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Two Professors Research Historical Influences on Milwaukee's Housing

polishflat

Milwaukee's Polish flat takes center stage in two lectures: “The Residential Landscape of Milwaukee,”  by Tom Hubka and Judith Kenny, at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Golda Meir Fourth Floor Conference Center (free), and “Bungalows, Multi-Flats, and Converted Cottages: the Emergence of National Housing Culture," by Hubka at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the School of Continuing Education. ($40, email tmahoney1@unl.edu.)

Photos from the Milwaukee Neighborhoods collection at Golda Meir Libraries

The evolution of Milwaukee ’s distinctive housing stock was driven largely by the social class of neighborhoods rather than the influence of the immigrants’ previous housing traditions, according to two faculty members at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

Between the 1880s and 1920s, housing in most Milwaukee neighborhoods reflected the city’s working-class character, says Thomas Hubka, a professor of architecture, and Judith Kenny, an associate professor of geography and urban studies. Thus, the densely crowded, two-room multi-flats of the Polish communities existed because Poles comprised the lowest level of the labor hierarchy.

“A ‘Polish flat’ is an American workers’ cottage that has been raised to create a new basement floor, thus becoming a modest two-story flat,” says Kenny. “It’s housing that developed once immigrants got here. However, it does reflect Polish cultural values, such as home ownership, and the importance of family and of living among Polish neighbors.”

Hubka, an architectural historian and professor, and Kenny, an associate professor of geography and urban studies, both research the effect of immigration and class on Milwaukee ’s unique housing stock. The development of working class housing is not a subject that has been extensively explored, compared to the well-documented houses of upper- and middle-class Americans.

Hubka and Kenny examined Milwaukee ’s residential landscapes as part of the “Symposium on Milwaukee History” held in October, and Hubka also spoke on “Bungalows, Multi-Flats, and Converted Cottages: the Emergence of National Housing Culture,” at the Second Biennial Urban History Conference also held in Milwaukee in October.

By 1900, the duplex was the most common form of housing in Milwaukee , reflecting the city’s growing number of skilled workers, says Hubka. Workers’ cottages also gave way to the hallowed bungalow, a single-family house style that is often associated with an expanding middle class in Milwaukee and Chicago in the early 20 th century.

It was the German influence that gave bungalows their familiar brick exteriors here, he adds. But bungalows were not unique to Milwaukee . They began cropping up all over the U.S. as the middle class swelled. With its large front porch and separate bedrooms for parents and children, the bungalow introduced the notion of privacy and relaxing in the home to thousands who had never experienced leisure time before.

“‘Bungalow’ was almost a religious term,” says Hubka, who recently completed a 20-city trip studying working-class housing around the nation. “It referred to what people might have yearned for. It was a move-up home that symbolized the advancement of the working classes.”

Cottages and bungalows were the first of what is now called ‘spec’ houses, designs that were mass-produced, although that term is now associated with the suburbs. “The mechanisms of full-blown industrialization are present here,” he says.

In addition to documenting the Polish south side and the German north side of Milwaukee , Hubka has found both unity and variety among the working-class housing across the country – from Boston ’s triple-deckers to the Southern mill villages to California bungalows.

Kenny’s research has centered on urban housing, from Milwaukee ’s Washington Heights neighborhood to public housing, such as the Depression-era Parklawn Homes.

When Washington Heights was developing in the 1910s, real estate promoters described it as the quintessential American community with suburban-like amenities and densities, she says. Today, residents revel in its “walkable” city location and take pride in their commitment to urban living.

“Our whole vocabulary is different now,” says Kenny about words used to characterize an area. “It raises some interesting questions about our environment, about affordable housing and the public’s role in that.”

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