerged in 1856 under the leadership of such influential local businessmen as William H. Metcalf, A. F. Clarke, E. P. Allis, and Charles F. Ilsley, assisted by Unitarian ministers from Boston and St. Louis. By 1857 the group had built and dedicated a second church, a wooden Gothic Revival building that stood on the east side of North Cass Street between State Street and Juneau Avenue. In 1859 the society was legally incorporated, and in 1861 constitution and by-laws were drawn up designating the group the "First Unitarian Society" and its edifice the "Church of the Redeemer". While the latter name was employed for only a few years, the church building itself, enlarged in 1858 and remodelled in the late 1860s, served the society through 1890. Twice during the period 1856-90, services were suspended because of financial problems and declining attendance: In the early 1870s (from May 1873, through spring of 1875 Olivet Congregational Church rented the building on Cass Street) and again, briefly, in 1885. By the late 1880s, however, the group was flourishing once more and by 1890 making plans to erect a third church. In December of that year they sold the old edifice to T. A. Chapman, whose reisdence stood on the adjacent lot and who had the building razed soon after he purchased it. Proceeds from the sale were applied to the cost of the property at Astor and Ogden and the new building. The society held services at the Athenaeum from 1891 until completion of the present church in May of the following year.

Throughout their history Milwaukee's Unitarians and their ministers have been active in what nineteenth century writers termed "unsectarlan" causes. In 1879, for example, they founded the Wisconsin Humane Society, and in later years their members were responsible for organizing the Protestant Orphan Asylum (predecessor of the Lakeside Children's Center), the Protestant Home for the Aged, and the Home for the Friendless (Friendship House). Their minister in 1861, N. A. Staples, had created something of a furor in the community with his sermon "The Irrepressible Conflict," a vigorous denunciation of slavery. W. F. Greenman, minister from 1907 to 1919, was largely responsible for the establishment of the Central Council of Social Agencies, forerunner of the Community Welfare Council. The society's members have included not only such well-known Milwaukee businessmen as those named above but also attorney E. L. Richardson, who served for a time as treasurer of the Meadville Theological School, the noted pediatrician Dr. Katherine Baird, and the famed journalist and historian John G. Gregory.