By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 04, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN – Looking at his many landmarks in Milwaukee, it’s easy to think 19th century architect Edward Townsend Mix is all ours.

After all, he drew such familiar places as Old Main at the Soldiers’ Home, the Mitchell and Mackie Buildings Downtown, the former State Normal School (now home to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission), churches like St. Paul’s Episcopal, All Saints Cathedral and Immanuel Presbyterian on the Lower East Side, commercial buildings, schools, and stately homes like this, this and this.

The south facade.

But there are (and were) Mix-designed buildings in many other places, too, such as the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, the demolished Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building in Minneapolis – considered the first skyscraper in that city – and the First Congregational Church in Ripon.

One of Mix’s most notable works is the 1870-1 Villa Louis, which lords over St. Feriole Island in the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien.

Villa Louis
Villa Louis.

The home was designed by Mix for fur trader Hercules Dousman – brother of Talbot Dousman, an early settler whose name is immortalized in the eponymous Waukesha County town – and since the 1950s it has been maintained on its 25-acre site by the Wisconsin Historical Society, which offers tours and events on a seasonal basis.

Villa Louis reopened for the 2024 season on May 22.

In addition to house tours, there are also monthly behind-the-scenes tours, as well as an intriguing “secret underground Prohibition dinner,” cooking breakfast in a Victorian kitchen, a performance of “A Voyageur’s Tale,” which tells story of Jean-Christophe and the Upper Midwest French-Native American experience and coincides with the 32nd annual War of 1812 Battle for Prairie du Chien Living History Encampment, July 20-21.

The parlor.

“Each season we look forward to sharing the gilded-age home of the Dousman family, and the rich regional history, with guests from near and far,” says site director Susan Caya Slusser.

“Located in the second oldest city in Wisconsin, situated near the banks of the Mississippi River, our site has witnessed many significant events and guests are fascinated by the area’s historical depth.”

And that history, especially as it relates to Villa Louis, is indeed profound.

Who were Hercules and Louis Dousman?

Hercules Dousman
Hercules Dousman.

Hercules Louis Dousman was born on Mackinac Island in 1800 to Pittsburgh-born fur trader Michael Dousman and his wife. When Hercules was a boy, the elder Dousman had become well-known in Canada and the U.S. and was captured by the British when they captured Fort Mackinac during the War of 1812.

In 1843, Michael Dousman built this house, which still survives, in Brookfield.

Although he then worked with the British, at the end of the war Michael atoned and was allowed back to the fur trade by the U.S. government as long as he agreed to work with Astor’s American Fur Company.

Hercules was sent to New Jersey to study and then worked as a clerk in a New York store before returning home to serve as an agent for American Fur, which sent him to Prairie du Chien in 1826 to assist agent Joseph Rolette.

Ascending the ranks, Dousman bought into the company and later partnered with Rolette and Henry Hastings Sibley. When Rolette died in 1842, the partners acquired his shares and Dousman – who already had three children via an affair in the 1830s – married Rolette’s widow, Jane, in 1844.

The first house
The house Hercules built in 1843.

The year before, Dousman had built a two-story Georgian brick house – “elegantly furnished,” according to one source – on the site of multiple former forts. The 4,500-acre estate boasted vineyards and gardens.

Summer kitchen
The summer kitchen built for the first house survives today.

There were outbuildings, too, including a summer kitchen, an ice house, a laundry and an office (which was expanded over the years), which survive today. A barn and a later stables building have been torn down.

Louis Dousman
Louis Dousman.

In 1848, their only child, a son named Hercules Louis II – though always known as Louis – was born there in 1848.

In 1852, Hercules was one of the main forces behind the Madison & Prairie du Chien Railroad, which aimed to help connect the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan in conjunction with the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad.

That railroad arrived five years later, bringing economic prosperity with it to Prairie du Chien. Because Dousman had wisely invested in real estate and in the lumber industry required to build on that land, a boom at Prairie du Chien was a boon to Hercules, who became a millionaire.

When, Hercules died in 1868, his 20-year-old son – who studied at private schools and attended Racine College – found himself a very wealthy boy, with a lot of land and a lot of money. And so he decided to build a new house for his mother and himself.

The architect

Milwaukee’s first professionally trained architect, Edward Townsend Mix was neither from Milwaukee nor from a family with any sort of architectural background.

In fact, Mix – born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1831 – was from a maritime family. His parents, Edward and Emily Mix, moved the family to Andover, Illinois, when Edward was 5 years old, but nine years later the boy and his father went back out east, settling in New York City.

Edward Townsend Mix.

It was reportedly here that the teenage Mix began studying architecture, after working briefly as a clerk in a shipping company on Wall Street.

According to Carlen Hatala’s 1982 thesis “Edward Townsend Mix and Alexander Mitchell. Four Commissions,” this experience made him decide that he would not pursue the family career of seafaring. Mix then took up clerical work and later became a draughtsman in a patent attorney’s office.”

Accounts disagree on what happened next, Hatala noted. One scenario has Mix paying to study under architect Richard M. Upjohn – who popularized the Italianate style that Mix would often use later – around 1850.

Another says he returned to New Haven in 1848 and met respected architect Major Sidney Mason Stone, who allowed Mix to study in his practice, where Mix served an assistant for seven years.

“When he became a master he declined a partnership,” Hatala wrote, noting that this scenario would take us up to 1855. But...

“Which version is the correct one,” she asked.

“Mix did have an affinity for New York throughout his life and later became a member of the New York State Institute of Architects from 1873-1890. Perhaps Mix did not spend a full seven years with Stone and studied under Upjohn till 1853. We do know that Mix was definitely in New Haven from 1853. ... It is interesting to note that the Upjohn story appears only in 20th century recollections about Mix, and not in contemporary biographies. An important mentor such as Upjohn would surely have been acknowledged. Perhaps we will never know for sure.”

What most seem to agree on is that Mix went back to Illinois, this time to Chicago, in late 1855 to work as a foreman for William Boyington (architect, later, of the famous 1869 Michigan Avenue water tower). The following year, the two became partners.

Boyington claimed to have also studied with Stone, suggesting that perhaps it was in that office that he met Mix.

Coming to Milwaukee to oversee the construction of the Newhall House Hotel and the Seventh Ward School and finding a booming town, Mix and Boyington opened a satellite office in the Ludington Block on Water and Wisconsin.

But by 1857 the partners went their separate ways, with Mix staying on in Milwaukee.

By the time Dousman was seeking an architect, Mix had long since become the preeminent architect in the Milwaukee, designing schools, churches, stately homes, hotels, commercial and apartment buildings, the Old Soldiers Home and other structures.

But we shouldn’t be surprised to find a Mix-designed home nearly 200 miles west of Milwaukee.

 “Throughout his career Mix advertised commissions and ‘designs sent to all parts of the country.’ He was ambitious,” Hatala wrote. “The sign of success was to have commissions nation-wide. The firm consistently had buildings and designs in progress in other states.”

St. Mary's Institute
St. Mary's Institute building, 1872.

In fact, by the year after construction of Villa Louis was completed, Mix had already designed the first building of the St. Mary’s Institute in Prairie du Chien.

Founded in 1872, the school was run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame to educate and provide “practical training” to girls.

The two Mix-designed buildings at the St. Mary's site today.
St. Mary'sX

Mix was surely hired for that project by Dousman’s friend John Lawler.

The latter was a railroad executive, Mississippi River ferry owner and philanthopist who was the principal patron of the school, which exists now as Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. Lawler is believed to have overseen construction of the St. Mary's building, as well as of the auditorium Mix would design for the opposite end of the complex in 1878.

The house

The hall
The hall, then and now.

Louis Dousman’s new Mix-designed house would occupy the same site as the home his father had built a couple decades earlier. It was an elevated spot on a rather flat island. Indeed, the feature was a man-made one – a Native American mound.

But neither Dousman was the first to build on the spot. During the War of 1812 no less than William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) was there first.

“William Clark was superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis,” explains Mary Elise Antoine – author of numerous books on Wisconsin history, president of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society and former curator at Villa Louis – as we stand out front. “He decided that they needed to have a fort at Prairie du Chien to control it for the United States.

Fort Shelby
A sketh of Fort Shelby, circa 1814.

“In the summer of 1814, he came up here with a small force and built a fort (Fort Shelby) on the mound behind the village. The British laid siege to it and the Americans surrendered. So it was a British fort (Fort McKay) for another year. When the British left, they demolished the fort. But then the United States came back in 1816 and built a much larger fortification (Fort Crawford) and again used the mound. Then Hercules acquires it, built a brick house on the mound, and then his son Louis built this.”

Fort Crawford
A view of Fort Crawford, built in 1816.

The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the property (which was landmarked in 1974) opined that the 20-foot tall mound, with a 200-foot base, “is believed to be a Hopewell site from the first millenium, A.D., and perhaps the biggest mound of its kind in Wisconsin. It was also known to be the site of Indian encampments, recorded as such when occupied by the Fox tribe during early fur trading days of the 18th century, and probably occupied by other groups previously.”

Thus, unfortunately, the mound had already been disturbed on multiple occasions before the first home was built.

“Hercules was not building on a pristine mound,” Antoine says, noting that recent landscaping and maintenance work on the paths recently turned up pottery that has been dated to the Middle Woodlands period, about 200 BC to about AD 300.

“(The mound) had been destroyed probably to some degree by the time he got here. We really don't know how much or what he found (during construction). The basement (at Villa Louis) is huge, so God knows what he found when he did that.”

Basement canoe
In the basement is a canoe that was pulled from the river.

Later, when Antoine shows me the basement, which looks a bit like a patchwork of different construction methods, she notes that it’s possible that Villa Louis reused the basement and foundation of the previous house – though the NRHP nomination form claims, “the original house was completely demolished” – so it’s not clear how much new excavation would have been done in 1870.

What we do know is that Mix tapped Richard Good as contractor on both the Villa Louis and St. Mary’s Institute projects and that brick and other materials from the old house were used to build the new one.

Reused beams
In the basement are beams that were reused from the earlier house.

Thanks to the railroad that Hercules helped build about a dozen years earlier, trainloads of cream city brick could be shipped from Milwaukee to St. Feriole Island for construction of the house (and school).

It bears noting that the island, while basically vacant now except for Villa Louis and a few other buildings – notably the cream city brick Dousman House hotel and railway depot not far from Villa Louis – part of the town of Prairie du Chien did once occupy the island, where houses lined a street grid, until repeated flooding forced the town to consolidate on the mainland, where it sits today.

The National Register of Historic Places form notes that the house was, “one of the town's most ornate structures, and probably the most famous house museum in Wisconsin. However, while it was the most ornate domestic structure locally, this sophistication is relative. Numerous houses throughout the United States, and probably in the Upper Mississippi region as well, displayed more intricate embellishments in the form and style of their decorative motifs.

“The most distinctive feature of the Villa Louis is its glassed-in porch, very similar in style to that of the previous Dousman house on that site, also of wood, painted white, but with much larger bays, larger panes and different woodwork. However, the porch on the northwest section of the house has a porch with window treatment very much like that seen in the photograph of (Hercules') House on the Mound, probably actually from it.”

The porch, then and now.

That porch, apparently well-used by the family to judge from old photographs, was not part of Mix’s original design, but Louis Dousman wanted it, and paid at least $750 – the equivalent of about $18,000 today – for it, according to an accounting held in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

“Described by John Drury in ‘Historic Midwest Houses’ as grand ‘in the florid post-Civil War style,’ Villa Louis is one of the best known house museums in the Midwest,” noted the nomination form.

“Its spacious interiors, with massive arched door frames, paneled ceilings and heavy moldings, today house an outstanding collection of elegant 19th century furnishings and historical artifacts of the region. Drury further wrote, ‘The interior of Villa Louis is probably the truest and most complete example of mid-19th century style to be found, not only in Wisconsin, but in the entire United States.’  Mme. Dousman included a third floor ballroom in this second house.”

dining room X

Mrs. Dousman dubbed the home “Chateau Brillante” and lived there until her death in 1882.

During that time Louis Dousman and his family – who did not live there – visited often.

Not long after the house was finished, he’d moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father’s connections helped him thrive.

Louis and Nina
Louis and Nina in St. Paul, 1873.

In 1873, a year after leaving home, he married Nina Sturgis, son of a prominent general, and they moved to St. Louis, where the elder Dousman was also well-remembered.

There, Louis and Nina had five children, and also began collecting art, even adding a gallery addition onto his home and earning much acclaim for the many – mostly French – paintings he owned.

Three years after his mother died, Dousman moved his family to Prairie du Chien and set about making Chateau Brillante his own, expanding the office building to include a billiards room and adding a second floor with guest rooms, and most notably, building a horse farm and race track.

House from horse track
Villa Louis, seen from the race track, and a print of an aerial view showing the house, the track, and near the top, a steamship on the Mississippi River.
Horse farmX

Dousman sold off much of art collection in a New York auction to fund this Artesian Stock Farm and half-mile oval, which sat just across the road from the house.

However, his plans for the horse farm were never completed as he died of a ruptured appendix on Jan. 13, 1886. Nina shut down the farm, sold the horses and renamed Chateau Brillante in honor of her late husband, calling it “Villa Louis.”

The Villa after Louis

Nina married newspaper editor Robert McBride in 1888 and they moved to Chicago and New York before splitting up five years later, at which point Nina and the children returned to Villa Louis, where she was known to throw a heck of a party.

The family also were keen travelers and numerous photos and books in the archives detail trips around Europe, Egypt and beyond.

The billiards room, then and now.

Unfortunately, despite warnings, Nina continued to spend lavishly, including on redecorating the Villa, and depleting the family fortune. By 1913, she left Villa Louis behind and spent the last 17 years of her life living with her children and her siblings.

“The (children) are all married,” says Antoine, picking up the story. “They all want to live someplace else besides Prairie du Chien, and so they lease the house to a private boys school. That doesn't work out. Then they lease it to a woman and she runs it as a boarding house, but they really want to sell it. So they sell it to a man from Dubuque who has connections to John Dillinger.”

When that deal fell apart, they donated the property in 1935 to the City of Prairie du Chien.

The kitchen.

Fortunately, like Hercules and Louis and Nina before them, the now-adult Dousman kids didn’t throw away much and in the following years two daughters donated many of Villa Louis’ original furnishings to the city, which was operating the house as a museum.

But, says Antoine, “then the heirs decided the city was not doing a good enough job, so they wanted to give it to the Wisconsin Historical Society. So the mayor sued and it went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the court decided that if they wanted to give it away, they could.

"So then they had to get an act of the legislature to even (have WHS) acquire it, because the Historical Society had not been incorporated or established as a place to acquire historic property.”

One of the upstairs bedrooms.

That occurred in 1952 and Villa Louis has been part of the WHS ever since.

In 1989, one of Nina’s granddaughters donated photographs, letters, bills, receipts, manuscripts and furnishings. Between what remained in the house, and the 1930s and 1989 donations, most of what you see in the house belonged to the Dousmans.

One of the upstairs baseboards has a door that leads to wiring for a call system for servants.
Writing on the inside of the door identifies the wires.

The bookshelves are lined with the Dousmans’ books, there are photographs, busts and painted portraits of the family and thanks to the great minds at WHS, the house is full of enlarged vintage photographs that show how the spaces in which they are diplayed looked in the past.

Servants stairs
The stairs between the kitchen and the servants' quarters.

The house is beautiful, with all the fine woodwork, fireplaces and furnishings you’d expect, but there are other interesting spaces, too, like the kitchen with its 19th century appliances, the servants’ quarters – unheated and with lower ceilings – the basement, which may or may not have been a place to acquire moonshine during Prohibition (you’ll have to take the tour!), the ice house and the summer kitchen, and that office with its hulking safe and billiards room.

attic archiveX

Among the most interesting spaces is the attic, which serves as an archive and is full of Dousman family books, objects and more.

Up there is also an archive that details all of the work done during a $2 million restoration of the house in the 1990s.

In another attic room are two large cisterns that served the house. One had water pumped up from one of the many artesian wells on the property and the other collected water captured by a gutter system installed on the roof.

Most, if not all, of these spaces are visitable during the behind-the-scenes tours.

The cisterns.
An aerial view of the site in 1960.

Villa Louis’ 2024 season runs through Oct. 27. The house is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and tours begin on the hour.

Admission is $15 for adults and teens, $13.50 for seniors (65 and up), $8 for children, ages 5-12, and free for children under 5. Wisconsin Historical Society members receive free general admission and 10 percent off ticketed events.

For more information or to buy tickets in advance, visit

(NOTE: All historical photos courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," 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 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.