The year was 1943 and members of the Milwaukee English Church were gearing up for a big move. After years of renting, the group numbering 70–80, had purchased land and building supplies, in preparation for construction of their own facility.
It was during this time that then-16-year-old fresh convert, Paul Freeman, joined the congregation and recalls hearing the disappointing news. Since supplies were needed for the Second World War raging in Europe, the government would not allow new building construction.
As church members investigated a way forward, they learned that remodeling existing buildings was permissible. It wasn’t long before they located a structure for sale.
But this wasn’t any ordinary building.
Just yards away from Lake Michigan, in an affluent Milwaukee neighborhood, a luxurious 25,000 square-foot mansion was on the market. Designed by renowned architect Alexander Eschweiler, the four-story edifice had been a gift from commodity trader, Jesse Hoyt Smith, to his bride, Ida. Built at a cost of $300,000, the mansion featured unique amenities such a ballroom and a 1,500-square-foot, 14-car garage. There were even quarters for servants, complete with an in-house telephone system presumably, said Paul, “to keep the staff hopping.”
The Smith heirs were asking $30,000 for the fabulous but aged 1912 property; however, once they learned a church was interested, the price dropped to $20,000. Paul, a 90-year-old retired chemist, recalls that, when the sale was complete, it was clear the newfound church home “was an answer to prayer.”
Hiring the same firm that designed the building, the congregation embarked on converting the mansion at 2229 N. Terrace Avenue into their church. During the remodeling of the second floor, consisting primarily of bedrooms, baths and the third-floor ballroom, rooms were removed to provide the high, peaked ceiling in the sanctuary and allow room for a worship space.
However, several rooms were left intact with just their function altered. For instance, a trophy room was converted into the Fireside Chapel and is currently used for adult Sabbath School class. A dining room is now the Junior Sabbath School room. A game room with a concealed bar used for cards and billiards now houses the Primary Sabbath School class. A photographic dark room, wine cellar, fireproof projection room and laundry are now home to the Kindergarten and Cradle Roll classrooms. The original large garage, complete with white glazed brick, is now the Fellowship Hall.
Tim Krawczyk, a lifelong member of Milwaukee Central serving now as first elder, is a facility management consultant. With his background, he’s entrusted with the care of the church, and is quick to point out that Milwaukee Central’s showpiece is not its building.
“It’s not about the elephant skin in the library covering the walls. It’s not about the Italian marble in the Fireside Chapel. It’s not about the Russian black oak in the Junior Sabbath School room,” said Tim. “It’s what God has done with the people.”
What God has done is remarkable. Through generously share their building with other groups, God has allowed the birthing of several new immigrant churches; Milwaukee Hispanic Church and a Hmong congregation all began there, and the first Karen group in Wisconsin is now based there. The Milwaukee Seventh-day Adventist School was also launched by the congregation.
“God gave us this building for His purpose,” said Tim. “We use it while we can because when it’s time [for the end], we’ve got to go. Everything will be burned up anyway.”
So, as Milwaukee Central reflects on its past, Sheldon Bryan, who serves as the current pastor, says they’re preparing to celebrate what God has done. “As a family, we’ve mourned over our brokenness, our heartaches, our trials, while relishing whatever measure of healing, redemption and triumph we’ve witnessed God do through us in this Tabernacle by the Lakeside,” he said.
A huge celebration filled with preaching, praise and prayer is planned for April 5 and 6. For more information, please visit Milwaukee Central Church’s website at https://www.mcentralsda.com/.
Debbie Michel, Lake Union Herald