History of Murray Hill

Murray Hill History

By Cynthia Sommer

The area of Murray Hill is named after James Murray, a Scottish immigrant who came to the area in 1835 before Milwaukee was a city. His industriousness and business skills eventually led him to land development and ownership of an area north of North Avenue known as ”Murray’s Addition”.  There was an expansion to this northern area as the population in the City increased in the late 1880’s.  Through the early decades of the 20th century, this primarily residential neighborhood developed with elegant homes (e.g., Newberry Blvd), Milwaukee bungalows, two family duplexes and apartment buildings.   The neighborhood addressed the needs of the diverse population of well-to-do and middle class families that moved to the area.

With the development of the city also came the influence of several dominant institutions that influenced the character of Murray Hill. The merger of Milwaukee College with Downer College in 1895 resulted in the formation of Milwaukee-Downer College and the purchase of 43 acres of nearby land.  By 1899, two buildings (Merrill and Holton Halls on Hartford Avenue) were occupied, followed by a student residence hall in 1901.  Through the years enrollment decreased and the college agreed in 1964 to a consolidation with Lawrence College in Appleton Wisconsin.

Ten years after the establishment of the Milwaukee-Downer College, the Milwaukee State Normal school (later named Wisconsin State College of Milwaukee) moved from downtown to the east side.  The now historic Mitchell Hall on Downer Avenue and Kenwood Blvd. became the campus center in 1909. The schools primary mission in the early years was to educate teachers for the growing Milwaukee population but the institution diversified their educational offerings with time. The buildings and areas of both Milwaukee Downer College and Wisconsin State Normal school eventually became part of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee campus. The Wisconsin State legislature established UW-Milwaukee in 1956 to meet the demand for higher education in Southeastern Wisconsin.  The University, since its first year enrollment of 5,159 students, has developed into a large urban public university with a variety of Ph.D., masters and undergraduate programs and an enrollment in 2012 of 30,502.

The founding of Columbia Hospital in 1909 occurred around the same time as the development of Milwaukee State Normal School. The Columbia Hospital complex was established adjacent to the north end of Murray Hill and became a respected major health care facility in the city and also included a nursing school. With the merger of Columbia Hospital with St. Mary Hospital in 2010, the hospital facility has moved nearby to Lake Drive and still serves the neighborhood.

The needs of residents for educating their children were also met with the establishment of Hartford Avenue Elementary school in 1916.  Students were taught in four barracks on Maryland and Hartford Avenues until their main building was completed in 1919.  An addition to the school in 1932 allowed an enrollment of over 600 students, a number that is still served today.  The strong emphasis on academics, enhanced by a vibrant arts program and the proximity to the University resulted in the name change to Hartford Avenue University School.

Two business districts located on Downer Avenue and Oakland Avenue developed to service the day-to-day consumer needs of the homeowners and apartment dwellers from the early years to the present. The Downer Avenue commercial district, designated as a historic district, is a two block long cluster of commercial establishments built mainly from 1909-1936. The continuous vibrancy of the district is reflected in the Downer Theatre that was built in 1915 and today is the longest continuously running theatre in Milwaukee. The Oakland-Locust (Upper East Side) business district also has a long history of serving the neighborhood.  Among the varied established businesses, the Miramar Theatre in the business district was at one time home to the Fred Miller Theater, the precursor of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The Murray Hill neighborhood continues to be a diverse neighborhood with well established businesses, educational institutions and homes to many long term residents, new arrivals and a student population that comes to and often stays in the area.  Murray Hill continues to be a “great place to live, work and study”.