The ravages of a still-mysterious fire upon historic Trinity Lutheran Church

Photo of fire fighters battling the Trinity Lutheran Church fire. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Great Gothic shoulders and luminous stained-glass had stood majestically in downtown Milwaukee since 1878. That’s when the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church rose to add its towering profile to Milwaukee’s skyline. At the time, it was surely one of the tallest structures in the city, at 254 feet, perhaps the tallest.

Preceding the 1895 City Hall, The Pabst Building has been claimed by Wikipedia as Milwaukee’s tallest building. But the Pabst, built in 1895, was only 235 feet, and demolished in 1981. Apparently those who determine such things don’t count church spires. City Hall became Milwaukee’s tallest building until completion of the First Wisconsin Center in 1973.

And yet, in one fateful recent day, a fire gutted the grand Lutheran structure, stripped down a spire. The cause of the horrendous blaze remains a matter of question, though heating equipment of the construction crew had initially been blamed.

Another troubling aspect is the report that the construction company working on renovations of the structure — long on the National Registry for Historic Places — did not have a city permit, at the time of the fire.

That story remains to be completely told, but I wanted to convey the actual physical loss of this beautiful church though — in seeing the devastation myself — I could sense some of the spiritual loss of a displaced congregation, from a church which won’t be usable for the foreseeable future, if ever again.

I had coincidentally photographed the church a couple months ago, for a blog about The March for Our Lives event. I simply added the photos as a kind of postscript, because I was so struck by the beauty and structural perseverance of the old church.
So, yesterday in drizzling rain, I went down to see and photograph the charred remains from the fire. Whether the church is salvageable remains in doubt.

The sight of it startled me, moved me to the verge of tears. Nothing remains of the roof but black skeletal rib bones. The south steeple melted down to virtually nothing. And the conflagration consumed much of the interior, previously adorned with sumptuous amounts of wood, including a stately pulpit.

There’s hopeful news though. It is possible all is not lost after the Tuesday fire, an architect told WISN 12 News.

”While the roof burned, the load-bearing walls appear intact,” according to Milwaukee Area Technical College architecture technology instructor Daniel Inyang. That means the church could be rebuilt from the remaining structure, rather than demolish the 140-year-old building.

‘Looking at it initially, since most of the masonry and structural walls are intact, yes, it could be (rebuilt),’ Inyang said. (He) stressed a structural engineer “will have to check the integrity of the walls to be certain.” The fire caused an estimated $17 million in damage.

Donations toward rebuilding the church are being accepted at this site (select “Trinity MKE fund”): SW Wisconsin Lutheran Church Missouri Synod site .

I offer also a few of my photos from March, to remind readers of the church when it remained intact, to measure the loss of this tragic event (Apologies for the rain-spattered lense on a few of the shots below) 

The full profile of Trinity Lutheran Church is now horribly ravaged by fire.

I just came across this stunning photo of the fire-damaged Trinity church, with the sun burning through the broken stain-glass windows in the facade. Courtesy DeSisti ?

The Trinity church in March.

Note (between the two photos above) the total disappearance of the south spire (visible here at the roof intersection of the nave and the north transept), aside from the terrible roof damage.

On the roof, the fire consumed everything but the charred backbone of Trinity.

A view of the damage to the south steeple and the roof and south transept of Trinity Lutheran Church.

These deformed, charred shards are all that remains of Trinity’s south steeple.

Here and above are views of the burnt-out interior of the church through damaged stained-glass windows.

The damage to windows on Trinity’s facade shows how intense fire can actually melt away stained glass.

Trinity’s relatively new church office, connected to the church with a glass-enclosed walkway, was apparently undamaged, and provides functional hope for the church’s future.

Gold-plated candle lighters and snufters, salvaged from the fire, stand in the locked church office lobby for a time when they can do their lighting duty again.

Milwaukee’s historic past — the corner of the Trinity Church, situated on 9th Street and Highland, and present — the new Bucks arena in the background. 

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