Tuesday, September 28, 2021
By Bobby Tanzilo
This piece is exclusive to Milwaukee Recreation and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission.
Ask any Bay View senior and they’ll tell you all about the old Beulah Brinton Center, which opened in a disused firehouse on St. Clair Street in the south shore neighborhood in 1924.
They’ll remember everything from theater plays to basketball, English and Italian language classes to pigeon clubs and, above all, they’ll remember that the center offered the opportunity to take showers – a real treat in a neighborhood full of homes without such amenities.
That’s why when the center closed in 1977 – the firehouse had become harder and harder to maintain and anyway it stood in the way of the planned Lake Freeway – it hit the neighborhood hard.
It’s also why a new Beulah Brinton Community Center – named for the woman who was always eager to lend a hand to the neighborhood’s immigrant and working class residents – was announced in 1978.
The original center was named by the Bay View Businessman’s Committee to recognize Brinton’s contributions, which included the first kindergarten and the first circulating library in the neighborhood.
When the new center was announced, Mary Martinetto – who had been active at the center for many years – lobbied Alderman Clifford Draeger to keep the name.
“We have heard many rumors going around Bay View that the name of the recreation center might be changed,” she told a reporter. “We in Bay View are not in favor of this. Mrs. Beulah Brinton was so generous and thoughtful of the people in Bay View that she started the first recreation center, in fact we might never have had such a wonderful place to spend our leisure hours.”
Born in New York, Brinton moved to Milwaukee from Detroit in 1872. She was a relative of Capt. Eber Brock Ward, who owned the lakefront rolling mill that employed most of the neighborhood’s workingmen.
“Brinton could have played Lady Bountiful and taken her place in the society of the wives of successful manufacturers, merchants, professional men and land speculators,” wrote Jay Joslin in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1983. “However, the tall young matron with snapping black eyes and a commanding voice believed that every man and woman had ‘duties to your fellow man’.”
When the center opened – the 12th in Milwaukee Public Schools, which had begun opening its buildings to the community in the evenings in the early 1910s and which launched its recreation division in 1911 – it was an extension and enhancement of services Brinton had been providing at her home.
In the yard of her home on Superior Street, she added a tennis court and invited children to use the green space for recreation, creating what some believe is the first community center in the country.
Thus, it seems if there was talk of naming the new center for someone else, such discussion did not last long.
In July 1979, federal funds were made available to replace the razed firehouse, a block west, on the other side of the train tracks, on Bay Street, just north of Russell Avenue, and plans were drawn for a $1.7 million community center that was expected to be complete in late 1980 or early ‘81.
In 1978, according to the Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Recreation spent $350,000 to install outdoor tennis and basketball courts, fields for baseball, football and soccer, as well as other outdoor recreation facilities at the site, which would be run by a trio of full-time staffers, alongside some part-time employees and volunteers.
According to Community Development Agency Director Wallace E. Burkee (who had served as mayor of Kenosha from 1967 to 1976) , the new center was expected to serve not only as a replacement for the old Brinton Center – which he told the Milwaukee Journal in July 1979 was sorely missed in a neighborhood lacking recreational facilities – but as a building specifically designed as a community recreation center.
“We’re starting a trend here,” Burkee told the paper. “We see that there are going to be requests in other neighborhoods.”
Though work got underway in November, on Dec. 18, 1979, ground was officially broken on the 26,000-square-foot building that was to have a gym, multipurpose meeting rooms and a locker room with showers, and it was expected to be ready by the following October.
In January, Ed Cialdini and Jim Bertoglio of the Bay View Inter-Organizational Council began collecting objects to include in a time capsule that was to be interred beneath the new center.
“Since the start of the new community center took place in Bay View’s centennial year, it seems appropriate to include references to this occasion,” Cialdini told the Bay View. In addition to books and articles on Bay View and its history, Cialdini added that, “Current events will be history in a hundred years, or whenever destruction of the new center comes about. That’s why we plan to include the 1979 Groppi grocery store calendar, among other present-day articles. Maybe Groppi’s will be around for a hundred years, too!”
That same month, contractors John and Jim Marino reported making good progress and being nearly ready to plant the time capsule in the ground.
“The piling work was more than 50 percent complete when this week started,” Jim told the Bay Viewer, adding that favorable weather had been key. “We have set a target date for completion by September of this year, even though we have more time under our contract.”
But work couldn’t progress fast enough for neighborhood residents like Jim Luedtke.
Luedtke, who long attended the old center and worked for more than two decades as a playground attendant, was, according to one undated news report, “watching the building, officially and unofficially, to guard against vandalism.”
Due to a variety of factors, including what one newspaper cryptically referred to as “current labor difficulties,” the center was not ready to open until spring 1981 and a grand opening event was slated for May 17.