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The Schoonmaker Reef was the first ancient coral reef discovered in North America and among the first discovered worldwide. It is a relic from the Silurian Period, 405 million to 435 million years ago, when much of North America was covered by water.

This reef, which predates the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, is located in Wauwatosa.

Increase A. Lapham, “Wisconsin’s first scientist,” was the first to collect fossils from the site in 1844. More than 10,000 marine fossils have since been excavated from the reef, many of which can be found in major museums across the country. In 1997, the Schoonmaker Reef gained recognition as a National Historic Landmark.

In recent years, however, the reef has sat largely unnoticed at the north end of a long-dormant brownfield site. The area off State Street between 62nd and 66th streets in eastern Wauwatosa is overgrown with vegetation and home to debris. In fact, when Wangard Partners Inc. began work on the site in 2012 for a 180-apartment, seven-building, $23 million-plus development, they were unaware the property included a 425-million-year-old coral reef.

“We didn’t know what a jewel we had,” says Stewart Wangard, chairman and CEO. “There’s a responsibility that comes with that.”

“Wangard is taking that responsibility seriously. The company will be exposing the rock face of the reef, and is building decorative fencing and walkways to make it publicly accessible. If fossils are discovered during the process”, says Wangard, “the first call will be to scientists Donald Mikulic and Joanne Kluessendorf, who fought to win the historic landmark designation and who continue to work at the reef.

The city of Wauwatosa, which will oversee public access, has been instrumental to the site’s development. In 2011, as executive director of the Village of Wauwatosa Business Improvement District, current Mayor Kathy Ehley worked with then-Mayor Jill Didier and the city of Wauwatosa to craft and adopt a strategic development plan, which identified the area surrounding the reef as one ripe with possibility. Wangard Partners expressed interest within the next year.

Ehley says Wangard embraced the preservation of the Schoonmaker Reef. “To them, it’s a benefit and not a hindrance,” Ehley says. “That goes a long way to making the reef accessible for people to view. Not to walk on, but to view.”

View the full article as originally seen on Milwaukee MAG.COM, which is authored by Dan Shafer.

Historic Schoonmaker Reef Bluff in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 1899; Now Being Revitalized by the City and Wangard Partners, Inc.Historic Schoonmaker Reef Bluff in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 1934; Now Being Revitalized by the City and Wangard Partners, Inc.