By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 08, 2024 at 9:02 AM

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There are many beautiful old buildings in Milwaukee, each with its own interesting set of features, but very few of them are truly unique. One of them that absolutely is unique in town is Villa Terrace, 2220 N. Terrace Ave.

east facade
The east facade of the house.

While it stands alone in Milwaukee as a replica Italian Renaissance villa with a cloister-like front yard, Villa Terrace – built in 1924 for A.O. Smith President Lloyd Raymond Smith, his wife Agnes and their children – is based on the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, in Bisuschio, Italy, in the Lombardia region’s Province of Varese.

Villa Terrace celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and a series of events is slated for July 10-11 at the museum, which is perched on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with gardens rolling down the hillside and down onto the former lakebed.

It all starts Wednesday, July 10, with a 9 p.m. lakefront drone light show featuring 400 drones illuminating the sky with a show designed by local artist Ray Chi. Music for the show, which is free to view, will be simulcast on WMSE 91.7 FM.

Great Hall
The Great Hall in the 1940s (above, courtesy of Villa Terrace) and today (below).

The event kicks off with a drone show viewing party at 7 p.m. There will be light snacks, DJs, glow in the dark and STEAM activities and more. Adults are $25, kids 5-17 are $5 and 4 and under get in free (but still need a ticket, since space is limited). Tickets are available now at

The rain date for the show and watch party is Thursday, July 11.

Then, Thursday, July 11 is Artists’ Day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. There will be plein air painters, an arts and crafts fair, light appetizers from 4 to 7 p.m. and more. Admission is free but tickets are required due to space limitations. Free tickets are available at

dining room
The dining room in the 1940s. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

Finally, the Villa’s bi-annual fundraiser, this year called Centennial Jazz Gala in the Garden, is set for Sunday, July 13, 5-10 p.m.

Funds raised will help pay for the ongoing kitchen renovation, garden maintenance, accessibility for visitors with mobility restrictions, as well as the restoration of the nearly 2,000-year-old Hermes/Mercury statue in the center of the courtyard. Tickets and more information available at

The main staircase inside.

“I think 100 years is for a building in the United States a pretty big deal,” says Executive Director Jaymee Harvey Willms. “This place has never been bulldozed. I think that's also echoing Milwaukee, right? Milwaukee holds onto the things that loves with fervor.

“So we're celebrating in overly ambitious way. We are doing a hundred public programs in our hundredth year, which includes yoga, breath work, artist and residence talks, summer camps, concert series. I'm pretty proud of the fact that over half of these programs are free so that there's no financial barrier to the public.”

Harvey Willms says that the events will also echo the diversity of Milwaukee.

“We're doing cultural celebrations that hopefully cross the barriers of people who have typically felt like they were welcome at the Villa, making sure everyone's invited. We (did) a Juneteenth celebration this year, we do Dia de los Muertos, which we had done for the first time ever last year, and we had over 116 folks show up, which was a pretty exciting moment.”

Villa Terrace
The street-facing view of Villa Terrace.

To get you ready to make top-notch small talk at the celebrations, here’s a look back at the history of Villa Terrace, which its original owners had dubbed, “Sopra Mare,” or “above the sea.”

Who was Lloyd Smith?

Lloyd, kids and maybe Agnes
Lloyd Smith with the children and maybe Agnes. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

In 1924, when he had Villa Terrace built, Lloyd Smith was the president of A.O. Smith, a company founded at home in 1874 by his grandfather, machinist Charles Jeremiah Smith as C. J. Smith and Sons.

Initially, the company made baby carriages and bicycle parts and within about 20 years, it became the biggest manufacturer of bike parts in the country.

In 1899, the founder’s son Arthur Oliver Smith came up with a new kind of lightweight steel frame for automobiles and soon became a supplier to Ford Motor Co., Chevrolet, Packard, Studebaker, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Peerless and others.

Five years later, the company was incorporated as A.O. Smith and by 1908 more than half of all cars manufactured in the U.S. sat atop an A.O. Smith-made frame.

By the time Arthur died in June 1913, his son Lloyd Raymond – who was called Ray – had already joined the business.

Agnes and child
Agnes Smith with one of the (grand?) children on the terrace. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

Ray was born in Chicago in 1883 and attended West Division High School and UW-Madison. He married Agnes Gram – aka "Becky" – in 1915.

The year before he married, Ray unveiled the Smith Flyer, a gasoline powered bike, which was later sold to Briggs & Stratton. During World War I, the company made bomb casings.

Lake Michigan
The view from the terrace of Milwaukee's own Mediterranean.

In 1921, the company launched the first automated car frame production line in the world and could churn out 10,000 frames in a single day. That’s one frame every eight seconds.

It’s no wonder that Smith had the kind of money it would take to realize his dream of owning an Italian villa overlooking what his wife Agnes liked to think of as her own little Mediterranean: Lake Michigan.

The children in the courtyard. (PHOTOS: Villa Terrace)

And the innovations would continue. Groundbreaking technologies in welding, for example, opened new frontiers for the company, which began making equipment for oil and gas refineries.

A new method of fusing glass to steel allowed A.O. Smith to branch out into brewing equipment, beer kegs and water heaters, the latter being what the company specializes in today.

The children on the water staircase. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

His time leading the company would last 30 years. Smith died in 1944, by which time A.O. Smith was already making torpedoes, aircraft propellers and other materials for the U.S. effort.

Though we now all surely think of it as a public-facing building, home to a museum and setting for events, the Smiths raised a family in the home over the course of many years.

Agnes would live another 37 years, dying in 1981. In 1966, she donated Sopra Mare to Milwaukee County for conversion to a decorative arts museum under the management of Milwaukee Art Museum (then called the Milwaukee Art Center).

While it's not strictly focused on the decorative arts anymore, the rooms are almost always full of beautiful artwork in all mediums.

Gallery space.
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In 1974, the Milwaukee Art Center ceased its oversight of Villa Terrace – which would continue under the auspices of the War Memorial and the nonprofit Friends of Villa Terrace – and left the decorative arts collection on loan.

In 2012, CAVT (Charles Allis Villa Terrace) Museums, Inc. was created as a nonprofit and the War Memorial ceased to be involved in Villa Terrace and Charles Allis.

Architect David Adler

David Adler
Architect David Adler. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

Interestingly, architect David Adler, who the Smiths hired to design Sopra Mare, was a Milwaukee native who did very little work in his hometown. That’s another thing that makes Villa Terrace special. It’s a rare work by this native son.

Adler was born in Milwaukee in 1882, the only son of Therese Hyman Adler and Issac David Adler, who ran successful wholesale men’s clothing manufacturing business. He had one sister, Frances, who became a well-known interior designer (using her married name of Frances Elkins), and later the two often collaborated.

After attending MPS, the young Adler spent some time at Lawrenceville School, a New Jersey prep school and then in 1900, went to Princeton University, where he studied architecture.

David and Katherine Adler. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Adler Arts Center)

While still at school, he did some design work to remodel a club at Princeton. After graduating in 1904, he traveled Europe to study architecture and attend the Technische Universität München in Munich.

From 1906 to 1911, Adler studied at the respected École des Beaux-Arts, alma mater of the likes of architects Richard Morris Hunt and Louis Sullivan and painters like Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent, to name but a few.

Returning to the U.S., Adler settled in Chicago, and began working for architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who was noted for his country house designs. Six months later, he left and entered into a partnership with Henry Dangler, who had to sign off on all Adler’s designs since the latter failed the architecture licensing test in 1917.

The partners did a number of country estate designs before Dangler died in 1917, forcing Adler to find a new partner with an engineering background.

Beginning in 1918, that architect was Robert Work, who was a member of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and later went into partnership with Russell S. Walcott for a number of years, known for designing suburban homes during the 1920s and '30.

Adler drawingsX

"It was generally known in the office that Robert Work's presence there was not as a skilled practitioner as much as simply a name under the state law as a registered architect," recalled architect Paul Schweiker, who studied with Adler in 1923-4. "This gave Adler the sanction to practice architecture in the state of Illinois. As soon as Adler was equipped with a license of his own the partnership was dissolved.

"The title on the door was David Adler and Robert Work, Architects. (But) if Robert Work had close relationships in a business sense with David Adler, it was not ever very clear in the office."

Work's name appears alongside Adler's on the Sopra Mare building permit.

In 1928, having completed 30 commissions, the State of Illinois gave Adler an honorary license, with the support of fellow architects. From that point on he was able to fly solo, which he did.

Interestingly, in 1935, Adler would radically alter the world of American architecture when he was asked to recommend a new leader for the architecture program at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology).

Adler drawingsX

Adler suggested Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had been the last director of the Bauhaus and had fled the rise of the Nazis in Germany for the U.S. Mies was hired and he then designed the campus’ new buildings. Those, plus other work he did in Chicago helped his modern “International Style” to become a dominant force in architecture.


Sopra Mare, on Milwaukee’s Mediterranean

It’s not entirely clear how the Smiths connected with Adler, though the latter was certainly well-known in the world of Upper Midwest country house architecture by this time. Perhaps they also were acquainted from earlier days in Milwaukee, being only a year apart in age.

In addition to being a fiend for collecting postcards and having a passion for European country houses, Adler – who died in 1949 – was a devout cyclist, which could also explain how he came to know Smith, whose company was a leader in the bicycle industry.

Apparently, the Smiths had been dreaming of a house that resembled a Northern Italian villa ever since they traveled to Italy in 1915.

According to the Villa Terrace website, the Smiths were considering two sites for their home, with the current site winning out and Adler reportedly exhorting, ““Let Lake Michigan be my Mediterranean.”

For inspiration, Adler looked to Villa Cicogna Mozzoni.

Rose Standish Nichols
Rose Standish Nichols. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

Whether this was a place he had visited during his European wanderings – perhaps it was pictured on one or more of the 30-odd Italian villa postcards he had in his collection of more than 500 cards – or it was a house the Smiths had visited in 1915, we don’t really know.

The Villa dates to 1400 when the earliest parts were constructed as a hunting lodge for the Mozzoni family. In 1580, Angelo Mozzoni married Giovan Pietro Cicogna and their descendants still own the property today.

The villas gardens were created in the late 16th century at the behest of Ascanio Mozzoni and in the 17th century, a staircase with a cascading water feature down the middle was added. A similar feature was included in the Sopra Mare garden by landscape architect Rose Standish Nichols, who was hired by Adler.

Initially, and for decades, water for the staircase was pumped from Lake Michigan. That changed in 2002, however, when a garden renewal project connected the recirculating system to the city's municipal water supply.

water stairs
The water staircase. (PHOTO: Villa Terrace)

It seems possible that this feature was suggested not by Adler or the Smiths but by Nichols, who discussed the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni and its water staircase in one of her books.

Nichols, a niece of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, designed roughly 70 gardens in the U.S., including in Georgia, Arizona, California and, primarily, in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Before Sopra Mare could be built, however, the first matter was the removal of the existing house and garage on the site.

Although we know that a Ferry & Clas-designed garage was built there in 1905, less certain was the construction date of the two-story brick-veneered house with what appears to have been a large wraparound porch. The house appears on the 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, so we know it went up before then.

The property belonged to Prussian-born Fredericka Louise Lindwurm (nee Simmerling), who was the widow of William Henry Lindwurm, who had emigrated from Seesen, Germany in 1845.

The Lindwurms owned a farmland that is now the site of Lincoln Park and Union Cemetery. William was a well-known figure in the city, having served as a captain in the Company F, 6th Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War, worked as a real estate developer and was a county supervisor. He was also among the notables who served as pallbearers at the funeral of Jacob Nunnemacher.

In 1880, a year after William's death, Fredericka was living with five of their children, though we don't know where.

That demolition apparently complete, a permit to build Sopra Mare was pulled on Sept. 6, 1923 for a house that was expected to cost $200,000, or about $3.6 million when adjusted for inflation.

By Sept. 10, excavation work was finished and concrete footings went in, followed by concrete basement walls by the end of the month and the exterior walls by Oct. 9. By the start of November, brick walls were going up and second-story joists were laid the first week of December, with the second floor walls following the weeks of Dec. 13 and 20.

When an inspector returned on Jan. 8, 1924, he found contractors Grunewald & Dunlap working on the roof of the north wing. Mid-month work was underway on the south wing roof and early in February they had progressed to the roof of the "main building."

Electricians were on site later in February and in March lathing was being set in advance of plastering. Early in April they were "working on porch," and then plastering.

Then, in July, finishing work was ongoing inside while outside the wall along the sidewalk was being constructed. That interior finishing work continued through August, September and October and on Nov. 3, the inspector noted that the projects was, "complete – finishing and decorating."

When it was finished, the house that Adler perched atop the bluff and above Nichols’ lavish gardens was – and is – pure Italian Renaissance country villa.

While a one-of-a-kind in Milwaukee, it was certainly not the only expression of Mediterranean architectural styles in the area.

"Mediterranean stylism – a mixture of Spanish and Italian motifs – was surprisingly popular in Wisconsin, but because of climatic conditions, severe limitations were imposed on the use of patios, courts, open galleries and other outdoor living areas which actually are the most distinguishing characteristics of original Spanish and Italian work,” wrote Richard W.E. Perrin in “The Architecture of Wisconsin.”

“A notable exception and a classic example of the best use of the Mediterranean tradition is the former L. R. Smith house, now Villa Terrace. From the street side the house appears secluded and almost forbidding, but once inside the cortile with its delightful garden, fountain and open staircase to the galleries, an immediate impression of great beauty is gained.

Two views of the courtyard.

“To the back (east) of the house, cross-vaulted porches and extending terraces, 100 feet or more above water level, provide an excellent, high elevation view of Lake Michigan. The slope down to beach level is well landscaped and terraced, including a cascading waterfall from top to bottom."

The courtyard on the west side, with its balcony and arcades, and the panoramic terrace on the east side offer the biggest wow moments at the house, but it’s really incredible throughout.

Colnik gallery
A gallery of Cyril Colnik ironwork (above) and an in-site Colnik railing (below).
Colnik railingX

It’s topped with a classic Italian-style clay tile roof; there are incredible, ornate ceilings in plaster and wood in many of the rooms; ironwork by Milwaukee iron master Cyril Colnik (whose work is also featured in a gallery that fills a couple rooms); handsome vintage woodwork including fireplace surrounds with detailed carving; and more.

It is in remarkable condition especially considering it was damaged in a 2002 blaze.

fireplace carving
One of the fireplace carvings.

Nowadays, Villa Terrace is a museum – with a variety of collections, including paintings and that treasury of Colnik creations – as well as a gorgeous events venue for live music, yoga and other events that are open to the public, as well as for conferences, meetings, weddings and other rentals.

But, as it is owned by Milwaukee County, which is responsible for exterior maintenance and repair – and operated by a nonprofit which handles interior maintenance and upgrades (such as the creation of a much-needed restroom in a former closet and the ongoing restoration of the kitchens for classes and other events) – funding is always a challenge.

A Colnik dragon.

The Villa’s future

In May, the county issued a Request for Information (RFI) to determine whether or not Villa Terrace and the Charles Allis Art Museum, which is run by the same nonprofit, are being utilized to their maximum capacity.

This came as the county suggested that it was possible it could be forced to sell off both properties.

While one County Supervisor, Steven Taylor, has in the media been a vocal supporter of selling off the historical cultural assets, others, such as Supervisors Steven Shea and Sheldon Wasserman have, in other reports, urged caution.

A Journal Sentinel report noted that the county has spent about $225,000 a year on the two museum properties.

“The RFI process I see as a function of democracy,” says Executive Director Harvey Willms. “What can these places be? And I think I've said it before and I will repeat that for the last couple years coming out of Covid, we have been asking our community, what do you want out of these spaces? And we've been doing it.

restored kitchen
The restored part of the kitchens.

“A great example of that is understanding that yoga, mental health awareness and initiatives like that are super successful and people want more of it. So we made sure yoga is free. We made it all year long and we've added breath work on Saturdays. We're looking at adding tai chi, we've added children's yoga. We are doing all of these things that people are saying, ‘Hey, when I go there, I slow down.’ So we're running programs that slow people down.”

Villa Terrace has also opened up as a co-working space on Wednesdays. It has live music. It organizes changing art exhibitions. It offers chess classes. It offers tours of the building.

Second floor corridor.
Second floor corridor.

The result is that attendance is growing, and pretty impressively.

According to Harvey Willms, in 2022 attendance was around 16,000-18,000. Pre-pandemic annual attendance was about 20,000.

“By the end of this year, we'll hit 35,000 people,” she says, adding, “we hired a programmer and we hired a marketing person and really just made sure that people could find us and we were doing things people wanted to do.

“In the last year, we've done a bunch of really pretty impressive things. We restored one of the kitchens here at the Villa Terrace that's now publicly accessible, and I think is a brilliant example of what museums can do with historic spaces.

“I think 100 years is a great time to step back and see what works.”

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.