Milwaukee History: A college for women

Posted at 10:35 PM, May 01, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- The area near Downer Ave. and Hartford Ave. was dedicated to education long before top-tier research facility, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was created in 1956. We sat down with University Records Officer Brad Houston to learn about its history.

"[There was] The Milwaukee Downer Seminary just south of Hartford in 1848, the Wisconsin Female College that was established in 1854, then the two sort of merged--that happened in 1895 and that's when it started being called 'Milwaukee Downer College'," Houston said.

Only four buildings remain of what was once Milwaukee Downer College. Retired UWM Senior Photographer Alan Magayne-Roshak gave us a tour of what used to be a private liberal arts school that was exclusive to women.

Starting with just 58 women, enrollment grew to a peak of around 400 in the 1940s.  "They were based on this radical idea that women should have an education, too," said Houston.

Once UWM was established, the college started to see a decline. Finally, not able to compete with the UW system, the land and the buildings were sold for $10 million. We found footage of the day the closing was announced in the archives at the UWM Golda Meir Library.

While the buildings and land went to UWM, the college was to merge with Lawrence University, just a few hours north. At the time, many of those women were none too pleased.

"To go to college and find out the next day that your college is no longer going to exist," said one distressed student.

"I want to stay in Milwaukee, I love the city and I just don't want to go to Appleton," said another.

But to Appleton they went. 44 out of 49 members of the freshman class continued their education at Lawrence. 

Now those red brick buildings have thousands of students walking their halls as they have continued to shelter education for over a century.

If you'd like to take a look at decades' worth of UWM history, click on Magayne-Roshak's gallery page for hundreds of photographs. 

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