John Kern’s Wahl Avenue mansion, now for sale
Although Wahl Avenue, which faces Lake Park on Milwaukee’s East Side, is a mere three blocks long, it’s rich in beautiful architecture.
One of the most majestic homes on the block – the Kern mansion at 2569 N. Wahl Ave. – is currently for sale.
Built in 1899, the home – designed by Crane & Barkhausen (who also drew the German-English Academy and the Button Block, among many other Milwaukee structures) – is listed at $1.625 million.
Behind that orange sandstone exterior are five bedrooms, four full baths, one half bath and a total of 16 rooms spread across 5,686 square feet.
The home was the first to be completed on Wahl – though architect Charles Crane was building his own house just down the block (at 2519) at the same time – and it’s a fine example of German Renaissance architecture, a style then popular in Milwaukee.
“(It) looks like many other mansions at first glance, but it is in fact an unusual style which was more common in Milwaukee than most American cities,” wrote architect and historian H. Russell Zimmermann of the house in 1974.
“It was heavily influenced by the German New Renaissance, a style which was popular in Germany in the 1880s and ‘90s. Many Milwaukee architects had subscriptions to German periodicals and had been requested to execute works in this style. One architect, Eugene Liebert, made it his specialty.
“Kern’s house displays two of the features most characteristic of the style, the corbie stepped gable and the octagonal bartizan on the northeast corner of the front. The New Renaissance was, as the name implies, a 19th century re-hash of 16th and 17th century German, Belgian and Dutch forms.”
While Zimmermann wasn’t knocked out by the house, which he described as, “average, being neither ugly nor particularly important,” he did concede that even nearly 50 years ago it was, “an extremely well preserved example of one of the less common styles of the late Victorian period.”
And I suspect these days – a half-century later – most would agree that it’s pretty far above average.
A little history
The house was built by John Kern, who with his brother Adolph, ran the family business – Eagle Flour Mill, on Vliet Street between 3rd Street and the river – after the 1892 death of their father, John Sr.
The elder Kern – who was born in Bavaria in 1829 and emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1836 – came to Milwaukee from Philadelphia in 1858. He went into partnership on a small flour mill, the Bertschy Eagle Mill, growing it into one of the largest in the country.
The mill had been started as the Anderson and Wolcott Mill in 1844 by Col. John Anderson and Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott in a small frame building on Poplar (now McKinley) Street at the river. (A commanding statue of Wolcott is located steps away from the Kern mansion, in Lake Park.)
In 1846, Kern’s father-in-law Jacob Bertschy bought the mill and renamed it Eagle, running it with his son until his death in 1855, at which point that son, John Bertschy, took over for the next four years.
In 1859, the elder Kern teamed with his Bertschy in-laws and the mill was renamed Bertschy & Kern, an arrangement that endured until 1866, when Kern dissolved the partnership and built his new mill on Vliet Street, taking the name Eagle.
The Kerns lived on Milwaukee Street with their six kids, including John Jr., who was born in 1862, but by the 1890s, the Kern parents relocated to their 30-acre Riverwest farm – now Kern Park.
In April 1899, John Jr. purchased the plot of land on Park Avenue and by early August, the Journal could report that, “John Kern will build a residence on Park Avenue, near Bradford Street, to cost between $20,000 and $25,000.
“The structure will be of stone and mottled red brick with Portage stone trimmings. Crane & Barkhausen are the architects.”
That same year, Park Avenue was renamed in honor of Christian Wahl, the then-still-living president of the Board of Park Commissioners. (Wahl died in 1901.)
Around the same time, tanning mogul Gustav Trostel was building his German Renaissance Revival home just around the corner.
Both homes would feature ironwork by local master Cyril Colnik, whose skills were much in demand as lavish homes went up around the growing upper East Side.
Kern spared no expense in building the stunning home he’d enjoy in his retirement with his wife Adelaide Jessie Goll – daughter of dry goods magnate Julius Goll, of Goll & Frank.
In addition to the Colnik iron, the interior was fitted with oak details and a parlor covered in Honduran mahogany.
But it was the revolutionary climate control system that got the most attention.
“The first house built on its street and said to be first here fitted with an individual room air conditioning system,” wrote Zimmermann. “Kern, who had always loved the latest in home improvements, installed a marvel of sophistication for its day. Each room had an elaborately designed bronze thermostat which controlled its temperature.
“Huge 2 by 3 foot wooden ducts carried the cool air through the house and were equipped with shutters, chains and linkages which were not designed with silence in mind. It was an insomniac’s nightmare.”
As the couple had no children, it might appear to make perfect sense that by 1923, the Wahl Avenue home seemed too large for two Kerns and their two servants.
However, when they left it that year they decamped to a new Mediterranean Revival home they’d built at 3233 N. Lake Dr. that was only slightly more modest in size. Its five bedrooms and six baths covered a mere 4,494 square feet.
John Kern died in 1926 and Jessie passed away seven years later.
By the 1930s, the Wahl Avenue home was owned by the Krueger family, and a death notice tells us that Mrs. Eugene W. Krueger’s mother lived there, too.
Born in Chicago, Mrs. Anna Belle Drake, 68, had moved to Milwaukee at the age of 10, and later became involved in “art circles.” She was the widow of Eden Drake, who had been the head of the Cream City Brick Co. (what would he have thought of his daughter’s sandstone home?!), and died after suffering a heart attack at the Milwaukee Art Institute.
The Kruegers put the house up for sale in early 1955 and when it didn’t sell, the price was slashed that October. According to Zimmerman the home was converted into a duplex that same year.
One portion of the house was then occupied by pianist and music teacher Margaret K. Diefenthaeler, who had made a name for herself as Margaret Dee.
Having studied with Beloit native Charles Hambitzer – said to have discovered George Gershwin, who was his student – and later Guy Maier, Margaret became nationally famous for performances around the country in a piano duo with Roland Dittl.
According to her obituary – she died in 1958 at the age of 65 – “the two gave concerts throughout the country, appearing often with major symphony orchestras. With her husband, the late Fleetwood A., she operated the Marwood Music Studio, 781 N. Marshall St, until his death in 1952. He was a professional vocalist and voice teacher.”
During these years, the Kern house was owned by Mrs. Vito B. Cuttone, who put it back on the market after moving to Cudahy Tower.
It was purchased in the late ’50s by attorney Frank H. Nelson and his wife Katherine, who had career at the nearby university.
Katherine, nee Greacen – a Vassar graduate – was a UW-Milwaukee geology professor when she died in 1982, still living at the Wahl Avenue house with her husband.
Before that, she’d had a long and prestigious career.
She was curator of the Greene Museum, then at Downer College, from 1938 to ‘43 and again from 1946 to ‘54. After joining UWM when it was created in 1956, she served as chair of the geology department in 1961 and ‘62.
Nelson was also the first woman to serve as president of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters.
When a reporter wrote about the house and its owners – the Nelsons were big Bucks fans, the writer pointed out, and one can only imagine how happy they’d be if they were still alive in 2021! – Katherine quipped, “You can recognize our house. We have rocks all around the outside – and inside.”
The Nelsons were the ones who ultimately disconnected the clanking and rattling air conditioning system. The ducts are gone, but fortunately, the array of ornate thermostats still survives.
A look inside
Despite its size, the house feels intimate and, indeed, the current owner tells me that although it seems full when the grown kids arrive with the grandchildren to stay, it doesn’t feel empty when they’re not there.
“We live in every room,” she says.
The main floor is, unsurprisingly, the star of the show, with stunning stained glass windows in every room, handsome woodwork, an interesting variety of fireplaces and beautiful inlaid wood floors.
Beautiful brass hardware adorns the portals.
The stone arches on the porch (above) are echoed by wooden counterparts inside (below) and when the current owners remodeled the kitchen they installed a new arch to match the others.
Upstairs, the bedrooms fan out around a central landing with built-in bookshelves. Each has a bathroom and a unique fireplace.
Although it’s neither the master, nor the largest bedroom, my favorite is on the northeast corner, where the turret houses a wide window bench upon which, if I lived there, I’d likely spend most of my days gazing out toward Lake Park and Lake Michigan beyond it.
On the top floor are more bedrooms, a sewing room and a playroom in the turret. Even up here, in smaller rooms that surely were servants’ quarters, there are beautiful stained glass windows.
The centerpiece is a large space – perhaps originally a ballroom – that’s been transformed into an eye-popping entertainment room.
After more than 20 years, the owners are moving to their dream house, one they’ve always had their eye on, a little further up the road. That means that now someone else will get a chance to live in this dream of a home.