Preservationists rescue opulent Milwaukee mansion

Local preservation groups have, for years, been organizing themselves to save magnificent old mansions, vintage railroad stations, cast iron buildings, old-time music halls and theaters, and a host of other structures that delineate some of the rich fabric of American life and culture.

"The citizens of city after city give unselfishly of their time, effort, and money to preserve worthy buildings and thus contribute to the coming generation's priceless legacy," says Michael L. Ainslie, New president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States.

At the trust's recent annual conference in New York, Mr. Ainslie reminded members that in the last 10 years, historic preservation has become a national movement involving millions of individuals and over 4,000 non- profit groups that are now organizing ways and means to save the past. Many of these are part of a new vocal constituency that is influencing legislation and urban policies, and is fast developing a range of experts in city design, real estate finance, zoning laws, and community organization.

"To be truly successful, preservation must be a community activity, run by people who can sustain their commitment over long periods of time," the trust president declared, citing hundreds of successes that included the restoration of Savannah and the Art Deco District of Miami, the saving of Grand Central Terminal in New York, and the renovation of Main Streets in small towns in mid America.

Milwaukee, like so many other American cities, has demonstrated an enthusiastic citizen interest in preserving some of its most distinctive architectural landmarks. One of these, the 87-year-old Frederick Pabst Mansion at 2000 West Wisconsin Avenue, is the sole remainder of a cluster of several dozen great houses that were grandly built during the late years of the 19th century by the business barons of the era.

The Pabst Mansion, completed in 1893 and lived in by the family until 1908, is Flemish Renaissance in style and incorporates many European influences of the period. So intricate and painstaking was the craftsmanship involved that it took three years to build. Unlike similar mansions in the area, it escaped demolition and survives today through the efforts of the nonprofit Wisconsin Heritages group and the curatorial director of the mansion, florence Schroeder, who has helped spearhead all preservation efforts.

It was Mrs. Schroeder who, as a concerned citizen, local interior designer, and ardent preservationist, decided that the demolition fate must not befall the Pabst Mansion. She did not allow herself to be intimidated by either the need for big money nor by the disinterest o City Hall. She set out, instead, to recruit both the funds and the people that could help her save this unusual Milwaukee monument to Victorian opulence and affluence. Because it had had only two owners, the mansion had remained remarkably pure in its architecture and relatively unscathed in it interiors.

When the mansion came on the market and it appeared that it might be torn down to make way for another building, Mrs. Schroeder first tried to persuade 50 persons to put up $10,000 each to meet the asking price. She then took another route, and in 1975 helped launch Wisconsin Heritages Inc., a nonprofit organization, with the immediate goal of saving the Pabst Mansion and the long-term goal of rescuing other Wisconsin landmarks worthy of national recognition.

The organization now has more than a thousand members. It was encouraged in its efforts to rescue the Pabst Mansion by a grant of $100,000 from the National Park Service, but the group still needed a $230,000 mortgage to purchase the mansion. Most local loan sources turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the preservationists.

In a dramatic final effort in April, 1978, the mansion was saved by a last-minute mortgage loan from the 23 savings and loan associations represented by the Savings and Loan Council of Milwaukee County.

Once purchased, Mrs. Schroeder and Wisconsin Heritages began an array of fund-raising events to pay back the mortgage and begin restoration of the interior to its 1893 appearance.

The fascinating mansion, whose ornate architecture had been admired by Milwaukee residents for years, was immediately opened for tours. Now over 46, 000 people have paid $2 each to be guided through the house, incomplete as it is , by 125 volunteer docents.

Other fund-raising efforts have included two annual Preservation Balls, a Preservation Picnic, an exhibit called a Mansion Full of Miniatures that alone raised $20,000, and a historical musical program. The mansion has also been opened for floral exhibits, art exhibits, needlepoint and table- setting shows. It has been rented out for weedings and private parties, and opened to groups who wish to use it, for a fee, for breakfast, luncheon, and dinner meetings.

Several campaigns have also been waged for one-dollar contributions from thousands of citizens who want to be a part of the project, but don't have much cash to spare.

The latest fund-raising event was the Sept. 21 auction of donated objects which netted about $15,000 to apply against the $200,000 needed to restore the ladies parlor and furnish it with original, or similar, pieces. The entire first and second floors will eventually be restored to museum quality, although Mrs. Schroeder says that this could take as long as 20 years.

Another eventual source of income will be royalties from sales of a special Pabst collection of fabrics, carpets and wallpapers, based on designs found in the old house, to be brought out by Scalamandre Inc. of New York. Adriana Scalamandre Bitter and her husband, Ed Bitter, executives of the company, have also agreed to advise the restoration committee of the Pabst mansion on correct procedures of accurate to-the-period reconstruction of the vintage interiors.

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