Calvary Presbyterian has existed on the corner of N. 10th Street and W. Wisconsin Avenue since it was built in 1870, and after 148 years the downtown landmark finds itself at a critical crossroad for repairs.
Informally known as the Big Red Church, it was the first building in the area designed by the master architect Henry C. Koch, who later went on to design Milwaukee’s City Hall and the Pfister Hotel. In 1986, Calvary Presbyterian became one of the city’s first religious buildings to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of Neo-Gothic architecture.
“There are many beautiful historic buildings in downtown Milwaukee, but very few that are committed to being publicly accessible and actively engaged with the community like The Big Red Church,” said Nancy Ketchman, who is organizing the capital campaign with Bottlewood Communications. “Sadly, an increasingly common way to preserve a historic building is to sell the building to a private entity as a ‘special event facility,’ charging high rental fees for wedding receptions, fundraisers, and corporate events.”
St. James Episcopal Church, literally a couple doors east along Wisconsin Avenue, closed after 166 years on November 1, 2017. It suffered from a dwindling congregation and the lack of community support.
By contrast, the Big Red Church remains highly active but is endangered due to its structural condition. Vital exterior and interior repairs totaling $2 million are needed for longterm preservation. Plans also call for integrating “green” features such as solar panels, green roofing, and other sustainable infrastructures that preserve the historic character of the building while also safeguarding the environment.
The campaign is still in its “quiet phase,” with an aim of raising $600,000 by June. After that, public fundraising events, tours, and a media blitz will begin to help reach $2 million.
“We are actively seeking individuals and organizations who care passionately about preserving historic buildings that both reflect Milwaukee’s architectural history and remain publicly accessible,” said Ketchman, “If we are fortunate enough to exceed our $2 million goal, the Big Red Church will establish a separate endowment fund that will be specifically earmarked for future maintenance needs and capital projects.”
Funding to save the Big Red Church is derived from a combination of foundation and corporate grants, and individual donations from members of the public and Calvary Presbyterian Church members. The hope is to complete repairs in time for the building’s 150th anniversary in 2020.
Sacred and historic buildings often bring an economic halo effect to their surrounding area. The Big Red Church is the second-oldest surviving church on the West Side and one of Milwaukeeʼs oldest churches still in regular use. The sanctuary is a highly sought after location for weddings and theatrical performances by arts groups. These celebrations bring guests into the heart of Downtown Milwaukee, showing off the city’s historic core and drawing traffic to stimulate commercial activity in the Westown area.
“Drawing upon the energy of a small but diverse and socially engaged congregation, The Big Red Church has reached out to provide its sacred space for use by the public, helping to knit together the city’s history, communities, and future development,” added Ketchman.