The Graduate School

Research And Opinion

Research and Opinion
Volume 10, Number 1
April, 1996

City Reform versus Neighborhood Traditions: Milwaukee's Urban Reform Efforts and the Housing Goals of the Polish Community, 1900-1920

Judith T. Kenny, Department of Geography
Thomas C. Hubka, School of Architecture & Urban Planning

In 1924 Milwaukee's socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan claimed that the city government had implemented policies which translated the "abstract principle of Americanism" to the "concrete realm of equal opportunities for the people" (Hoan in Lankevich, 1977). Included in this list of policies was a new city plan with requirements related to housing which, he stated, insured: "Our spirit is that of homes, not dives." Arguably, what had been inscribed in the plan did not deal solely with the basic issues of public health and safety but instead prescribed different cultural values and landscape tastes. At the same time, these planning policies -- which reflected urban reform efforts undertaken earlier in the century -- appeared to compromise the goals of many of Milwaukee's Polish citizens who saw their basic housing units, the "Polish Flat" and the "Rear House," as the keys not only to home ownership but also to their new status as landlords.

Early twentieth century debates surrounding the problems of the North American industrial city tied together immigrants, poverty and unfavorable urban environments. As summarized by one contemporary study (U.K. 1911, 3): "Congestion of immigrants in large cities has long been considered one of the most unfavorable features of the modern problem of immigration." Milwaukee no longer held the statistical distinction of being the "most foreign" of American cities as it did in 1890. Yet, this perception lingered as expressed in a 1911 report (U.K., 681): "Milwaukee can scarcely be said to have any native sections, so generally are its citizens either foreign-born or of foreign parentage." Hoan's reference to Americanism indicated attention to the on-going "problem" of assimilation that the city's large ethnic populations presented.

By focusing on the early twentieth century period in Milwaukee's planning history, we addressed two research objectives. One was the examination of the attitudes of local government concerning the built environment, focusing on issues of housing and the "scientific" process of decision-making which culminated in Milwaukee's first Comprehensive Plan. The value of examining the structure of planning through various historical periods is not only to assess the long term impact of planning policies on urban form and quality of life, but also to evaluate the persistence of certain types of perceptions and biases. Many of the same issues affect the accommodation of immigrant groups and their particular needs and values today. Newer immigrant groups, some of whom occupy portions of the old Polish South Side, share similar circumstances and live in the same degree of cultural isolation that was associated with the Polish community over seventy years ago.

Segregated both by choice and by the economic and social structure of the larger community, the Poles formed one of the most powerful and close-knit enclaves of Milwaukee. The study's second objective was the examination of this community's distinctive response to the development and acquisition of housing. Members of the Polish community placed a high value on home ownership. Measures were taken to facilitate this including the institution of separate financial/social organizations (called skarbi) to assist in purchasing land and materials, and contributed to the development of a distinctive house-type known as the "Polish Flat". Our study gave particular attention to this house form, including an architectural analysis of its development over time and the related impact of this building type on housing densities and urban form. While there are related building types in other American cities, Milwaukee and the Chicago region are apparently the only places where major densities of this form of housing are found. Interpreting the building practices in this turn-of-the-century, immigrant neighborhood contributes to an examination of both immigrant needs and values as represented in the built environment and the attitudes of the period's local planners regarding immigrant neighborhoods.


An examination of the built environment of Milwaukee's Polish immigrant neighborhoods received primary attention given its central importance to the project and the labor intensive nature of this data collection.1 Although the southside parishes of St. Stanislaus, St. Hyacinth and St. Josaphat Basilica defined the core of the early twentieth century Polish community, the oldest north side parish -- St. Hedwig's -- was also included in the study for comparative purposes. First, we sought examples of house-types constructed during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Information was collected on twenty-five households with architectural drawings completed for the seventeen structures. These records complemented contemporary inventories and descriptions of the housing stock reported on in State of Wisconsin Public Documents and architectural renderings drawn by Civil Works Administration (CWA) architects in 1934. Analysis of building permits contributed to this data.

Oral histories with current and former residents of the study area assisted in compiling building case studies and enriched our findings on the physical and social history of the Polish neighborhoods. Land use surveys and census data for selected neighborhood areas were compiled at ten year increments from 1880 to 1920 with particular attention given to land subdivision and development patterns. Finally, a survey of the local Polish language newspapers -- Nowiny Polskie and Kuryer Polski -- from 1890 to 1920 provided information on Polish American financial organizations that supported construction, housing and real estate announcements, and neighborhood environmental quality.

Polish Immigrants and Industrialization

Milwaukee has long been known as "the workingman's city." Industrialization expanded quickly after the Civil War and the city grew from over 71,000 to 374,000 between 1870 and 1910 (Still 1948, 257). Such growth resulted in both urban expansion and industrial decentralization with prominent new developments along the Menomonee Valley and areas to the south. New and growing ethnic communities facilitated the process of industrialization while a defined hierarchy of industrial employment became associated with the various nationalities. This "specialization" of employment was recounted in a 1911 report which indicated that American-born employees were engaged in "mercantile pursuits, office work and positions of trust connected with the various industries" while Germans occupied predominately skilled positions (UK 1911, 260). Poles and others defined as more recent immigrants, including Russian Poles, Austrian Slavs and Italians, were associated with unskilled work. A particular point was made of Poles being well suited to occupations "requiring a considerable amount of physical strength."

This stereotype of Poles as common laborers and unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers dates to the community's earliest settlement in Milwaukee. Almost forty years before, a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter sketched a portrait of an estimated 7,000 Poles that is noteworthy in its consistency with which its observations have been associated with the Polish community over many years (1874). The majority of his study population had arrived within the last decade from the area known as Prussian Poland and were described as "active, industrious, but very poor." These earliest members and the largest portion of Milwaukee's Polish community came from the countryside of East and West Prussia and the Prussian dominated Poznan district. Poles from Galicia in Austria and from Russia joined this well established "German" Polish community during successive waves of migration, beginning circa 1895 and 1900 respectively.

The Sentinel reporter summarized the constraints on their employment in 1874 by saying: "The men are perhaps the most unskillful laborers who reach these shores, especially for work in cities." Having a primarily peasant background, their training was not appropriate to more skilled positions in an industrial city. Yet, despite this less than positive analysis, the reporter also observed that in spite of their low incomes, they: ". . . have a strong prejudice against paying rent . . . usually the first money they can call their own is put into the purchase of a lot or part on which they mean to erect a house as soon as possible . . .".

Both the peasant background and the desire for land typified the Polish immigrant to the United States. Land ownership was the goal of many of the Polish migrants whether it was a family hoping to purchase land abroad or single men who viewed their stay in America as means of obtaining sufficient funds so that they might return to purchase land in their farming villages. By the 1870s, when their migration began on a large scale, desirable farm land was no longer plentiful in Wisconsin or many other parts of the Midwest and the city offered the best possibility for income. The traditional desire for farm land was transferred to the goal of home ownership in the city. A financial leader in Chicago's Polish community, Albert Wachowski, explained in 1913 that: "The Polish arrivals quickly comprehended the necessity of land ownership, knowing from past experience that . . . the man without his own land and home had always been a serf, a slave" (Greene 1975, 57).

The timing of their arrival, as well as their rural background had significant implications for establishing themselves in industrial Milwaukee. William George Bruce -- one of Milwaukee's prominent citizens -- gave particular attention in his 1937 memoirs to the Polish American community, observing their advance, he commented on his memory of a growing number of Poles during the 1870s:

The transformation of a sparsely settled area on the southern outskirts of the city into a landscape of homes, as he recounts, became the core of the Polish South Side. The city identified this area as Wards 11,12, and 14. In 1905, Ward 14 contained over fifty-three percent of all the German-Poles in Milwaukee, with seventy-five percent of the heads of household born in Poland and an additional ten percent that were born to Polish parents (Simon 1978, 37).

As prominent new development occurred in the Menomonee River Valley, and at the mouth of Kinnickinnic Creek, Wards 5, 12, and 17 became centers of heavy industry and thus major sources of employment for unskilled laborers. Judged as a less desirable section of the city, the area south of the Menomonee River Valley had lower land values. Ward 14 proved to be attractive real estate for the prospective working class homeowner. There the worker could benefit from lower land costs while still being close enough to walk north to the industrial jobs in the Menomonee River Valley or east to the steel mills near Lake Michigan.

Immigrants from Prussian Poland brought with them practices and institutions that provided means for achieving their goals in America while allowing a certain independence from the larger community. Michael Kruszka -- editor of the Kruyer Polski (a Polish language newspaper) and later a state senator -- commented on the political organization of the Poles, citing their training in Prussia where solidarity was required to protect their rights (1895). To accomplish the important goal of home ownership, Polish building and loan associations were established as an important form of mutual aid and cooperation brought with them from Prussian Poland. There the operation of building and loan associations had been in place since at least the early nineteenth century (Grzemski 1937,183). One observer of the community noted in 1911 that five co-operative loan and building societies had been established among the Poles, and that "nearly all save the poorest are said to be members" (U.K. 1911, 258).

A Landscape of Workers' Homes

Although such traditional mechanisms of mutual aid helped the Poles achieve their goals of home ownership, the neighborhoods' land division and architectural practices represented a distinct separation from Old World practices. Milwaukee's residential landscape, whether in the Polish South Side or other working class districts, reflected the prevalence of the speculator's land division system and American modern construction technologies, including balloon-frame construction and a national distribution system of machine-made components such as windows and doors. Thus, these housing patterns became more uniform throughout America and little relationship to the housing/ environmental experience of Polish immigrants.

The State of Wisconsin virtually wrote the grid plan into law in 1857 and the subdivision plat became standard throughout most of Milwaukee. During the late 1870s and the 1880s, the South Side began to assume its present physical form (Simon 1978, 258). Governed by the cost of footage along the street, variation in house forms was generally limited by the width of the lot. Based on similar practices in other larger cities, including New York and Chicago, the standard lot in working class neighborhoods was long with a narrow frontage -- measuring 20 to 30 feet wide by 100 to 150 feet deep.

On these lots, speculators constructed units of housing appropriate to the local neighborhood market. The single-family dwellings that accommodated working-class families in the mid- to late-nineteenth century were generally small, three- to four-room cottages much like the Mazur's home. The small workers- cottage became one of Milwaukee's earliest speculatively built house forms, providing a housing solution that was flexible, quickly built and relatively inexpensive (Landscape Research 1981, 60). Although otherwise modest, the cottages were often attractively trimmed with machine-tooled window frames and architectural trim in what has come to be labeled Victorian styles.

Anton and Katarzyna Mazur bought their cottage and lot on old 10th Avenue from Joseph and Emily Fehrer in 1894 for $800 (Mazur 1994). Less than a decade old, the cottage served as their first home. A marriage arranged by her maternal uncle brought the twenty-six year old Austrian steel worker and twenty-one year old Katarzyna together soon after she arrived from the Poznan section of Poland. The newlyweds moved into their home with Katarzyna's father and younger sister and brother. By 1899, when the photograph was taken, the Mazurs had two children. Five more would follow by 1914. To accommodate the needs of the family in the three room cottage, additional sleeping area for the boys and their grandfather was accessed through a trap door to the cellar. Windows in the cedar-post foundation gave some light to the basement area.

Just as their cottage was typical of housing in Ward 14, the Mazurs were representative of the area's new residents. Heads of household in the ward were primarily employed as skilled or semi-skilled workers. The age of the majority of immigrants placed them in the child-bearing stage and, as a consequence, in addition to the difficulties of establishing themselves in new country, there were children to care for as well as other members of the typical multi-generational family. These larger families placed demands on living space. Children, however, contributed to the family income by leaving school at thirteen or fourteen to begin work. Frequently when the children's incomes began to supplement the family budget improvements to the cottage could be considered.

This was the case with the Mazur cottage. The improvements to the Mazur house reflect the frugal, additive approach to building more living space. In June 1917, the Mazurs bought "Uncle Joe Nisiewiecz's cottage," which was lifted off its foundation and rolled down the street from its site one block away. A larger home was constructed by joining the two cottages back to back. At the same time, the cedar post foundation was replaced with cement blocks. By 1895, a large number of Polish contractors in the city facilitated such incremental building. Nineteen Poles were listed as contractors at that time and it was noted that there was a "blooming business" for house movers within the Polish community as well (Kruszka 1993, 189).

Late in the nineteenth century, in other Milwaukee neighborhoods, the two-story, two-family flat began to replace the cottage as the most common form of working-class housing in Milwaukee. This duplex, one flat upstairs and one downstairs, was described as the "rule" throughout Milwaukee in a 1911 housing study but it never achieved this density in the Polish neighborhoods (U.K. 1911, 266). The advantage of the Polish Flat was that rental income derived from the second unit could be useful for paying off the mortgage, but at a later date the Polish Flat could be converted back to a single family house. Located in the old 800 block of Grove Street on the South Side, the structure housed members of five German families and their boarders (Wojcik 1994). Recently arrived immigrants created a market for rental housing that often strained the supply. The desire for home ownership combined with the need for rental apartments in a growing industrial city to create a densely populated landscape.

The benefits of a duplex could be obtained could be obtained through incremental growth as described in a 1911 study:

The raised cottage form -- the poor man's version of the duplex -- was known in the local vernacular as the "Polish Flat." The frequent instances of one family eventually occupying the entire structure indicate that this house building strategy accommodated various demands without relinquishing the dream of a single family home.

The expansion of the Potrykus house expansion offers a dramatic example of the physical adaptation of cottage space to the changing needs and values of a family (Zurkowski 1994). Joseph and Josephine Potrykus and their seven children lived on old Garden Street in St. Josaphat's parish. With the marriage of their eldest child in 1914, they began a great reconstruction of the house to provide a first floor flat where their son might begin his married life. The cottage was "exploded" in all directions. The structure was raised to build a new brick first floor, the roof was raised about four feet to add a bedroom in the front of the attic, and additions were made to the rear of the house. The cottage floor plan changed considerably reflecting not only the necessary new living space but also changes in life style. The lower flat was a self-contained unit reminiscent of the early cottage. The "new" second story -- the original cottage structure plus addition -- contained a dining area and a kitchen to be used on special occasions. Josephine Potrykus did her cooking and laundry downstairs in a large kitchen at the back of the house. This "summer kitchen," as her grandson called it, separated the daily household tasks from the living area upstairs and provided direct access to the family garden in the backyard. The entire family, including the occupants of the downstairs flat, would gather in the large kitchen for shared meals and evening gatherings. The house was a hybrid creation reflecting the American middle-class dream of separate rooms for separate uses and the Polish emphasis on providing for family.

Although often chosen by the Poles, the "Polish Flat" is not uniquely their own. The attachment of "Polish" to the Milwaukee name for a raised cottage construction, however, is unique -- and apparently reflected a judgment on this house type and the residents of the area by Milwaukee society. Certainly, the desire to provide common housing for several generations of family was not uniquely Polish. The Neuman family -- German neighbors to the Mazur family on old 10th Avenue -- raised their cottage and created a first floor flat when the oldest child married. It is not difficult to cite other examples of similar actions by Italian, German, and Slavic families of various kinds residing in "Polish Flats." The land hunger of the Poles and their incremental approach to financing and building their homes, however, made this relatively inexpensive house form particularly prevalent in the neighborhoods of unskilled Polish workers. Many of the sacrifices -- including the acceptance of crowding -- were considered necessary to achieve stability and a certain status in the Polish community. As early social worker Edith Abbott argued, investment in a house was the first step towards becoming an American (1937, 381).

Assimilation and Americanization

The Polish Colony on Milwaukee's South Side shared many American dreams, including the goal of home ownership and commitments to civic participation and neighborhood centered on church. Contemporary urban reformers would have expected that such traits of citizenship would be linked to the domestic rewards of home ownership. What was not generally anticipated was the Poles' rate of success. Even in a city where it became an undisputed belief that "no other city of its size in the world contained as many workingmen who owned their own homes," the Poles' desire for property ranked them highest among Milwaukee's ethnic groups in terms of residential ownership (Simon 1978). A foreign researcher noted this commitment saying:

This same researcher drew the rather unAmerican conclusion that, given their low wages and the efforts required of the entire family, perhaps the Poles made sacrifices for home ownership that should be discouraged. The house was a means of attaining upward mobility for the family and a sign of optimism in assessing the city's potential.

The extent to which the Polish South Side existed as a separate settlement, however, was a sensitive issue during a period when assimilation and Americanization were major concerns on the part of dominant society. The early twentieth century "scientific" field of eugenics -- which justified selective breeding to protect the "social organism" -- lent credibility to racist stereotypes as support grew for the restrictive immigration laws that would be adopted in the 1920s.

A national urban reform journal expressed such views of other "races": "The Italian, the Hebrew and the Slav, according to popular belief, are poisoning the pure air of our otherwise well regulated cities, and if it were not for them there would be no filth, and no poverty . . ."(Goldenweiser 1911, 596-602). The image of poverty and congestion associated with the immigrant slums of New York and Chicago did not correspond to Milwaukee's Polish neighborhoods. As a 1911 report stated: "A study of immigrants in Milwaukee is not primarily a study of congestion" (UK 681). Yet, crowded houses and lots did exist as a mechanism for the unskilled laborer's family to finance their basic needs.

The Polish laborer, Michael Heft provides an example of the circumstances facing area residents. The family bought two cottages on a lot near St. Hyacinth's church. The two houses provided necessary income particularly when Heft developed tuberculosis and could no longer work. During the period of greatest congestion, five families lived in the two houses with their twenty-seven children (Gurda 1985). The exterior dimensions of the two structures measured approximately twenty-two by forty-six feet for the larger front house and twenty-two by thirty for the rear cottage. As the Heft children grew old enough to work and contribute to the family income, the family was able to eliminate boarders and become sole occupants of the front house. As a child Mary Heft Gurda lived in the front cottage. Almost eight years later, she remembered that her family was considered wealthy when they became one of the few families that did not share their home with boarders. Despite this distinction, the Heft's were not exceptional in owning their own home. On their block in 1900, at least 70% were owner-occupied and this figure rose to 73% in 1905 and 75% in 1910 (Oeler 1994). Furthermore, the Heft experience became typical as over a period of time the growing income of the family eliminated boarders and consequently the density on the lot and subsequently on the block declined.

Local studies tended to dismiss the structural constraints to economic and social conditions as indicated in a 1906 study of Milwaukee that warned (WBLIS '06, 332-3):

In this same vein, a city health official offers an interpretation of the Polish flat and neighborhood that is notably different from William George Bruce's image of the Polish South Side as "an area of cottages with high basements"(WBLIS '06, 332-3):

Even forgiving her lack of knowledge about the relationship between environment and the diseases, her description still exaggerates the problem of housing and presents a picture of the residents based on stereotypes of the Polish immigrants: Controlling environment was viewed as the most expedient measure for dealing with the immigrants and decentralization was deemed to be the comprehensive solution to congestion and the social and environmental problems of the city. The city's planning efforts would focus on decentralization with the framework of a city plan. Ironically, "Americanism" was to be obtained in Milwaukee by adopting an essentially German model of guided growth. Separation of land uses into appropriate zones, restrictions on building heights and limitation on lot coverage were the primary planning mechanisms. These served to control population densities and eliminate the issue of congestion. One national authority on the environmental problems of the city advocated such efforts to decentralize the city while warning that over-crowding within structures was a more difficult issue to resolve since habit and social customs supported this behavior among immigrants.


Lot coverage restrictions gradually eliminated new construction of the rear house and the Polish Flat and contributed to the long term decentralization of the population. As a consequence, home ownership and the stability and status associated with it would be more difficult to acquire. Early in the twentieth century, the Polish immigrants' pursuit of their version of the American dream began to conflict with the reformers' views of an environment appropriate to the Americanization process. Such clashing values are reflected in the general observation of the regional planner Clarence Stein who noted in 1924 (cited in Ward 1989, 141):

In many places and for other groups, the standards required for the public's protection rose while the ability of the individual to pay for that standard declined. Fortunately for the Poles, by the time such restrictions were enforced, Milwaukee's Polish community was better established and the effects of building and planning regulations were not the impediment to meeting goals of home ownership that they would have been at an earlier time.

They left a legacy however. Their turn-of-the-century neighborhoods continue to provide a housing stock that suits the family needs, values and income of newer immigrants to Milwaukee. An examination of these aging structures suggests new challenges to our understanding of the "adequate house."


1. We wish to acknowledge the following individuals who contributed to this study: Michael Mikos, professor of Slavic Languages, who translated the Polish language newspapers; Les Volmart, the City of Milwaukee's Historic Preservation Officer, who provided background on the land subdivision and development patterns of Milwaukee; and, Jason Nyberg and Paula Oeler, who assisted in the field work and figure preparation. Bernice Mazur and Henry Wojcik were particularly generous in providing the personal photographs that illustrate this article. We also wish to acknowledge the funding support for this study given by the Urban Research Initiatives program operated by the UWM Urban Research Center.


Bruce, William George. I Was Born in America. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1937.

Goldenweiser, E. A., "Immigrants in Cities," The Survey 25 (1911): 596-602.

Greene, Victor. For God and Country: The Rise of Polish and Lithuanian Ethnic

Consciousness in America, 1860-1910. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1957.

Grzemski, John. "Thrift Among the Poles," Poles of Chicago. Chicago: Polish Pageants, Inc., 1937.

Gurda, John. Personal Interview with Mary Heft Gurda. Milwaukee, WI. 1985.

Kruszka, Michael. "Forty Thousand Polanders" in Milwaukee Sentinel (October 16, 1895).

Landscape Research. Built in Milwaukee: An Architectural View of the City. Milwaukee: City of Milwaukee, 1981.

Mazur, Bernice. Personal interview. April 18, 1994.

Oeler, Paula. Unpublished student research paper, Department of Architecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 1994.

Simon, Roger. "The City-Building Process: Housing and Services in New Milwaukee Neighborhoods 1880-1910," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 68, Part 5. 1978.

Still, Bayrd. Milwaukee: The History of a City. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948.

United Kingdom (U.K., Board of Trade. Cost of Living in American Towns. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1911.

Ward, David. Poverty, Ethnicity, and the American City, 1840-1925: Changing Conceptions of the Slum and the Ghetto. Cambridge University Press. 1989.

Wisconsin Bureau of Labor & Industrial Statistics. Twelfth Biennial Report. Madison: State of Wisconsin, 1906.

Wojcik, Henry. Personal Interview. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. September 2, 1994.

Zurkowski, Leonard. Personal Interview. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. June 16, 1994.


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