Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Spaces and Traces: Brewers' Hill

This spring's Historic Milwaukee open house tour was titled "Brewers
Hill and the Beer Line," which covered the neighborhood just north of
downtown, which, along with Walker's Point, which we toured a couple of
years ago, remains one of the areas in the city with much of its
original housing left. The "Hill" is also a Historical Preservation
District, so many, but not all, of the homes in the area have nicely
restored exteriors. Others are still feeling the effects of the
neighborhood's depressed past, and we noted a couple of buildings in
the first stages of structural collapse due to neglect.
The area has an interesting mix of Queen Anne, Federal revival, and
Greek and Italianate revival homes, showing its architectural genesis
stretching from the 1860's to the early 1900's. The history of the
neighborhood is a microcosm of the American experience of the time. A
surprising number of the original home owners were German immigrants who
came to Milwaukee, found work in the tanning, brewing, or other
industries, and, within five years or so were building substantial
homes. (Ironically, we toured homes built by several families in
Milwaukee's once-predominant leather industry, but the early homes of
the beer barons in this neighborhood are all gone--.) The bustling and
entrepreneurial spirit of a new city on the edge of the frontier is
shown by the number of lots that held two, three, and even four houses
at one time, and the "ferment" of the neighborhood by the number of
houses that were moved, expanded upon, and substantially rebuilt during
their existences.
The historical preservation order does not apply to interiors of houses,
so, many that were broken up into rental units during the Depression,
World War II or thereafter, are being remodeled into modern
single-family homes. A typical project seems to have been gutting
houses out to the studs, removing superfluous partitions, and completely
replacing wiring, plumbing, and walls to make spacious open-plan living
areas. Interestingly, while remodeling tends to reduce the number of
rooms in the houses' sometimes small footprints horizontally, there is a
strong tendency to reclaim space vertically, turning the deep basements
into family rooms and bedrooms, and the upper parts of tall rooms into
office lofts.
As seems to happen for us, we were most pleased by one of the first
houses on the tour, in this case THE first house, the "Frank and Emile
Poetsch" house at 2037 N. 1st. St. This house is a Queen Anne which owes
its attractive proportions to a substantial addition in 2003, but which
preserved architectural details such as the high narrow windows, and
added some interesting window gables on the south wing. The house has a
pretty but not flamboyant "painted lady" exterior, and the interior is
both comfortable and dignified, with a very nice kitchen that suited the
proportions of the home. (A typical "new" kitchen is a big square space
with an "island". This one was more of a "galley" kitchen with a
side-to-side arrangement, but still large enough for serious cooking.)
The major exception to the "gut the interior" rule was the
"Sanger-Phillips" residence at 1823 N. Palmer Street. This 1872 Cream
City Brick Italianate house is now the property of a gentleman whose
business is historical restoration, and the first floor of the main
house is rather a showpiece for his work. This is one case where things
might be a bit TOO real, since the parlors have been wallpapered in
Morris-esque designs, one with a dark magenta background and one with a
dark green background. Combined with the sparse lighting, the rooms were
dim by day and must be positively gloomy at night. The one advantage to
the color scheme is that it makes the handsome white marble fireplace in
the green parlor stand out like a pearl. The modernizations of kitchen
and loft office have been corralled into the back of the house where a
former breezeway and barn have been converted to these uses. The
property is a triple lot, and two thirds of it are taken up with a
gorgeous naturalistic garden space with walks, benches, and fountains.
Other houses on the tour ranged from the homes of former managers to
workmen's rental cottages refurbished into pleasant homes. The tour
also included some commercial buildings, such as the Frederick Ketter
warehouse at 325 W. Vine St., which is now an architectural office on
the ground floor, and living quarters on the two upper floors. We found
all the places we toured interesting and attractive and the history
portions of the tour very interesting and informative.
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