In June 2009, a small story appeared in Brian Brehmer's church bulletin looking for interested people who wanted to work towards preserving and promoting their historic church -- the Salem Lutheran Landmark Church, the birthplace of the Wisconsin Synod.
Despite his lack of preservation background, Brian was inspired to help the place where he'd been a lifelong congregant, and so joined with other preservation-minded community members to form the Friends of the Landmark Church.
Now, three years later, the Friends group is continuing its work to repair the building and catalog the history of this local treasure. We caught up with Brian to learn what the church means to his community, and how these local preservationists are shaping the future for a historic place.
Describe your personal history with Landmark Church and the community. What does the church mean to you?
I have been a member of [Landmark Church] my entire life (40 years) and am the fifth generation of my family to be a member. I was baptized in the old church and had both my kindergarten and first-grade classes in the adjoining building. I live in the same city (Milwaukee) as my family has since 1858.
The church is important to me both as a reminder of my religious home, but also as a reminder of those people who lived and died before me. It also allows me the opportunity to give something back to those who gave something to me.
Tell me more about the historical significance of the Wisconsin Synod. What is it, why is it important to your community, and how is it tied to the church you’re working to save?
The Landmark Church, built of cream city brick in 1863, served as the home of Salem Lutheran Church's congregation from 1863-1977, before a new church was built to accommodate more members. It is important as it marks the birthplace of the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church body (albeit across the street from where the original log cabin church stood).
This church, now a museum for the work of the Wisconsin Synod throughout the last 150 years, reminds not only us but the community as a whole about the importance and continuance of the mission started by a handful of families long ago, a mission we still continue to do. This church is also one of the oldest remaining buildings in the city of Milwaukee and has been recognized as such.
When you first saw the notice in the church bulletin about helping save the church, what went through your mind? What convinced you to pitch in and help save it?
When I first saw the notice, I saw it as an opportunity to use my education and my history with the church at the same time. I felt that since the Brehmers have been attending the church for 100+ years, I had an obligation to help preserve it and draw attention to the cause at hand. It was an opportunity for me to use my education and to give back in some way to the church that had served my family for so long.
I also could not see another historical building lost as so many have in the city of Milwaukee. Plus I wanted to learn about the history that I myself was not a part of, the history that existed before I was born.
How much preservation experience did you bring to the table at the outset? What have you learned over the course of working with the Friends?
Absolutely none, actually. While one of my degrees is in history (the roots of which were started by my 7th grade teacher at Salem, Mr. Bruce Bintz), and I have a lifelong love of archaeology and the study of the past, I had not been able to actually get my hands dirty in actual work, nor did I know just what went into saving a building and its artifacts.
I have learned that while not easy, working towards a common goal is actually fun and full of personal opportunities. I have also learned the importance of something as simple as a photo that lay in a drawer for years which was able to fill in gaps or answer questions.
What’s your dream for the church?
My dream for the church is that it continues to serve as a reminder for those who are still living and for those who have not yet been born. I want it to continue to draw people to it and to remind them of the sacrifices that have been made on a private personal level as well as on a more communal level.
I'd also love to see the archives and the stories documented and presented in such a way that others can learn and grow from the work that we have done and will continue to do.
What’s your biggest piece of advice to people in other communities who want to save a place that matters to them?
The biggest piece of advice is to not give up. There will be both highs and lows, but all of them will be learning experiences and will pay off in the long run.
Also, be willing to constantly look for and accept help and input from others. Work is much easier if you have many workers than just a handful of dedicated ones. Plus, you never know what skills or abilities that one may bring to the table.
Lastly, I think that its important to have a clear-cut and constant goal. But don't carve it in stone, [and remember that] just because you have to adjust things doesn't mean you have failed yourselves or your mission.