The Sherman Perk Coffee Shop building is one of the few remaining unaltered examples of Streamlined Moderne Architecture gas stations in the country. It was designed by Milwaukee Architect Urban F. Peacock who, before the depression, was a principal designer on larger projects such as the Ambassador Hotel, an Art Deco gem, on Wisconsin Avenue downtown Milwaukee.
Built in 1939 it is bordered east and west between 49th and 50th Streets, Keefe along the north, with Roosevelt Avenue completing the triangular lot. Then as now it features three driveways, one each from Roosevelt, Keefe, and 50th.
It operated as a gas station by original owner Walter Copeland, continued as such for another generation by Walter Copeland Jr. who sold the property upon his retirement in 1989. It ceased operation as a gas station at that time.
From that point it was mostly used for storage and sat idle. Neighborhood lore has it that this owner lost it in a card game sometime in the mid-nineties. No improvements were made, disrepair and deterioration continued, and back taxes accumulated.
In in the mid-nineties Grasslyn Manor, a neighborhood organization, formed to investigate the acquisition of the property to convert it into a coffee shop. This is the group who coined the Sherman Perk name. It may have been inspired in part from the popular hit TV show Friends, set in New York City, which featured a coffee shop called Central Perk. This has not been confirmed, and no one cares, because it is too good of a name not to use.
The other major accomplishment of this period, thanks to the efforts of neighbor, history and architecture enthusiast, Cliff Leppke, who, in hopes of preserving the structure, led the process of getting the property registered on the City of Milwaukee list of Historic Properties. (A more complete history of the building prior to 1995 is available there)
Despite these successes the association became overwhelmed by roadblocks. In May of 2000 Mr. Leppke informed Bob and Patrice Olin that acquisition efforts failed. The building was scheduled to be razed by order of the city of Milwaukee because of delinquent property taxes, condemnation of building due to advanced deterioration, and known soil contamination.
The following week the Sherman Park Historic Preservation Council held a special meeting to discuss further attempts to save the building. The Olin’s attended to express their interest in acquisition and conversion of the gas station into a coffee shop.
The dream had taken root. On a leap of faith, and confident of a positive outcome, the Olin’s invested time, energy, and funding to save and re-purpose the gas station. With actual ownership still in limbo they retained legal counsel and enlisted environmental consultants to help manage the process of bringing the property up to code.
The next 5 months consisted of one challenge after another negotiating with the DNR, myriad inspectors from the City of Milwaukee and environmental remediation specialists.
Meanwhile, the state legislature learned that the challenge of dealing with tax delinquent, contaminated properties was not exclusive to Milwaukee. At their own considerable expense, the Olin’s attorney, Perry Friesler, worked extensively with State of Wisconsin legal staff in crafting language on a bill conceived by Assistant Milwaukee City Attorney Greg Hagopian to resolve the issue. It was put on the legislative agenda and from these deliberations statute – 75.106 passed and was signed into law.
Sherman Perk Coffee Shop made history when its conversion from Copeland’s Gas Station became the pilot case in Wisconsin under the new statute. This was the tool that broke the bureaucratic log jam and facilitated the salvage and restoration.
The foreclosure process to transfer ownership began in late October 2000 and concluded in March of 2001. A court date of April 9, 2001 finalized the process. The Olin’s were now the proud owners of a tax delinquent, condemned, contaminated gas station!
Improvements started the next day on April 10, 2001 with the removal of underground storage tanks. Environmental consultants helped guide the Olin’s to financial resources (Brownfield Renovation Grants) at the City, County and State level to help with the expenses of remediation and restoration of the property.
The restoration of the building started in early May and lasted through the long, hot, laborious summer. August 20, 2001 marked the Grand Opening of Sherman Perk Coffee Shop. Dignitaries from the State, County, City, various regulatory agencies, neighbors, friends, and relatives were in attendance.
Despite almost a year in compliance delays the Olin family is extremely proud of the results of converting the gas station into a neighborhood coffee shop.
An application was made and subsequently approved by the National Park Service that the restoration meets their standards for listing on the Register of Historic Landmarks.
The story of Sherman Perk: How a salvaged bit of the city’s past became a community gathering spot
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