Transit Activist’s Modest Bay View Cottage
Small is beautiful for Bill Sell, a fervent advocate for transit and bicycle-friendly policies.
This building was constructed in 1908, although city records erroneously date it to 1924, which was when a 24-foot by 9-foot addition was constructed on the old cottage for owner Henry Rodell. Since 1997 it has been the home of William H. “Bill” Sell, a community activist and transit advocate who has been called “Bay View‘s Conscience.”
The one-and-a-half story cottage has 1,418 square feet of living space, and boy, have those square feet been rearranged over the years. In 1927 Charles Eickstaedt made some unspecified “alterations to the porch,” at a cost of $200. Then came the big changes of 1935 when a bedroom was converted into a bathroom. Windows were cut into the front hall, and an arch was cut between the hall and the living room, opening up space in the tiny residence, which has only 821 square feet on the first floor.
In June, 1948, McGrath, having taken care of his automobile parking situation, next addressed the interior of his residence and the accommodations it provided his family. He informed the city that he “wished to convert attic to two sleeping rooms & bath.”
Thrifty McGrath economized by “removing bath tub from 1st floor bath room” and installing it in the new facility upstairs. The lower bathroom became a half-bath in the process, and that is where the plumbing situation of this home stands for now.
McGrath also raised two 9-foot dormers up in the attic, cut in a new rear entrance to the house and added a new picture window, all at a cost of $2,000. The city insisted on 90 square feet of space in each bedroom, and stated in the permit that “no additional familys” (sic) would be allowed to live in the place. It was crowded enough as it was.
The permit application was signed by “Mrs. M. J. McGrath.” She was a member of the Beta Chapter of MU Beta Sigma sorority.
In 1953 the McGraths caught the building bug again, and added an $800 room to the rear of the house, expanding the kitchen. The home remained in the family for another 40 years, until May 1993 when the estate of Iva McGrath sold it to Darrell W. and Jennifer A. Fischer for $63,000.
A daughter, Cheri McGrath, handled details of the sale. She remembers reading the real estate agent’s description of the kitchen. He made it sound small, and uninviting, she thought. “Look at it from a woman’s standpoint,” she advised.”Call it cozy! A no-step kitchen.” The real estate agent rewrote the description, and the house sold immediately, McGrath recollects.
Home Has Long Links to Transit and Community Activism
The current occupant, Bill Sell, bought this house on May 15th, 1997 for $89,000. It’s in a pleasant residential area not far from Humboldt Park. “I love Bay View, even with its warts,” he told the Milwaukee Independent.
In the same interview, Sell described his personal history this way: “Activism seems to have been in my blood since I grew up in a working class household. My Dad was a steward and became president of a local union, during which time faced a brutal strike against GE X-Ray. Fast forward to my years after school… I joined the Civil Rights marches, including one brutal march into the south side. I helped get Father Groppi involved in the anti-war movement, mixing Civil Rights and the growing antiwar movements.”
Sell was one of the earliest advocates for bicycling over the Hoan Bridge, which is not to say his life is filled with disappointments. His constant advocacy for social justice and transportation issues is well-documented in his numerous writings, and through his efforts and those of others, the bicycling situation in Milwaukee continues to improve.
Bill Sell’s biography ticks off his various activities: “Founder and principal of a 33 year old downtown Milwaukee business serving editors and authors nationwide. Founding Member Bay View Neighborhood Association. Founder of Transit Matters. Steering Committee Coalition for Advancing Transit. Member Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. Shepherd Express Community Activist of the Year, 2007. Member, Public Policy Forum. Associate Member, Investigative Reporters and Editors.”
Interestingly, a former occupant of the home, Cheri McGrath also is involved in transit issues, serving along with Sell and Urban Milwaukee President Jeramey Jannene on the Milwaukee County Transit Services Advisory Committee.
McGrath, a former teacher of the blind, and 2013 Milwaukee County Senior Citizen honoree was until 2015 the Board President of ABLE, the Audio and Braille Literacy Enhancement organization, which has been located in the Milwaukee Public Library since its inception in 1965.
She writes: “As Board President, as an educator of blind children, and as a recipient of ABLE services since its inception, I am especially proud of our past accomplishments and enthusiastic about the future of this organization.”
Dog Bites Man!
Henry Rodell, who owned this home in 1924, was bitten by a dog in Racine in July, 1956. The story made it into the Milwaukee Sentinel on what must have been a very slow news day.
- Owner: William H. Sell
- Location: City of Milwaukee
- Neighborhood: Bay View
- Subdivision: Henry Mann‘s Subdivision
- Year Built: 1908, additions and alterations, 1924, 1927, 1935, 1948, 1953
- Architect: None Found
- Style: 1.5 Story Residence “Old Style” Cottage
- Size: 1,418 s.f.
- Fireplaces: None
- Rec Room: No.
- Assessment: Land: 5,000 s.f. lot is assessed at $10,700 [$2.14/s.f.]. Improvements: $161,800 Total: $172,500.
- Taxes: $4,737.51, Paid on the installment plan.
- Garbage Route and Pickup Date: Blue SP3-5A Wednesday.
- Polling Location: Humboldt Park Pavilion 3000 S. Howell Ave.
- Aldermanic District: 14, Tony Zielinski
- County Supervisor District: 14, Jason Haas
- Walk Score: 76 out of 100 “Very Walkable”
- Transit Score: 48 out of 100 “Some Transit.” Just enough to get you out of Bay View
How Milwaukee Is It? The residence is 3.5 miles from City Hall.