These posts are presented as a serialization that is best appreciated by starting with the first post HERE. You can then proceed in order by clicking on the HERE links shown in red at the bottom of every post.

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Click HERE to see what the Wisconsin Historical Society has to say about “An American Downton Abbey.” You can also read about our inclusion in the society's 2010 publication, "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes," by clicking on the book's cover on the right below.

Jen Zettel's story for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers generated a huge increase in page views! See what she wrote and follow the links to view clips of the interview HERE.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

A City of Mill Owners

The impressive Alexander Syme House, built in 1882, is believed to have been designed by noted Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix, whose work included Villa Louis and the Alexander Mitchell home (what since 1898 has been Milwaukee's prestigious Wisconsin Club). The Syme home's splendid isolation on Doty Island made this a spectacularly bold statement for the first mansion built on East Forest Avenue. Syme, however, was soon forced to sell the house when his highly profitable Menasha flour mill was condemned (for less than fair market value, Syme claimed) as part of a federal improvement project to that city's dam and waterpower. The Syme house was subsequently purchased by William Gilbert Sr., founder of the Gilbert Paper Co., whose own lucrative mill site was made possible by the federal rebuilding of the Menasha dam.


Understanding Neenah's second neighborhood of millionaires requires a brief and painless geography lesson, followed by a small dosage of early history. So first the geography. At the northern end of Lake Winnebago, the Lower Fox River flows north out of the lake in two branches around roughly a square mile of land, forming what is known today as Doty Island.  Now the early history. Long occupied by various Native American peoples, settlement of the general area by Northern Europeans began first with Neenah on the south channel of the river. A few years later, a group of disgruntled founding settlers set up the rival settlement of Menasha on the north channel. Ultimately the two communities established municipal jurisdiction over their own one half of Doty Island, although Menasha had modest but more meaningful connection to it than Neenah. Menasha had two bridges across its channel, while Neenah had just the one until a second was constructed almost 100 years later in the 1950s.  

This MAP  of Doty Island and the surrounding area will help you picture what's going on here.

The significance of these geopolitical origins and linkages is that when Menasha aggressively pursued railroad development in the 1860s (envisioning its future as a major transportation hub), city leaders issued bonds to underwrite the cost of the local improvements, which in turn created an indebtedness that Neenah leaders had successfully avoided. The resulting threat of higher taxation in turn drove Menasha's leading industrialists to cross the municipal boundary into Neenah, where they built their homes on the tax haven side of Doty Island. In this way Neenah became known as a city of mill owners (and Menasha a city of mill workers), reputedly with more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States - a claim no resident ever thought necessary to prove and no visitor ever considered worthwhile to challenge.

This second neighborhood of industrialists, like its East Wisconsin Avenue counterpart, extended along Doty Island's East Forest Avenue and was similarly clustered but generally with more land and open space between each of the homes.  Surrounded by woods and fields - with some farmland and orchards thrown in for good measure - the residents of this far more secluded neighborhood were able to build even more lavish homes than their counterparts across the Neenah channel of the river. Beginning in 1882 with the flamboyant Alexander Syme house, the distinct neighborhood character was established by multiple members of the Whiting, Gilbert and Smith families, all of whom were leading industrialists of Menasha. With one or two exceptions, most the houses built here were similarly designed by Oshkosh architect William Waters, more than half outfitted with the regulation tower.

While not on East Forest Avenue proper, the Whiting Boathouse is the most dramatic example of the more indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by the residents of that secluded neighborhood. Begun as a two-slip boathouse in 1932, Frank Whiting transformed the structure into a sumptuous Mediterranean party villa - complete with a rooftop terrace for dancing al fresco - while still in the very midst of the Great Depression. Show here circa 1939 with the original Nauti-Gal, a second significantly larger cruiser of the same name necessitated construction of a second floor over the slips to accommodate the second boat's much greater height. The remodeling, which took place in 1946, included a small apartment designated for the hired skipper, but which also reputedly outfitted a mirrored ceiling in the bedroom.

As a neighborhood well removed from the prying eyes in town - and perhaps more significantly its churches - residents of East Forest Avenue were generally less inclined to conform to the social norms as the more visible residents of East Wisconsin Avenue. A clear majority of Menasha industrialist living on the Neenah side of the island felt perfectly comfortable either changing wives with some regularity, or when widowed taking up with women that others viewed as their social inferiors. They and their families were similarly subject with far greater regularity to blackmail, breach of promise law suits, and even direct attacks on their persons and property. The second wife of Charles R. Smith, for example, was assaulted in broad daylight by a disgruntled Menasha Wooden Ware employee, while William Gilbert Jr.'s steam yacht, the Tia Juana, was torched and sunk at its moorings by a mysterious arson.

Such things were completely unthinkable on East Wisconsin Avenue.

The lawsuits and attacks on Doty Islanders may have been due in part to the neighborhood's relative isolation, but an equally valid explanation could have been the general inclination of these residents to indulge themselves in a far more conspicuously opulent lifestyle. Cars were one of the distinctions. George Whiting had not one but three limousines: a Rolls Royce, a Minerva and an Isota Fraschini. As for tennis courts and pools (both virtually unknown on East Wisconsin Avenue), Charles R. Smith's athletic daughter Sylvia installed a pool and tennis court when taking over her father's estate, to which she then added a squash court and the state's first privately owned indoor tennis courts. Further down the street and not to be undone, the Mahlers had a pool of filtered lake water created out an abandoned stone quarry - for which they hired a lifeguard and sent out engraved invitations announcing the designated times for general neighborhood use.

Frank Whiting, however, outshined them all, if not in substance than in style. In his backyard he created a preserve of Wisconsin flora and fauna, the later being made up of tame deer, raccoon, geese and at one time a small bear, which ended up getting loose and terrorizing the neighborhood. At the same time he turned his boathouse on the Neenah channel of the Fox River into a Mediterranean party villa, estimated to have cost when completed more than $100,000 in Depression era dollars. In addition to this he held onto his father's house just down the street from his own - maintaining gardens the senior Whiting had created on the lots opposite the house so they could be enjoyed from the front porch - commencing with his father's death in 1930 to his own in 1952.

And for much of that time the senior Whiting house was empty.

CHAPTER I continues HERE.

For more pictures and stories on the homes of Neenah's East Forest Avenue, as well as the Frank Whiting Boathouse, visit the Photo Album - The Mansions page.

1 comment:

  1. Did you know...

    ... In 1889, Shattuck, Babcock and Kimberly bought fancy row boats and Shattuck and Babcock built a nice boathouse to store them?

    ... Not long after it was built, the boathouse got away?

    I will send the newspaper article by email.