Michael Horne
What’s It Worth?

The Curious Story of the ‘LIFE’ Building

1927 building built with tavern earnings now home to Community Roofing & Restoration.

By - Apr 17th, 2022 01:46 pm
1776 N. Water St. Photo taken Feb. 11, 2022 by Michael Horne.

1776 N. Water St. Photo taken Feb. 11, 2022 by Michael Horne.

Over 7,000 vehicles a day pass this curious single-story wedge of a building at 1776 N. Water St. It’s just north of a three-story 1890s Schlitz saloon and rooming house best known as Trocadero and soon to become Tauro Cocina. The flamboyant tavern building of Cream City brick and limestone dominates its shorter and simpler neighbor, clad in midcentury red brick. Yet the two buildings are linked in history thanks to the enterprising operator of the working-class watering hole, who turned the nickels and dimes of tannery workers into the foundation of a construction business that he housed in this utilitarian structure.

Frank Druml (1878-1945) leased the saloon from Schlitz, operating in 1910 as the Pleasant House, and buying the building after Prohibition. In 1927, during the height of the Great Experiment, Druml took out a permit for a “Garage Fireproof $2000,” and this building took shape in the form of a rectangle. It housed the offices and machinery of Druml’s nascent construction business. In 1950, Oscar Druml (1916-2007) owned the properties and the burgeoning construction company he operated from here. At some point the building expanded northward, giving it its pointy shape where N. Water and N. Cass streets collide at an acute angle.

New “LIFE” for Old Building

In 1977 the garage door was bricked up, and the wooden casement windows were made smaller by three-quarters, being closed up from the bottom, and also bricked in red. In 1982, still under the ownership of the Druml family, Nazir Ahmad Fancy Shirt and Lettering Company occupied the space, followed by Midwest Alchemist, Inc.

In 1995 John Kirchgeorg (1942-2021) bought the building and used it as the headquarters of his firm, simply named “LIFE”. He spent $2,000 to remove a 1000-gallon underground fuel storage tank, with no contamination noted, and changed its address from the prosaic 1767 N. Cass St. to the patriotic 1776 N. Water St. Those who hoped to enter the building at the Water St. door were informed by a sign that the entrance was nonetheless on Cass St.

Kirchgeorg founded LIFE® Corporation in 1985 to manufacture portable Emergency Oxygen and CPR administration equipment, designed to be used before the ambulance arrives. Its units are found worldwide in schools and other public buildings. He was a dashing gentleman of the genus Silver Fox, with a snappy white car bearing the license plate “LIFE” parked outside his headquarters. In 2015, he had the parcel designated as “Manufacturing,” with the state, not the city, responsible for its assessment.

Kirchgeorg seemed to be quite a practical individual, with a flair for marketing. One of his six patents is for a “Portable emergency oxygen and automatic external defibrillator (AED) therapy system”. According to the patent application:

The system has a case having access opening(s) and clear cover(s) to view the apparatus and contents, to dispel all doubt as to know how to open the case and to make it easy for a user to quickly find and use the various components.

According to his obituary:

John was President and Founder of LIFE Corporation in Milwaukee, WI., which carries on his legacy of his 6 Patents and Trademarks, including his first invention the LIFE®OxygenPac. LIFE Corporation’s medical oxygen devices are proudly sold in every state and over 50 foreign countries. … John worked hard, but often had time for an after work cocktail where he made many friends who will greatly miss him. John enjoyed classical music and the local arts of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Ballet. He had a true love for boating, graduating from his beloved Lake Beulah in Walworth County, where he built two homes, to the far more challenging Lake Michigan, easily accessed from his long time condo on the East Side.

Upon his death, Kirchgeorg left his estate to a nephew, his only surviving relative, and numerous bequests to charities, friends and, apparently, former employees as well. The estate is being administered by Co-Personal Representatives Samantha Cowman and Ron San Felippo. Cowman is the Product Manager for LIFE Corporation, now a division of OxyGo. San Felippo is a well-known Milwaukee developer and investor who serves as the Chair of Business Improvement District #2 (Historic Third Ward), and Vice-President of the Board of Harbor Commissioners of the City of Milwaukee, among other activities.

In December, 2021, eleven months after Kirchgeorg’s death, the building, assessed at $275,700, was sold to Community Roofing & Restoration, Inc. for $450,000. It now serves as the firm’s headquarters, and will likely return to the City Assessor’s office for future valuations, now that its days as a factory are over.

The Building Today

Community Roofing & Restoration, Inc. was founded by academician and activist Jim Godsil in 1975 as “Community Roofing Collective,” with a vision to “build a network of self-managed artisan shops that worked together freely in collaboration.” The firm has completed over 9,000 projects, and is now headed by Josh Fraundorf, who met Godsil in 1995 while attending UWM. To the east of the firm’s new headquarters is Eagle Park Brewing Company and its large parking lot. Across E. Hamilton Pl. to the north is the imposing former headquarters and warehouse of the Gallun Tannery, now converted to housing. Across busy N. Water St. is the River House Luxury Homes apartment building. The once desolate corridor is now teeming with life, thanks in part to the Swing Park and the Marsupial Bridge, also across the street.

Photo Gallery

The Bottom Line

  • Name of Property: Community Roofing & Restoration, Inc. Previously LIFE, Inc., originally garage for Druml Construction Co.
  • Address: 1776 N. Water St. City of Milwaukee. Had once been styled as 1767 N. Cass St.
  • Assessed Valuation 2021: The 4,556-square-foot (.10459 acre) lot is assessed at $121,700 ($26.71/s.f.) and the 3,250-square-foot finished building improvements are valued at $154,000 for a total assessed valuation of $275,700. 2011 Assessment: $306,000
  • Taxes: 2021 Tax Bill $7,147.03. Paid in Full
  • Owner: Community Roofing & Restoration, Inc. Joshua Fraundorf, Registered Agent. Owner purchased property for $450,000 in December 2021
  • Zoning: Industrial Mixed (IM). “This district is intended to provide for the orderly conversion of certain older industrial and warehousing areas with multi-story buildings to residential, commercial or office uses for which the buildings, at the present time, may be better suited. These areas have an urban character.”
  • Type: Manufacturing with an Office Building
  • Architect: Original architect unknown, many subsequent interior and exterior alterations.
  • Year Built: 1927
  • Neighborhood: Lower East Side
  • Subdivision: Hubbard & Pearson’s Addition (Platted Pre-1884)
  • Aldermanic District: 3rd, Nik Kovac
  • Walk Score: 92 out of 100; “Walker’s Paradise” Daily errands do not require a car.  City average: 62 out of 100
  • Transit Score: 60 out of 100; “Good Transit” Many nearby public transportation options. City average: 49 out of 100
  • Bike Score: 74 out of 100; “Very Bikeable.” Biking is convenient for most trips. City average: 58 out of 100
  • Milwaukee 1894, vol. 1, sheet 039
  • Milwaukee 1910, vol. 1, sheet 057
  • Aerial Photo August 1937

How Milwaukee Is It? The property is about 1.1 miles northeast of City Hall.

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One thought on “What’s It Worth?: The Curious Story of the ‘LIFE’ Building”

  1. Jeffjay60 says:

    Michael, it’s nice to see your well-written and interesting articles. I missed you for a while there.

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