Yesterday’s Milwaukee

Spencerian Business College, Late 1860s

Located in the four-story Library Block, one of the city's tallest structures.

By - Dec 29th, 2015 11:08 am
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Spencerian Business College, Late 1860s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Spencerian Business College, Late 1860s. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

One of the most prominent buildings in early Milwaukee was the Library Block, located at the northeast corner of Wisconsin and Broadway, soaring up a full four stories. The building’s major tenant (seen in this late 1860s photograph) was a business college. It was established in 1853 as a Milwaukee location of Bryant & Stratton Business Institute, which soon changed its name to Bryant & Stratton College. The first college was in Cleveland, but by 1864 the college had expanded to 50 cities, including Milwaukee. Tuition was $40 for an entire program of study. Many famed businessmen were graduates of these colleges, including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, R.J. Reynolds and Joseph E. Seagram.

Milwaukee, however, soon diverged from the national chain. In 1865 the principal, Robert C. Spencer, arranged a takeover and renamed the school after himself, calling it Spencerian Business College. Spencerian College would be so successful that it would stay in business for 111 years before merging with Concordia College in 1974. The merger became the foundation for Concordia’s School of Business Administration, the second largest private business school in Wisconsin.

While this building appears in many stereoviews of the period, this view by Edwin Bangs makes the building appear especially majestic. Of special note is the business next door on the left. This was the piano and music store of Henry Hempsted. Hempsted was a prolific publisher of sheet music in the 19th century. His sheet music from the 1850s and 60s is valued by collectors because of the finely illustrated covers done by local lithographic artists.

As for Robert Spencer: “He served six terms on the Milwaukee School Board, worked with Alexander Graham Bell in developing the first schools for the deaf in Wisconsin, and is said to have been a strong proponent that UW-Madison establish a Department of Commerce in the 1870’s,” according to Dr. Lawrence Sohn, who did research on this for Concordia and was quoted in April 2013 by the Wauwatosa Now publication.

The college he founded remained on Wisconsin and Broadway until 1923, when it moved to 2800 W. Wright St. and later to N. 35th St. and Kilbourn Ave., near the campus of Concordia College, with which it merged. Concordia is now located in Mequon.

As for Bryant & Stratton, it later returned to Milwaukee and tried again, opening branches that can be found today in Bay Shore, Wauwatosa and in the Shops of Grand Avenue, not far from its first location in this city in the 1860s.

Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.

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