Urban spelunking: Wisconsin Club / Alexander Mitchell mansion
I still like to call it "the old Mitchell place" – jokingly, of course – but, to be fair, the elaborate, historic house behind the gate at 900 W. Wisconsin Ave. has been inhabited by the Wisconsin Club far longer than by Alexander Mitchell, who built the place.
Mitchell, who was born in Scotland in 1817 and arrived in the U.S. 22 years later, was a banker – he founded Marine Bank – railroad magnate and Democratic politician who served two terms in the House of Representatives, from 1871-1875.
Mitchell, of course, is remembered all around Milwaukee, with a street, a park, a landmark Downtown building named in his honor and an airport with a name that honors his grandson, Gen. Billy, who was influential in the creation of the U.S. Air Force.
Mitchell built the earliest part of the house – which started out humble and ended up humongous – in 1848 and, as a Wisconsin Club brochure notes, the house "grew with the fortune of its owner. ... He gradually bought up the remaining properties on his block and expanded the house."
In 1859, Mitchell had the house updated to reflect the en vogue Italianate style and 13 years later, he added wings, enlarged the porch and put in window bays. In 1871, an unnamed Italian woodcarver is credited with creating the belvedere that still stands out on the lawn and which most of us would likely call a gazebo.
But much of what captures our eye today is the work of Edward Townsend Mix, who was tapped by Mitchell in 1876 to amalgamate this assortment of work into a single, grand French Second Empire mansion. Mix added the five-story tower and the mansard roof.
It is that building that we really see today. If you look closely, especially outside, you can so see where some different cream city brickwork meets up.
While it's sad to see Mix's Crystal Palace-ish conservatory vanished – it's been gone for more than a century now – that part of the building was replaced with a grand and elaborate ballroom – complete with minstrels' gallery – upstairs and the Mitchell room downstairs. Below, in the basement, is Alexander's, a more casual, multi-level dining room in a space that housed eight bowling alleys from the 1950s until a 1994 renovation.
The conservatory had housed palm trees and other plantings that were exotic in 19th century Milwaukee and had a small stream running through it.
The most stunning sections of the home remain the nucleus of the old house, right in the center and off to the east. While the original main entrance, facing 9th Street, is obscured on the exterior, inside you can still see two beautiful stained glass doors.
"The club is in very, very good shape," Wisconsin Club General Manager John Constantine told me on a recent tour. "We've invested in this building. Since I've been here, we've put close to $23 million in this facility. I'm very proud that (its) in outstanding shape. It will be around for a lot longer than all of us. Not only the pretty carpeting but the infrastructure here: the electrical wiring; the HVAC; the kitchens. All of it has been totally redone."
In what is now the main entry way, you can't help but marvel at the main staircase, carved by hand over the course of seven years by a single craftsman. There are 24 lion's heads that, I'm going to guess reminded Mitchell of his Scottish heritage of which was notably proud. It was Mitchell, who was responsible for ensuring that St. Andrew was among the four saints featured in stained glass windows in the facade of St. James Episcopal Church, facing his mansion.
In one room there is an intricate inlaid floor.
"That was carpeted when we did this renovation," says Constantine. "I pulled up the carpeting and this is what I found. We have five different woods all inlaid. I brought a floor specialist out. He said, 'John, to replicate this floor in today's dollars it would be a quarter of a million dollars'."
There is so much woodwork, tilework, plasterwork and general architectural eye candy in the old Mitchell place that it's hard to detail it all. There are 13 fireplaces. If you visit, don't neglect to look up, especially on the first floor where there are stunningly adorned ceilings (pictured above).
"The beauty of this, as you walk around as well, is back in the day, there were no electrical tools," Constantine reminds. "Everything you see here is hand-carved, which is amazing."
The German-American Deutscher Club bought the mansion from Mitchell's family – Alexander had died eight years earlier – and has owned it ever since. During World War I, when much of America was downplaying its German heritage, it was renamed the Wisconsin Club.
The club has been remarkably successful in recent years, says Constantine.
"Our membership has increased every year for the past 20 years," he notes. "We've never seen a downward slide. Even into '08 when the economy had problems. We have close to 1500 members. Right now we are in the top 5 percent of all private clubs in the country in food and beverage sales. That's how busy we are.
"(We) have dining; (we) have social (aspects); (we) have many activities. We have wine dinners, we have business networking opportunities. My wife and I are taking 52 members to Paris in October for a trip. We're taking a group of guys out golfing in Vegas in March. We're doing one (trip) up in Napa Valley. It's just a great place to network and meet people."
Back to the house itself, in frames around the property there are bits of history – old newspaper articles, vintage photos, programs from galas – that tell the history of the building, which over the years has hosted the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, President Grover Cleveland, President Ulysses S. Grant, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, Prussia's Prince Henry and prominent abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, among many others.
Upstairs we see an array of smaller meeting rooms that would have started out as Mitchell family bedrooms. One has a marble fireplace, and, again, each is elaborately decked out. On the top floor there is the original ballroom – now called the MacArthur Room – which doesn't boast a lot of square footage – it's maybe 15x24 – but it has an astonishingly high ceiling under that mansard.
I asked Constantine if there are any unusual places to see and he led us up a tight curved staircase behind what looks like a closet door. Soon, we're in a space in the tower that has a swirling wood and iron staircase that leads up to the top of tower.
Of course, I do not hesitate to climb. At the top we're as far as we can other than a nine-foot-or-so ladder that leads up to the peak of the tower for flagpole access.
"Someone has to go up there and change the flag for me when it gets ripped up there," Constantine said. "Some poor guy's got to go all the way up there."
Oval windows face out all four sides affording nice views of Calvary Church to the south and Downtown to the east. There's a bit of graffiti – I find a couple dating to the 1940s – but not much. When I tell Constantine, who stayed below, about this he asks if I wrote my name. I told him I didn't and I did not lie.
Outside, to the south was formerly lawn and is now home to a driveway, a fountain, the belvedere and some parking. I've heard talk that Mitchell had a temporary bridge built from here, over Wisconsin Avenue to St. James Church – the rebuilding of which he heavily subsidized after a devastating fire – for a wedding.
We walk over and he opens the door for us to see the inside of the belvedere, which is every bit as elaborate inside as it is outside. The walls have English tile wainscoting, a domed plaster ceiling is painted a sky blue and there is gold leaf ornament. Outside we look at the gingerbread scrollwork that covers the gazebo.
Remarkably, the belvedere almost came down.
"That's a one-of-a-kind in this country," says Constantine, echoing Zimmermann. "I remember, years ago when I first got here, this thing was ready to fall down. I brought all of the members to the grass area and I brought the President of the Milwaukee County Historical Society – Harry Anderson – and we talked about the Belvedere. I said, 'guys we have two choices. We can either come out of our pockets and fix it or we can tear it down.' After that meeting, the members put up $100,000 in donations and we ended up restoring it."
As we walk around, it's easy to see Constantine's passion for the Wisconsin Club, where he's worked for 24 years. It is, he notes, only the second job he's had in his life. He spent about 20 years working at the Western Racquet Club in Elm Grove, where he started when he was 16.
"I still enjoy it (when) I show people around every day and people are inquiring about membership," he says. "I still get excited looking at how beautiful this building is. I always see a new detail that maybe I haven't seen for awhile. It's a great building for Milwaukee. I'm so proud of this place."
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