Closed Milwaukee school building opens up to seniors
Dorothy Barns, a tenant at Sherman Park Senior Living Community, talks about her new digs while in the community room at the new apartment complex. The former Jackie Robinson Middle School has been remodeled into senior housing.
Sherman Park center provides affordable housing for those 55 and older
Once, the hallways were filled with the frenetic energy and excited sounds of children headed to class.
Now, those same hallways are navigated by a group of older adults who bring renewed life and purpose to a stately school building that still bears the name of baseball great Jackie Robinson.
Sherman Park Senior Living Community is up and running, an old Milwaukee Public Schools building converted to affordable rental housing for those 55 and older.
The first residents arrived in September, the 68 units were leased by Christmas, and the facility at 3245 N. 37th St. will have its grand-opening celebration Wednesday.
But already, a community has formed, the newcomers melding into a tightknit group.
“This is heaven for older people,” says one of the residents, Henry Evans.
A $16 million housing development overseen by Gorman & Co. has transformed the old Jackie Robinson Middle School, which was closed in 2005. The 118,754-square-foot school building was constructed in 1926 and served for decades as Peckham Junior High School.
Gorman & Co. purchased the property from MPS for $600,000. Groundbreaking for the rehab occurred in September 2011, and it took nearly a year to complete. The project was financed with the help of federal affordable housing tax credits. Developers that receive those credits agree to lease apartments at below-market rents to those who earn no more than 60% of the area’s median income.
Rents are based on income of the tenants and range from $499 to $694 a month.
Ted Matkom, Gorman’s Wisconsin market president, is delighted with the reception the building has received. He still recalls his first walk-through.
“What stood out was the building was in impeccable shape,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it had been vacant for five years. It was heated, maintained in amazing condition. I thought the entire campus provided an unbelievable opportunity to put a shot in the arm for the community.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the project “a welcome addition to the neighborhood,” and he lauded Gorman & Co. for adding “homes for seniors in a part of Milwaukee that is a great residential neighborhood.”
“It makes sense to repurpose school buildings that are no longer needed by MPS, and this new use, senior housing, converts this building into a new community asset,” the mayor said in a statement.
Byron Thompson, the property manager, is accustomed to showing people around the building.
“When people are looking for an apartment they bring everyone with them,” he says.
Even though it’s fully rented, the building still pulls in a lot of visitors, only this time, they are officials from other cities, like Chicago, who are keen on seeing the development.
“In American cities there are a lot of schools that have closed,” Thompson says. “You have all this space. What do you do with a school?”
MPS owns 11 empty school buildings, officials say. In addition, one building was transferred to the city and four others were identified as surplus.
In recent years MPS has sold four buildings, leased 13 and reused seven.
Gina Spang, director of facilities and maintenance at MPS, says the old Jackie Robinson school building had the perfect blend of size, location and configuration for a successful resident rehab.
“I think it’s wonderful, a great use of a really solid, functional building,” she says.
The rehab is impressive. Art Burgess, a resident, calls the building “a jewel” and says the atmosphere is “peaceful.”
The living spaces resemble loft units, with hardwood floors, high ceilings, open kitchens and spacious bedrooms.
“The apartments are gorgeous and you have your own washer and dryer,” says Joann Bentley, who moved in with her mother in September.
The old gym has been converted into several apartment units, as well as a hair salon, nurse’s station and arts and crafts room.
There are an exercise room and business center.
And there are fine details that embrace the building’s historic character, with old school lockers and clocks along with display cases filled with school items like film projectors, musical instruments and vinyl records.
The attention to detail includes a wall of historic photographs of the Sherman Park neighborhood and other sites around Milwaukee along with large photos of Robinson from his glory days with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The main gathering place is the old library, turned into a community room, where bingo games are played on Wednesday nights.
And the bookshelves are being filled in book by book, the project overseen by resident Francine Smith, a former MPS employee.
“It’s nice here, the kind of place I’m used to, a school,” Smith says.
The children may be gone, but the building survives with new tenants and a new lease on life.