Surely it’s an effect of the plethora of amazing homes in Concordia and the surrounding neighborhoods west of Downtown that one could drive past the former Victor Schlitz Mansion, 2004 W. Highland Ave., and not immediately appreciate its beauty.
The home, which is currently for sale, is laden with distinctive detail on the outside, including a turret, and a matching curved porch wall, an inlaid terra cotta tile decoration, stained glass windows, wooden ornament and even an especially unusual feature: the lower courses of cream city bricks are dyed a different color, creating a unique effect.
But step inside and there’s so much ornament, so much craftsmanship on display, that you won’t even know where to point your camera first.
The house was designed by Charles Gombert, the architect who designed the iconic North Point Water Tower and the St Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, which still stands on 8th and Greenfield.
Schlitz – a liquor distributor who was the nephew of beer man Joseph Schlitz – clearly had the money to hire the best. And he had the knowledge – his father-in-law, Leonard Schmidtner, was the architect of St. Stanislaus and the old Courthouse on Cathedral Square, among other works.
Born in Germany, Victor came to Milwaukee in 1872, where his brother John – aided by uncle Joseph – landed four years earlier to set up an American branch of their family’s winery. As Russell Zimmermann points out, although the business was named for their father Charles, the elder Schlitz never lived here.
In 1890, Schlitz had earned enough to buy five lots on the northwest corner of 20th and Highland, where builders – including mason Charles Duchow – erected the three-story balloon-framed Queen Anne stunner at a cost of $6,000.
A carriage house was erected to the north and was later expanded into the duplex that stands there today.
When Schlitz died in 1928, his six children sold the house to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operated an orphanage in it. Around the time the current owners bought the mansion, a letter arrived at the house.
"In 1940 my mother died leaving 7 children orphans," wrote June Pratt, then living in Oregon. "My sister and I were sent to that Highland address which at that time was known as St. Margaret’s Guild, a home for 19 girls and 5 nuns. I cried the day I arrived and cried the day I left. By then, the place was my home and the nuns and girls were my family.
"It was a beautiful stately home with a lot of ornate oak woodwork and staircases and floors. These hands spent a lot of time polishing all that oak. ... I know that I could walk blindfolded and find every room in the place."
By 1975, the mansion had become home to Highland Community School, which operated a Montessori school in the building until 1999, when Robert Upson and his wife bought it and began lovingly repairing and restoring it. The school moved to 3030 W. Highland and is now in the former MacDowell building on 17th and Highland.
Though it’s assessed at $175,000, the house is for sale for $350,000 and, honestly, it’s a steal.
The maple and walnut floors are gorgeous. There are coal fireplaces in nearly every room. Every doorway is flanked with beautiful woodwork. Some are arched. There’s lovely tile at the fireplaces and one fireplace is even built into the dining room buffet. The ceilings are high, and the place is spacious at nearly 6,800 square feet.
Best of all, Upson has poured untold quantities of sweat and money into the place, bringing the walls down to bare plaster before painting, restoring exterior details and even the tiniest interior ones. When he did a complete tear-off roofing job, he also replaced portions of the decking, maintaining the original 12-inches on center construction.
Instead of tearing off the original Lincrusta wall coverings, Upson restored them, further helping to maintain the home’s period look. In the basement, a tin roof finial awaits re-installation, as do a series of freshly painted spindles for the second floor back porch and yards of carved wood trim.
But it’s not like living in the 1890s. The windows have been replaced and insulation blown in throughout. I visited on a blustery day and there was nary a whistle from the wind, nary a breeze to be felt. The kitchen and bathrooms are modern and comfortable.
If you take a tour, you’ll immediately imagine yourself playing with your kids up in the third-floor turret room or lounging with a book in a chair in the "landing room" at the foot of the grand staircase.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.