MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Fire Department Headquarters, at 711 W. Wells Street, is being renamed to honor the first African American architect in the state who designed it.
Alonzo Robinson was the city and state’s first licensed African American architect. He designed the Milwaukee Fire Department Headquarters in 1960. It was finished a year later, one of the first of hundreds of buildings Robinson designed in the Milwaukee Area.
“Our father left an indelible mark on the City of Milwaukee,” Wayne Robinson, one of Alonzo’s sons said. “It will be felt by many visiting and residing in this world class city of Wisconsin. We are ecstatic to have a genuine, true feeling of appreciation for everything that’s been done to acknowledge our father in this way.”
Robinson passed away in 2000. His children, Wayne, Jean, Kim and Ronald, have pushed to have the building renamed to honor his legacy. Tuesday, the Common Council unanimously voted to do just that.
“We have people in the city who have done tremendous things,” Kim said. “In due time, those individuals get their recognition. I hope this is the beginning of getting recognition for Blacks in Milwaukee who are doing positive things who have not been recognized in the past.”
Robinson made his way to Milwaukee in the 1950s from Delaware. During a time when segregation still existed and the Civil Rights Act was a distant thought, Robinson rose to prominence in his profession.
“He made an example by doing that,” Kim said. “No matter where you go in life, you can be whatever you want to be. Follow your dream. Don’t let anyone get in the way of what you’re trying to do.”
The family says Alonzo didn’t want to be recognized for being the first African American architect but rather, he wanted his work to be noteworthy. In addition to the MFD HQ, he designed churches, like the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church near 17th and Meinecke, and he designed other city buildings as well.
But, as with most city jobs, the recognition isn’t the motivation. Robinson plugged away trying to make a better Milwaukee during a time when Milwaukee didn’t necessarily want to be better for people like him.
“It must have been incredibly difficult to accomplish what he did,” Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said. “He persevered and got it done. Even though it may not have been something that reached a high level of notoriety then, it’s small steps and putting yourself in a position with passion and determination. Putting yourself in a position where the next generation of folks can see people who look like them in these positions. That’s what gives young people the imagination to dream big. That’s what he did, especially during those times.”
Johnson admits, he didn’t know who Alonzo Robinson was until the family notified him. But he feels lifting up the work of someone like Robinson is crucial to him holding the position he does within local government.
“For us to recognize somebody who was a real trailblazer in our community,” Johnson said. “That helps instill in young people, a sense of passion. A sense of promise about tomorrow. If you dream it, you can achieve it. Now, a young person of color, an African American young man or young woman, will walk down Wells Street in Downtown Milwaukee, the most populated city in the State of Wisconsin, the center for economics and population and diversity and culture and tourism. When they walk downtown in our city, they’ll see the name of a man that looks like them on a building, a city building, that he helped raise up from the ground.”
That kind of legacy is what the Robinson family hopes this building can have. On top of the physical legacy from their father, with the hundreds of buildings he’s designed all around the area, they have also created an annual scholarship, given to young, aspiring architects of color.
It’s a field traditionally dominated by white people, with only two percent of architects nationwide who are African American, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
"We are thrilled that hopefully, having his name on that building, will motivate or incentivize at least one young person to say, who is Alonzo Robinson and what did he do?” Jean Robinson, Alonzo’s daughter said. “Hopefully, when the answer is, he was an architect, it will inspire them to explore the fields of architecture. This will definitely cement the legacy and we’re thrilled they have decided to honor my dad in this way.”
As proud as Jean, Kim and Wayne are of their father, they say their mother was crucial to all of this. Because of Alonzo’s commitment to his craft, it required a lot of his time so he wasn’t necessarily always there with the family. Theresa L. Robinson raised four successful children and kept the family unit strong while Alonzo made history.
“Behind every great man is an even greater woman,” Wayne said of his mother.
The building will be renamed the Alonzo Robinson Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building after Mayor Tom Barrett signs off on the resolution.