Historic Structures

St. James Episcopal Church, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: November 18, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin Church

St. James', considered one of Wisconsin's finest Gothic Revival buildings, is reported to be the city's first stone church, and is now the denomination's oldest surviving church edifice in Milwaukee. Ground was broken on May 27, 1867, and on July 25 the cornerstone was laid. St. James' opened on July 25, 1868. Cost of the church and its furnishings exceeded $50,000.

St. James' Church was erected for Milwaukee's fourth Episcopal parish, founded in 1850. Their first church, at Spring Street (Wisconsin Avenue) and Second Street, was a frame structure, Greek Revival in style, and originally built for the Unitarian Society. In the early 1850s they moved it to the site of the present building, a site that then contained an old cemetery. Most of the graves and markers were transferred to Forest Home Cemetery in the 1850s, but a few may still be seen in the church basement. For many years after construction of the new church, the old one remained nearby, continuing to serve the parish until it was finally demolished in the mid-1920s.

Among the church members who played important roles in the erection of the church in the 1860s was the prominent Milwaukee businessman Alexander Mitchell, who served on the building committee and is reported to have donated funds amounting to almost one-third of the building's cost. Despite the generosity of Mitchell and other contributors, debts incurred in the building and reconstructing St. James' were not paid in full until the early 1890s. Only then could the church be consecrated, and this took place on June 3, 1892.

In 1870 the tower and spire were finished, and during the next year a carillon of nine bells, manufactured by Jones and Co, of Troy, N. Y., and a new organ, built by Marshall Bros, of Milwaukee, were installed, and a fence was put up in front of the church.

A fire of undetermined origin swept through St. James' on December 31, 1872, destroying everything but the stone walls, tower, spire, and bells, windows in the north wall, and, possibly, the clerestory windows. By mid-January, 1873, funds were being raised to rebuild the church, and this task, commenced in April 1873, was completed in all but a few details by April 19, 1874, when St. James' reopened. Interestingly, the edifice was reconstructed according to Gordon Lloyd's original plans and as rebuilt, included the chancel, intended from the outset but not erected in the 1860s for economic reasons. Detailed descriptions of the new St, James' appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel for June 20, 1873 and April 18, 1874, and in the Evening Wisconsin for April 1, 1874 (reprinted in the History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chicago, 1881, 863-864). The articles also inform us that the construction work was done by day laborers supervised by Robert McKelvey, who had been employed on the original building, and Henry Weissenborn was the carpentry and woodwork foreman. Expenditures for the project totaled $40,000.

In 1891 the church acquired a new organ, built by the Lancashire Marshall Co. of Moline, IL. In the years immediately following consecration of the edifice (1892), electric lights were installed and the interior was redecorated.