Cathedral Square is older than the city itself. It dates to 1837, when Milwaukee’s founders, French-Canadian fur trader Solomon Juneau and his partner, attorney Morgan L. Martin, donated the land for a courthouse. The pair wanted the civic building in their settlement, Juneautown, on the east side of the Milwaukee River, rather than having it in the rival village of Kilbourntown on the west side.
The county courthouse would give the winning community prestige and a certain legitimacy, as well as drawing people to its side of the river. Juneautown won and the new courthouse was built on the northern part of the Square. The donation came with the proviso that the land should be for public use only, with ownership reverting to the partners if it did not. (A marker honoring the donors is located there.)
Courthouse Square was bordered by Jackson, Oneida (now Wells), Jefferson and Biddle (now Kilbourn) Streets and was sometimes referred to as the Public Square or as Juneau Square (though it’s not really a square, it’s a rectangle). Juneautown and Kilbourntown, along with Walkers Point to the south, consolidated to form the city in 1846.
In its early days, the Square needed work. It included a hole that was usually filled with water and that was variously described as a pond, a swimming hole, or a reservoir. A committee formed to decide its future referred to it as “a miserable mudhole” and a “public nuisance.” It was filled in and sod was added to parts of the grounds during the 1850s. Some people complained that children should not be allowed to play there because they were destroying the new grass. Others complained that children should not play there because there was so much manure from pigs and grazing cows that it was unsanitary.
Courthouse Square served as a meeting place for residents to hear speeches on the issues of the day. The Temperance and Abolition movements, as well as a wide range of political meetings, were big draws. It was also the site for entertainment like a circus and for Fourth of July celebrations. Memorial services for national and local figures such as fallen presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield took place there.
In 1853, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which would later lend its name to the Square, was completed across Jackson Street. In 1854, several thousand residents mobbed the Square to free an escaped Missouri slave, Joshua Glover, from the jail at the courthouse. From there he was taken by horse-drawn wagon to join the underground railroad on his trip to freedom in Canada. (A Wisconsin State Historical marker noting the event is installed in the square.)
In 1861, another mob, this one of a few hundred residents, marched to Courthouse Square to take another black man from the jail. Marshall Clark was involved in the murder of a Third Ward man and the mob, with virtually no resistance from the authorities, took Clark to the Third Ward where they lynched him.
Fifteen years after the courthouse was constructed, it was described as “old and rickety,” but it was more than twenty years before it was razed and replaced by a second courthouse in 1873. (A marker noting the first Milwaukee County Courthouse and the first two jails is located in the Square.) The new, much larger structure was built on the northern third of the grounds and included city offices as well as county facilities. The new building became a source of local pride and spurred many positive changes to the block.
Courthouse Square was landscaped. Trees were thinned and some were transplanted. Footpaths were laid out and graveled, and all open areas were laid with new sod. A basin and temporary fountain were installed in line with the current basin but closer to Wells Street. A hugely popular concert series featuring the Christoph Bach Band and other musical groups became a weekly event during the summer over the next few years. The bandstand was located very close to where today’s stage is for Jazz in the Park and other performances. Newspapers reported that the concerts drew all classes of respectable citizens and that, in spite of the crowds, there was “no rude behavior.”
On August 15, 1877, the Square’s crown jewel was installed. An ornate, 18-foot-tall fountain replaced the temporary “ungainly thing.” The new fountain included statues of women, cupids, and sea shells. The top and middle tiers overflowed into the large basin at the bottom. It incorporated multiple spray jets and was colorfully painted. The basin was sea green, the cupids were blue, the shells pink, and the female statue on top was yellow and wore a red dress.
In 1931, a third courthouse was built, this time in Kilbourntown, and that meant dramatic changes to the Square. After eight years of discussion about the future of the second courthouse, it was torn down. With no courthouse in Courthouse Square, the general feeling was that it should have a new name.
Italian residents proposed calling it Columbus Square and said they would raise the necessary funds to build a memorial to Christopher Columbus. A veterans group wanted to name it Veterans Memorial Park, a name chosen years later for the landfill park to the east on Lake Michigan. Since the Cathedral of St. John was the main focus of many pictures from the square, or had served as a backdrop for photographs of the fountain, it was the popular choice for the new name, Cathedral Square.
After the razing of the second courthouse, the fountain was also removed and Cathedral Square was reconfigured. New paths and sidewalks were laid out. The statue, Immigrant Mother by Ivan Mestrovic, was placed there in 1960 thanks to a donation by William Bruce, a Milwaukee publisher. A smaller fountain basin was constructed north of the old one. In 1969, a new fountain sculpture in bronze by Paul Yank was installed. It was described by some as a stylized tulip. The piece, which has since been removed, remained until at least 1993.
The East Town Association began Bastille Days in 1981 and Cathedral Square was, and is, an integral part of the annual celebration featuring French music and culture. In 1991, the organization revived the 1870s summer concert series with Jazz in the Park, which is hugely popular and also suffers “no rude behavior.” Additionally, the group sponsors the Cathedral Square Market on Saturday mornings during summer and autumn.
Winterfest ran in the Square during the 1990s. It was put on by the producers of Summerfest and included an ice rink and other cold weather activities.
Recent winters have brought us the Holiday Lights Festival, which includes numerous Downtown activities. Cathedral Square is filled with lights and Christmas trees decorated by children’s groups from around the city and it draws interested people from the entire community.