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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Many Mansions

Overlooking Riverside Park circa 1885, across what was then a dirt road that was often impassible, the towered  Shattuck, Babcock and Sherry houses, along with the untowered Stevens house were all designed by William Waters and considered part of Piety Row or Piety Hill (the land rose up slightly in this section of the avenue). The moniker was the result of Riverside Park being declared alcohol free and officially closed on Sundays, to prevent a repetition of the drunken excesses that commonly took place at the privately owned Schuetzen Park out on South Park Avenue. Beer wagons that proceeded out on East Wisconsin Avenue to the more distant park before the start of the weekend festivities, inevitably returned to town past these same houses ladened with drunken revelers unable to get home under their own steam.


In addition to being connected through business and extensively intermarried (perhaps even foolishly so)Neenah industrialists also lived in two distinct clusters that were effectively family compounds. The larger and more visible of the two took up most of East Wisconsin Avenue, with a secondary segment along the Lake Winnebago shoreline.  The Kimberlys, Clarks, Babcocks and Shattucks were all early home builders along the avenue, as were the Sherry, Stevens, Bergstrom, Davis, and Howard families, and somewhat later the Hawks and Sensenbrenners. A second generation of Clarks, Gilberts, Bergstroms, Shattucks, and Sensenbrenners rounded things out in the early 1900s and continuing  into the 1940s by taking up rather more palatial residence in the lakefront portion of the neighborhood.

And as if working together, intermarriage and living cheek to jowl weren't cozy enough, the homes the first generation of families built in the neighborhood were for the most part all designed by the same architect: William Waters of Oshkosh. Beginning with the J. A. Kimberly home in 1874, Waters' work included designs for the first C. B. Clark and F. C. Shattuck houses as well as for Havilah Babcock, Henry Sherry, John Stevens, John R. Davis Sr., George Bergstrom, and C. W. Howard. All of them were within a a block or two of each other and all but three of them had towers - the eventually bankrupt Sherry's being the tallest at a full four stories high (not including its attic). And as if all this weren't a bit overdoing it, the Clark and Shattuck houses were identical. Not similar or even a mirror image, but line by line copies.

What these two Kimberly-Clark founders were thinking is not abundantly clear and certainly belies the brilliance of their industrial accomplishments. The two men had become close friends, and certainly some money was to be saved in building two houses from one design, a practice that was not unknown locally. The Davis house, for an example, was a copy of another Waters design, only in that instance the duplicate was some miles distant in the rural township of Butte des Morts (where it was later the summer home of "Madcap" Merry Farhney, whose eight husbands included couturier Oleg Cassini, the designer of Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hats and other trendsetting fashions during her White House years). The Clark and Shattuck houses, however, were side by side, not even separated by a single building site. On top of that, when their wives both had children days apart, the wrought iron gates in front of the two houses were decorated with booties - pink and blue respectively. 

The George Gaylord House was built in 1918 and designed by the Chicago firm of Childs & Smith. Similar in style and scale to homes being built all along Chicago's Gold Coast, Gaylord was in hopes that the grandeur of the architecture and Lake Winnebago views would make relocation to Neenah more palatable to his wife. Gaylord had purchased a small manufactory in neighboring Menasha which became Menasha Printing & Carton Co. It quickly became one of the nation's pioneering producers of corrugated (cardboard) boxes, subsequently merging with Marathon Corp., which then moved its corporate offices to Neenah. Gaylord's efforts to please his wife were far less successful. It was said that she couldn't understand how her neighbors managed without butlers. Others opined that the cooing of morning doves disturbed her sleep. The gates have disappeared, but the house and its gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While neighbors tittered deliciously (probably within shadow of their own redundant towers), the final straw came when Mmes. Clark and Shattuck went independently to Chicago and unbeknownst to either of them, consulted with the same respected design house and were somehow permitted to order identical gowns - which both planned to wear through some hellish twist of fate to the same Neenah soirĂ©e. Given the yards and yards of fabric and trim, buttons and bonings, and hours of fittings and sewing and tailoring - followed by all the attendant effort of bathing and dressing (not to mention powdering and scenting), and this followed by the gathering up of gloves, and fans and other accoutrements, the horror - no, the public train wreck - of emerging from identical houses in identical dresses, to be seen at a party of people who were nearly all related and your neighbors, can be only too easily imagined.  

One can even more readily script the private conversations that took place when Messrs. Clark and Shattuck announced their intentions of building another set adjacent homes, this time with the help of Milwaukee architects Ferry & Clas, the designers of the sumptuous Capt. Fredrick Pabst mansion, located on what was then that city's most prestigious address, then somewhat fatuously called Grand Avenue. Needless to say, the new houses the two Neenah men ultimately built were decidedly different this time around - the Shattuck's a gargantuan Georgian Revival incongruously replete with a Victorian porte-cochere and full width verandah, the Clark's similarly outfitted Flemish Renaissance Revival design a more restrained version of the Pabst mansion. Fortunately, the differences avoided any potential animus between the two wives (who as widows remained close friends and died within days of each other in the 1920s).

The lesson in all this was clear and unmistakably understood, if not by the adults then by their children. For in the decades that followed, while even more imposing mansions were regularly constructed immediately adjacent to each other (some by the Chicago firm of Childs & Smith, others by Milwaukee's preeminent Alexander Eschweiler),  no two were ever built in even remotely similar style - at least not by Neenah's second generation of industrial wealth.

CHAPTER I continues HERE

For more pictures and stories on the homes of Neenah's East Wisconsin Avenue, visit the Photo Album - The Mansions page.

1 comment:

  1. "The Wisconsin Historical Society has occupied this building in Madison designed by Ferry & Clas since 1900."....another fine building still in use in Madison.