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Milwaukee's forgotten architects
Many neighborhoods shaped by designers' prolific works

Photos by Dan Bishop

March 2014

Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood was built primarily by the firm of George Schey & Sons. Son Perce was the primary architect.

When architectural historian Chris Szczesny-Adams and her husband were buying an 1899 home on Milwaukee’s East Side, she called her dissertation adviser to see if he knew of its architect, Elmer Grey. "‘You mean Elmer Grey of Pasadena?’" Szczesny-Adams recalls him saying. "From then on, I knew I had found something that was going to be very interesting."

One fact she quickly learned: Before being known as Elmer Grey of Pasadena, he was Elmer Grey of Milwaukee.

Not much recalled in Milwaukee today, Grey has long been regarded as a star architect in California. Starting in the early 1900s, he designed important Southern California landmarks and English Tudor, Beaux Arts and Craftsman Spanish Colonial homes for starlets and businessmen in that state. His California homes are highly prized today and sell for millions.

Architect Max Fernekes worked in a variety of styles on Milwaukee’s East Side, including this home in the North Point Historic District.

Born in 1872 in Chicago, Grey moved to Milwaukee, attended public schools here and worked for nine years as a young apprentice at the local Alfred C. Clas and Ferry and Clas architectural firms. During that time, he helped design the Milwaukee Public Library and the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library in Madison.

Grey started his own practice in 1898 in Milwaukee. One of his first works was his own Newport Shingle-style summer home in Fox Point overlooking Lake Michigan. The highly praised design resulted in his becoming, at a very young age, an American Institute of Architects fellow.

Before moving to Pasedena, Calif., where he went on to become a renowned architect, Elmer Grey designed numerous buildings in Milwaukee, including this East Side home.

Grey moved to Pasadena in 1904, initially forming a firm with Myron Hunt and then starting a long-enduring solo practice in 1910. Grey, singly or with Hunt, designed many notable southern California landmarks, including the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Huntington Art Gallery (originally the home of Henry E. Huntington) and the Pasadena Playhouse. During his career, Grey designed about 150 prominent homes, churches, hotels and other buildings in California and elsewhere. He died in 1963 at age 91 in the Pasadena mansion he designed for himself.

Among Grey’s Milwaukee gems are his Fox Bay home (now on East Thorne Lane), Milwaukee’s Sixth Church of Christ, Scientist, on North Van Buren Street and several noteworthy large East Side houses. These include his first solo commission ­— Szczesny-Adams’ 4,100-square-foot home on East Kenwood Boulevard near UW-Milwaukee, which was featured in a 1901 issue of House Beautiful.

Grey’s anonymity in Milwaukee may not last long. Szczesny-Adams has been researching Grey and plans to publish her results online and in other media.

Jeff Bentoff owns the public relations firm Bentoff Communications. He is the author of "Just The Facts: The 100-Year History of Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum." He writes about East Side history on the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood website. He and his wife have lived in a Schley home since 1998. 

Grey designed the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel in the Mediterranean Revival style.

Milwaukee’s Sixth Church of Christ, Scientist, 1036 N. Van Buren St., built in 1902, is among Grey’s works.



This story ran in the March 2014 issue of: