Tower Was Dismantled With Little Discussion, Fanfare Gone, But Tower’s Presence Lingers

By Ray Py ~ Class of 1954

Sparks from Cutting Torch Cause Rubbish Fire!

Mark it down. Put it in the minutes. Paint it on t-shirts. The last days of our magnificent Tosa tower began on the morning of June 25, 1974. On that day, fire engines raced down Wauwatosa Avenue to park near the main entrance to Wauwatosa (East) Senior High School. There, fire fighters were able to enter the building, run up four flights of stairs and extinguish a small fire burning in trash and debris in the tower high above the street. The fire was started by workmen with cutting torches. They were working to "remove a tower," a newspaper account said.

The fire caused little or no damage. How much damage the water poured onto the flames caused was never reported. But fire and water damage was not a factor in the death of this tower structure. Its fate had been sealed long before by "officials" in non-public discussions that determined that the cost to repair the tower was greater than the cost to tear it down. The tower had been a fixture on top of our high school for only 33 years.

The picture on this page of the tower with cranes around its neck and its caption are the only obituary I have found in years of searching for that tower structure

What happened? Towers don’t die so young. They live on buildings and churches and even bridges–and many, many schools-- from generation to generation. Grandpas take grand kids to see towers they visited when they were children. Towers are written in history books because they are often part of history. You don’t just put up a tower and then, 33 years later, destroy it.

The truth be known, very few Wauwatosa Senior High School graduates--both in Wauwatosa and in the worldwide alumni community–are even aware the tower is gone. For them, it still lives, if only in memory. When you tell a former Tosa student the tower is gone, they blink in disbelief. Then they rush to see.

The tower was built with promise in 1931. When it was in place, it was our school’s most significant and endearing image–the Tosa tower appeared in thousands of publications, yearbooks, stationery, reports, book covers, photographs, paintings. Even today, the school does not truthfully recognize its demise. It appears intact in yearbooks yet, and a painting prominent in the school’s main office is a full view of the school’s main entrance with the tower intact.

The Tosa tower had one other near brush with destruction when bricks fell from the walls during the fall of 1943. Alderman at first refused to fund the $6,000 necessary to fix the structure, and instead suggested that the tower be removed and replaced with a frieze or artificial tower. It was argued that the tower was hidden by tall trees "and seldom seen." The frieze, the aldermen were told, would not "impair the appearance of the structure, and "would be in harmony with the building."

A small storage room under the tower used to house laboratory mice, could be saved, the council was told.

However, once the plan was made public, Wauwatosa residents urged the council to find some way to save the tower that had been built only a decade ago. Within a week, the council said it had taken the money necessary from a contingency fund to repair the tower and to eliminate-- for all time--the drainage problems that occurred near the base of the structure.

Drainage had been an unexpected problem with the high school since its construction because WPA contractors felt "innovative" brick material used in the building would eliminate need for expensive overhangs to shed rainwater. The material, however did not live up to expectations and the school suffered often from bulging walls due to excessive moisture.

Aldermen, who had paid a $3,000 repair bill for the tower only a year before, were told that the cost to remove the tower would have been twice what the suggested repairs would cost.

The school board, meanwhile, issued a public statement that it had "always opposed" the tower’s removal.

The standing column head above this writing, created by Peachtree Media artist Jared Ponchot, is a replica of the logo that appeared for many years in Tosa’s student newspaper, The Cardinal News. I wrote under that paper’s Around the Tower logo when I was a student reporter.

Would so rich a community as Wauwatosa be so desperate to save a buck that it would destroy such a landmark?

The main Tosa tower looms over the demolition in 1958 of the former Tosa high school, the building we called the "Old Building." This picture was taken by former teacher David Tillotson who, with his "magic camera," photographed changes that were occurring on the Tosa campus for his conservation club. An expansion of the Lincoln School was built on the site.

I think something else was at work in those harsh-decision years in the mid-1970s. Did the tower’s bold lines, its fine stone and brick, its classic scrolled design, its grand and dated architecture, its fortress-like demeanor rankle the architects who found it a bold contrast to the boring, efficient, school-modern expansion then under construction on the school’s east side?

In other words, was this architectural gem of the 1930s too magnificent for its own good?

Such accusations are difficult to prove. The principals in this caper are long gone and there does not appear to be any public discussion that would support such a claim.

When the tower was completed in 1932, the entire Wauwatosa community came to see what fine work their skilled craftsmen and builders had done. They surely must have gazed in awe at what was the most beautiful spire on an avenue of spires. The new structure--and the high school it represented--answered this community’s repeated demand for a grand high school that would forever prepare its children for an the exciting and challenging future ahead. That year, the editors of The Cardinal Pennant wrote, "towers symbolize man’s reaching upward toward his ideals." Then they wrote that "this tower rising above the new high school symbolizes to all its students the solid heights they hope to attain."

I think today’s young people need a tower like those who glorified it in the 1930s and those of us who schooled in its shadow in the 1950s. Are today’s Tosans hungry for their history and tradition? Read what Randi, a 10th grader at Tosa East wrote me: "I have told my friends about your web site and they love it. They can’t get enough of it. I am part of the school band and we recorded a version of the old school fight song for you and your reunion. I loved finding out more about the school fight song and can’t wait to play to that old baton.

This is the how Tosa High School appears today with its main tower gone. The former English or speech room that was directly under the tower is still there, but its windows are covered and the room is unusued. Students today call this part of the building "The Stump."

"I really hope we raise enough money to fix the murals. You should try to set up a fund-raiser at our school.

"I also can’t wait to see the Hall of Fame and the new "museum" in the entrance at 76th Street.

"I would love to bring my kids back here when I am older or even have my kids go to Tosa East.

I discovered the tower was gone 25 years ago when I went into our high school to inquire about memorabilia for a class reunion. There was nothing from my era there, I was told. It was all gone. Gone–like the tower, someone said. That’s when I went outside and looked.

In searching for the tower, I have examined school board minutes and records, documents, statements, newspapers, emails. I have talked with school officials, retired teachers, students, and long-time Wauwatosa residents. One school official told me he recalled that the cost to repair the tower to save it would be about $25,000. But that was too much. It was cheaper to tear it down. That’s what the caption under the photograph said.

I discovered the picture shown on this page, tucked on an inside newspaper page after searching newspapers, page by page, for many weeks. It was a fluke find–there only because a photographer chased a fire engine–and discovered a tower being torn down.

Martin Jackson felt the same frustration I felt when he went into the high school where he had taught and coached for 30 years, and found that a memorial he had made for students killed in World War II, was gone. He found it in a janitor’s closet where it was used to dry rags and hang coats. He bought it, repaired it at his expense and returned it to the school where it hangs today.

Thanks Coach Jackson!

The tower, of course, can’t be restored without considerable expense. But we can do something in the form of a memorial to remember the tower. Email Mary Pat Pfeil, an assistant to the school superintendent for community affairs at Tell her you remember the tower. Let her know that you feel something should be done to keep this Tosa landmark alive in our memory and in the memory of students yet to come.

Helene Moerschel, Class of 1932, wrote this sonnet about the tower.

Three years ago, some children, happiness
In every word, in every sunny smile
Entered this High School and paused for a while
To draw their plans for towers of success;
Then, with plenteous bricks of hope and cheer,
With hardy bricks of earnestness and study,
And that good brick we call persistency,
They labored on without a doubt or tear.
‘Till now – oh see, the tower is almost done.
Achievement of their goal is nearly won;
But no –. a lifetime lies before each youth
To build, to strive, to make his mark; in sooth
The finished tower of success – oh long,
Long will it take – but ‘tis begun, begun!