A brick-maker’s sons, New York natives Jonathan L. and George Burnham came to Milwaukee in 1843. The men pioneered Milwaukee’s brick industry; cream city brick: the City’s other namesake. As early as the spring of 1844, the brothers were making brick in the Menomonee River Valley, the steep banks of the valley proved the easiest place to extract Milwaukee’s stock of clay. After four years the brothers were able to purchase land at North 12th and West Bruce Streets for their own brickyard. At the time, brick making was rather arduous work done mostly by horse and hand, but Jonathan, George, and one of their employees, Mr. Marshall patented the first operable brick-making machine, thus revolutionizing the Burnhams’ brick company and the industry at large. The operable brick machine turned out more brick for less cost; consequently the majority of brick for the City’s earliest masonry buildings came from the Burnhams’ brickyard and made the brick available to more than just the affluent. The Burnham brickyard grew to be the largest in the city. In 1865, the brother’s ended their partnership under what was deemed “mutual consent” and divided the valley site. Both were successful and each continued under the operation of the Burnhams’ descendants. However as it were, the two brick companies were once again united, or more likely consolidated, back into one Burnham Brothers Brick Company in 1910. The brothers’ brick company was no longer listed in the City Directory after 1929.
Aside from brick making, Jonathan L. Burnham also established a significant real estate empire, which developed predominantly on the south side as a consequence of his original 80-acre land purchase in 1843. Thus, the building of topic today is the J.L. Burnham Block located at 100 E. Seeboth Street, a neighboring structure to the Axtell Hotel discussed previously. The plot of land where the J.L. Burnham Block currently stands was previously occupied by Daniel Newhall’s grain elevator and warehouse, Newhall Badger Warehouse. The four-story grain warehouse was slated for demolition in 1870 following reports of fire damage the previous year and the site poised for construction of new commercial buildings. From the time Union Depot was established along South Second Street in 1866 until it was vacated in 1886, Walker’s Point experienced a shift from warehouses, docks and small retail business to more significant retail ventures, hostelries, and taverns to accommodate traffic from the passenger railroad. Subsequently J.L. Burnham’s block was constructed in1871 on the south portion of the grain warehouse site.
The Block is a beautifully intact Italianate commercial building. Three bays wide and two stories tall, the J.L. Burnham Block emphasizes its horizontality unlike late Italianate buildings constructed throughout the city which are generally three stories tall and one bay wide. Burnham’s Block was constructed with a great level of masonry craftsmanship evident in the detailed articulation of the corbelled cornice, arched openings, ornamental features, and distinctive pediment, a craftsmanship that would be difficult to replicate today. The building imbues Early Italianate design with flat wall surfaces, symmetrical façade, and arcaded storefront. The arcaded storefront is one of few to survive in Milwaukee but was popular amongst 1860s Italianate commercial buildings.
The buildings earliest tenants were grocer W.D. Geisman in the east bay, Fritz Calies’ saloon in the center, and the Lewis and Bosustow grocery and provisions business in the west bay. The upper floor was occupied by offices and living quarters for the saloonkeeper. A succession of tenants occupied the storefronts in the following decades, but by 1884 all three storefronts contained saloons and living quarters for the saloonkeepers above. For a time there was a boarding house in conjunction with a saloonkeeper in the west bay.
After Jonathan’s death in 1891, the property in addition to other real estate was given to his daughter Annie L. Towne who entered into a five-year lease with Pabst Brewing Company in 1907. Following the districts commercial shift and the onset of prohibition, the building was occupied by a series of manufacturers. Hans Lochen & Son acquired the building in 1938 and was responsible for most of the alterations visible today including the large opening on the west wall, an elevator, and a new one-story garage and warehouse at the rear. Lochen & Sons used the building as storage until 1949 at which time is was listed as vacant. The J.L. Burnham Block disappeared from city directories after 1959.
The environment surrounding the Burnham Block was drastically changed in 1950 when the two neighboring buildings to the east, including the previously discussed Axtell, were demolished to make way for the gentle curve of South First Street to the bridge leaving Burnham’s partition wall as its baron east façade. The building remained in the ownership of the Lochen family and their business associates until the 1980s after which the building subsequently changed hands to no avail. In 2002, the building was conveyed to a developer who purportedly wanted to build a condominium on the site. The J.L. Burnham Block and its neighbors in the 100 and 200 blocks of South First and Second Streets were identified as historically significant in 1985-86 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Concern over condominium rumors led to the Burnham building’s local designation in 2004; however, recent history would have us believe that historic designation is variably of significance in the wake of development.
Currently the J.L. Burnham Building on East Seeboth is looking a little rough amongst its neighbors, some of which have been subject to restoration and others that have been replaced by glass storefronts and condominiums. Nonetheless, it’s standing for the time being; a beautiful and exceptionally unique piece of Milwaukee’s built heritage greeting northbound travelers on their way into the Third Ward.