Preserving the History

Milwaukee is a city that has always maintained its ties to the past. Our cultural identity is tied in to our German, Polish, Italian, and many other ethnic roots. We attend the festivals to remind us of those roots and every day we see the reminders of our shared past on many streetcorners. Buildings that our parents and our grandparents and great-grandparents walked by and shopped at are still there in abundance. I have pictures that my grandfather took in the early 1920s in the Plankinton Arcade and the statue of John Plankinton that he snapped a picture of remains there for me to see as a link to that time when he walked in the same place. The apartments he lived in and the buildings he helped to build are also still there.

Unfortunately, many of the places he saw when he walked downtown are no longer there. Some were lost to fire, some to decay, some to new and improved development. Some were torn down for parking lots or just to save the owner from paying taxes on buildings they didn’t want to improve.

A few buildings that have been with us since the 1860s in East-Town are in danger of being lost forever to be replaced by a glass and steel hotel tower. The heritage that has been with us for 150 years is awaiting a decision on its fate. The Follansbee Building where Downtown Books resides is one of the important pieces of the fabric of the historic East-Town district.

Please make your voice heard in trying to make the developers of this property see how important it is for Milwaukee to keep these reminders of its past. Support the developers in making the proposed Marriott hotel integrate the past into its plans so that every one can be proud of this heritage. A public hearing on this development will be held in the committee rooms of City Hall during the Historic Preservation Committee meeting on Monday, December 13th at 4pm. Stop by and make your voice heard to say how important the past is to the future of Milwaukee.

More information on the development can be found in this Milwaukee Journal article. The history of the Follansbee Building can be read here.

Milwaukee St. John Mariner Bldg -1937 AD

First office building in Milwaukee to have year round “air conditioning” with windows that could not be opened by tenants. When I worked there in the 1970s the old York “ice” machine was still in the basement, however a new chiller had been installed because the old one was not fully automatic.

Another interesting part of the cooling was the roof had a sprinkler system and “high” drain covers that would allow for flooding of the roof on hot days to “reflect the heat of the sun and to keep the roof cool with water.

This building is now the Hotel Metro and was designed by Eschweiler & Eschweiler – at one time all of the great Art Moderne features of the interior could be seen. I am certain that the renovation of the building eradicated most of it.

Curry-Pierce Building Renovations, April 25, 1992

The beginning of the push towards redevelopment of the short 700 block of North Milwaukee street began in the early 1990s. Now, this block is very vibrant with a large amount of clubs and restaurants and continues to improve. It stands as a link in the chain of popular East Town businesses that continue along Mason Street and up Jefferson Street.

It is interesting to see how Daniel McCarthy of the City DCD could not foresee the elements that would eventually transform the area. The older property owners could not envision that the moving force for development would be entertainment spots that drew a younger, urban crowd to the area. This was in opposition to the marketing which tried to keep businesses which sold upscale linens or wanted department store shopping like Chapman’s.

Nevertheless, the Curry-Pierce building presents an iconic, old-world face that invites people to the Milwaukee Street area.

MILWAUKEE SENTINEL Saturday, April 25,1992

Renovations seen as way to help put East Town back on map

Sentinel staff writer

The 700 block of North Milwaukee Street has some of downtown’s oldest — and emptiest — buildings.

That reflects both the potential and problems of the surrounding neighborhood, developers and city officials say.

The buildings’ historic and architectural character can attract tenants. But restoring the buildings while maintaining their character can be costly.

The area got a boost this week when TMB Development Co. announced plans to spend $2.7 million renovating two historic buildings at the northeast corner of North Milwaukee Street and East Wisconsin Avenue into retail and office space.

The project, known as Curry-Pierce, is important because “it speaks a great deal to the confidence in the area,” said Daniel J. McCarthy, of the Department of City Development.

Curry-Pierce, which includes a building that dates back to 1866, shows that downtown’s older buildings can be restored for commercial use, said Thomas H. Miller, of the development department.

The project also will remove a highly visible eyesore that scared away prospective developers and tenants, said Thomas Gale, a real estate broker with The Harrigan Co. and vice president of the East Town Association, an organization of downtown businesses, institutions and residents.

Mark Gleischman, whose GS Properties owns older buildings at 715-723 N. Milwaukee St., said the TMB project is good news. But Gleischman said Curry-Pierce won’t necessarily bring other developments to the block.

“I don’t know that it signals the beginning of a trend of any kind,” he said.

East Town — an area bounded by Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee River, East Ogden Avenue and East Clybourn Street — was once home to a posh retail area in the 700 blocks of North Jefferson and North Milwaukee streets.

But the opening of the Grand Avenue retail center in 1982 drew shoppers to downtown’s west side.

Also, the T.A. Chapman Co. department store, a retail anchor for East Town, closed in 1981. An office tower at 411 E. Wisconsin Ave. now stands where the Chapman store was.

“When Chapman’s went out, that sort of doomed Milwaukee Street,” said George Watts, chairman of George Watts & Son china, silver and crystal shop at 761 N. Jefferson St.

Watts says his business has thrived because its customers are willing to come downtown. Watts said stores in East Town need to offer specialty products that will draw sophisticated customers from the suburbs and beyond.

One such store, however, moved from East Town to Mequon in 1991. Percy’s, an upscale linen and clothing store, moved from 719 N. Milwaukee St. after 10 years at that location and another 10 years on North Jefferson Street.

Thelma Percy, who operates the shop, said the Milwaukee Street block had nine empty storefronts. That made it harder to draw customers, she said.

She also said the area didn’t have enough parking, something echoed by Watts. Percy’s now operates at 11041 N. Port Washington Road.

McCarthy said East Town has a lot of parking spaces with short-term meters. The department needs to study ways to keep East Town office workers from using the spaces all day, he said.

Another possible solution is valet parking, McCarthy said. HP said a city-owned parking structure at North Milwaukee and East Michigan streets could be used.

An estimated 45,000 workers are in East Town’s offices and businesses daily, McCarthy said. He said the department, property owners and the East Town Association should find better ways of learning what goods and services those workers want.

That information then should be used to more aggressively attract retail businesses to East Town, McCarthy said. That could draw businesses like drug stores or dry cleaners, he said.

Even if those moves were successful, however, there would be other vacancies to fill.

Retail businesses, whether specialty shops like George Watts or services like dry cleaners, like to be on the street level of buildings. Upper levels are generally used for offices and residences.

Charles Trainer, a partner in TMB Development, says TMB’s Curry-Pierce project will attract other retail businesses to the block.

But Trainer said it will be harder for the block’s other buildings to fill their upper levels. Unlike Curry-Pierce, the other buildings are in the middle of the block and have less window space, making them less attractive, he said.

“It’s a tough one.” Trainer said.

Gleischman said the buildings owned by GS Properties have retail businesses on the street level but have had vacant upper levels for several years.

“The buildings are old and antiquated and difficult for people to use.” Gleischman said. “I don’t know what you can use that space for.”

McCarthy said the demand for downtown office space, which is low, will eventually rebound. He also said more apartments and condominiums are being built downtown.

In the meantime, Watts said East Town should market its other advantages: relatively low rents, a safe atmosphere and a cultural vibrancy.

“It’s boring out in the shopping centers.” Watts said. “It’s a cultural drabness that’s unreal.”

What to Do With Old Mansions?

This article highlighted many of the problems that were confronted when trying to figure out to do with the historic mansions of long-gone millionaires.

Milwaukee Journal, June 21, 1951

What to Do With Old Mansions?

Too Elaborate for Modern Living, Many Huge Showplaces Have Been Turned Into Museums, Schools and Religious Retreats, but It’s Not Always Easy to Find a Taker

A DREAM house of the past recently became a house of dreams for a brighter future when the 96 room Harriman mansion of Harriman, N. Y. — about 40 miles northeast of Manhattan — was taken over by Columbia university. It is to be converted into an “American Assembly” dedicated to “freedom and expression.”

The mansion — previously known as Arden House — was the gift of W. Averell Harriman, son of the original builder, Edward H. Harriman, railroad tycoon. Its career has been typical of that of hundreds of other great houses which the captains of industry built in the 1890’s and 1920’s to display their wealth and their taste, good or bad.

But not all the owners have been as lucky as W. Averell Harriman in getting rid of their mansions.

Take the case of Samuel Untermyer, who at 80, in 1938, tried to give Greystone, his beautiful estate overlooking the Hudson, to the city of Yonkers as a park. The city fathers, having no desire to forgo the rich haul in taxes and to shoulder the costs ot running the place, turned down the offer. Westchester county also refused him. And when, in his will, he bequeathed Greystone to New York as a state park, the legislature also rejected it.

Father Divine’s ‘Heaven’ on Hudson River

Untermyer had overlooked one possibility. He might have offered his place to the federal government, as did one of his neighbors Mrs. Louise Van Alen, farther up the Hudson. She had inherited the Frederick W. Vanderbilt estate just north of Hyde Park, with a mansion designed by Stanford White – and wanted to dispose of it. The only prospective buyer was Father Divine, and he was gracious enough to write to President Roosevelt before he closed the deal to find out whether the president might have any objections to the new Negro heaven so close to his own home.

When the president rather coolly informed Father Divine that he had always hoped the government would take over the property, Mrs. Van Alen offered it to the department of the interior and Harold Ickes, then secretary, enthusiastically added it to the national park system as “a magnificent example of the type of great estate built in the era of expansion that succeeded the war between the states.”

Shortly afterward, Father Divine, who already owned one of those old estates, procured another, the famous Krum Elbow on the western bank of the Hudson, directly across from Hyde Park, from Howland Spencer, an ardent Roosevelt hater. Three thousand black angels took up residence there, and Mrs. Roosevelt remarked in her daily column: “It must be pleasant to feel that in the future this place will be ‘heaven’ to some people, even if it cannot be to the former owner.”

About the same time – 1938 — another Vanderbilt palace, Idle Hour, on the famous 16 mile millionaires’ row on Long Island’s north shore, became the property of a motley group known as “the Royal Fraternity of Metaphysicians.” They rechristened it “Peace Haven” and began to train a boy there as a future messiah. Before those self-styled “Sons of Heaven” acquired the place, it had twice been sold to clubs but reverted to the Vanderbilt heirs by foreclosure.

A third Vanderbilt mansion, Biltmore House, erected some five miles from Asheville, N. C. in 1900 and often regarded as the finest private residence in America, is now a museum. Its builder. George Vanderbilt, was a collector of pictures, books and historical objects. His rarest piece was the chess table of Napoleon, with a drawer stained by the blood of Napoleon’s heart, which reposed there some weeks after his death.

‘Whitewings’ Picnicked at Otto Kahn’s Chateau

The story ot Otto Kahn’s flamboyant French chateau is often told. Among its 100 rooms was a dining room seating 200. After the death of this famous opera patron in 1934, his widow first offered the estate to the federal government as a summer white house.

Then, unable to find a buyer in five years, she decided to raze it, but the New York department of sanitation offerrd her $100,000 for it in the nick of time. Intended as a recreational center for the city’s street cleaners, it was renamed “Sanita Lodge” and opened with a picnic for 20,000 whitewings and their families. Then the village of Huntington stepped in with an injunction because the sanitation department had failed to obtain a building permit and a certificate of occupancy.

The department made another attempt to obtain the home of the late brewer, Jacob Ruppert, but was again repelled by local authorities. The Kahn property, meanwhile, was turned over to a real estate company, which subdivided it and made the chateau a country club.

In the course of years, big estates have been converted into old people’s homes, rest homes for industrial workers, research laboratories, factories, summer resorts, retreats or meeting places for religious organizations and swank private schools. Hyde Park became the repository of the Roosevelt papers and a gift to the nation.

Two estates had the unusual distinction of being rented by the Russians after the war as headquarters and recreational centers for their diplomatic personel. The Russians leased J. P. Morgan’s estate on Long Island in 1945 and evidently relished this symbol of capitalistic splendor so much that they leased the adjoining 800 acre “Glen Cove” the next year. Glen Cove was once the property of the Pratt family, whose founder, Charles, began selling Pratt’s Astral Oil Lamp fuel about the time Karl Marx finished writing “Das Capital.” He was Brooklyn’s richest citizen when he died in 1891. His son, George Dupont Pratt, conservationist, big game hunter, Boy Scout sponsor and collector, built the million dollar Tudor mansion Killenworth on the property. After his death the place was sold for taxes and thus came into the possession of the Miller Trunk Co., which used it for administrative headquarters until it was leased to Stalin and company.

With the coming of postwar prosperity, many of the great houses returned to their original uses as residences. One writer remarked in 1948 that just then they vere selling like ice cold beer in a 101 degree heat wave. The chief problem in running such a place is hat numerous servants are needed and the servant market is decidedly bearish.

Many of the earlier mansions were architectural monstrosities – crude imitations of robber baron castles on the Rhine like the Bannerman fortress on the Hudson, odd Dutch designs like Washington Irving’s Sunnyside (“full of angles and corners like an old cocked hat”) or gingerbread castles known as “Hudson river bracketed,” a phrase that became the title of a novel by Edith Wharton. Some were patterned after the classical style, correct in every detail from pillared porches to artificial ruins in the gardens.

Garish Living Wasn’t the Rule

The houses erected in the late nineties and thereafter were usually planned by the best architects and erected with considerable attention to artistry. Many of them could not be replaced today because the specialists who created and carved the mahogany trim and paneling, the rococco wall decorations, the floor parquetry and the tapestries are gone.

The great residences of the gilded age are usually associated with garish living — banquets on horseback, parties for dogs, all night affairs that began with Lucullan dinners, continued with cotillions, dancing and champagne suppers and ended with breakfast parties at sunrise. Randolph Guggenheim in 1899 gave a dinner, at $250 a plate, at which nightingales sang in transplanted rose trees and arbors hung with hothouse grapes. The liqueurs had been bottled before the French Revolution.

The high priest of this plush society was Ward McAllister, a Beau Brummoll who achieved celebrity by remarking to a newspaper reporter: “Why, there are only about 400 people in fashionable New York society.” When asked for the list, he submitted only 300 names, but the phrase “upper four hundred” stuck.

Actually most of the people who lived in these great houses were shy and ultraconservative. Their children were almost literally walled up within their estates, as the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was one of them, once remarked to a friend. They associated among themselves — and still do — and intermarried, though a few more ambitious matrons courted foreign titles and married off their daughters to impoverished noblemen for a price. Most of them went to extremes to avoid publicity. Among the latter were the Harrimans, incidentally.

Few people today would care to return to the era of the fabulous fortunes that were necessary to build and maintain the great estates with their cavernous, splendid mansions. It is one of the good signs of our times that these pompous strongholds of class and wealth are being turned to public uses.


Wisconsin’s Lawsonia
Most famous of Wisconsin’s estates is 1,000 acre Lawsonia at Green lake. Victor Lawson, late publisher of the Chicago Daily News, and his wife lavished some eight million dollars on it early in the century. After their death, the property was acquired in 1925 by a Chicago corporation that planned to make a millionaires’ resort out of it. A fine 18 hole golf course was laid out and a swanky white brick hotel erected. During the depression it was in the hands of receivers, and the Northern Baptist association — now the American Baptist Assembly — bought it in 1943 for about $300,000 as a summer gathering place for church groups. The idea proved so successful that the assembly this year has undertaken a million dollar “face lifting” program that will make Lawsonia large enough to accommodate 1,500 guests at a time.