Milwaukee’s historic Trostel Mansion goes up for sale

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The Trostel mansion on Milwaukee’s East Side. - PHOTO: Courtesy

The broad, tree-lined streets winding above the Lake Michigan shoreline on Milwaukee’s East Side are abundant with diverse architectural gems. Revivalist styles, from ornate Italianate villas to stately homes heavy with English Tudor gravitas, stand proudly side by side.

One of the area’s more notable homes, the Trostel mansion, 2611 N. Terrace Ave., is on the market.

It’s a sprawling place, complex in its appearance as well as its more than 100-year history. The exterior is ornate, with bays that project and recede and arched windows that echo the porch arcade. The primary building materials – wood, stone, and brick – also are used as decorative accents. These details perfectly reflect the German Renaissance style, as interpreted in 1899 by German architect Adolph Finkler.

To get a sense of what the home looked like in its earliest days, mentally erase the other large homes from the area. Picture the surrounding landscape as mostly farmland and swamp, a lonely place far from the bustle of town. The nearby North Point Lighthouse, which then kept watch over the waters below, eerily cut slices of light through the darkness, as there was little in the way to impede its trajectory.

But it was here that tannery magnate Gustav J. A. Trostel chose to build his mansion. He was the son of German immigrant Albert Trostel, who founded a tannery in Milwaukee at a time when the city was an important center in the leather industry. Albert Trostel’s company became a major producer of shoe leather.

Gustav and his brother Albert O. Trostel became active in their father’s business and eventually each built formidable homes near Lake Michigan. The home Albert O. Trostel constructed in 1907 was the most expensive in the city at the time. But Gustav Trostel’s Terrace Avenue home, built in 1899, was striking in its own right. Finkler’s design was a sophisticated combination of elements. The undulating Renaissance gable contrasts with the smaller jerkinhead gable, decorated with ornamental millwork.

The terra cotta roof underscores the European character. The house contains 28 rooms and well over 7,000 square feet. The interior has seen many changes over the years, but most of the downstairs rooms carry their age proudly, with many original focal points. The scale of the rooms is surprising to contemporary viewers. Grand houses today, of the McMansion variety or not, tend to have gigantic great rooms, expansive bonus rooms and even square-footage- scarfing man caves.

But the rooms in this house are generally personable and intimate. It does not feel crowded, but rather like each space is manageable. You can stand anywhere and have a conversation without having to shout.

The entryway is wide and gracious, a pleasant center point between the main rooms on the ground floor. The wood floors gleam with a tritone blend of colors, from light blond to deep brown. In the adjacent library, a polished baby grand player piano effortlessly spins out tunes, the keys depressing and releasing as though the ghost of a past party lingers.

The parlor’s atmosphere is light, airy and elegant. The crown molding is accented with sculptural roses, and plump plaster cherubs perch on the tall fireplace surround. One wall is nearly filled with windows, decorated with a stained glass transom. The light catches the chandelier in the middle of the room, casting around bits of flickering brilliance.

In this room I caught up with current owner Dan Pauli. His connections with the house are complex.

He first moved into it some 20 years ago, but sold it five years ago during a divorce. Living in an East Side condominium, Pauli was in search of a new dining table and followed up on a classified ad for one that seemed suitable. By coincidence, the seller of the table lived at 2611 N. Terrace. He asked Pauli if he knew where the home was. “I said I know it well,” he recalls.

When he went to pick up the table, he learned that the present owner was interested in selling, and Pauli purchased the property again. During Pauli’s 15-year break as owner, the house began to need renovation. Wall stucco had to be removed and major tuck-pointing was needed.

Now, after only five years back in the home, health issues are prompting Pauli and his second wife to sell it again. He doesn’t expect to recoup all the money he put into the house. His goal in owning the home was not investment but responsible stewardship.

Pauli’s favorite part of living in the home has been the grand entertaining it affords. His wife Laxsiri Pauli is deeply involved with Milwaukee’s Thai community, and their home has been the site of many Thai weddings and gatherings. “The fun of living in the house was the parties,” he says.

The main floor includes the library, parlor and an exquisite dining room featuring stained glass and a luminous green-tiled majolica fireplace, one of several in the house.

A series of small rooms off of the main foyer hark back to the days of butler’s pantries and service halls. The kitchen has been renovated but elements such as the overheard light fixture are designed to evoke the sense of stained glass, which is a recurring feature of the house.

If there is a crown jewel, it is the window on the landing of the main staircase. Situated midway between the first and second floors, it is a large window depicting Queen Louise of Prussia.

A sedately regal young woman, she sits by a large tree wearing a simple, long white dress. During her lifetime and after, Queen Louise came to be regarded as an embodiment of feminine virtues.

But the most curious aspect of the house in its present incarnation is the manner in which it’s divided into separate living quarters. After the death of Mrs. Trostel in 1944, the house was transformed into a duplex, and doors were installed to close off the second floor from the living quarters downstairs. Today, this floor is a spacious apartment, replete with many original details. It’s as though one-stepped into a historical apartment building rather than another floor of an opulent family mansion.

The third floor and the basement have seen even more dramatic transformations. The house is zoned for occupancy as a duplex, but the top and bottom floors have ample room for additional living space. The third floor was originally open, an expansive ballroom for entertaining as well as for children’s play. The basement has been mostly refinished to function as a rec room, laundry and workroom.

The decor on this level is bluntly modern – it could be any downstairs space in any home.

In the best-preserved areas of the home, the decorative details of a bygone era survive intact, with showpieces of windows, fireplaces and metalwork by the renowned artist Cyril Colnik. But in some of the home’s redone areas, it is as though the veil of modern life has lowered, obscuring the innermost character of the home.

There is a good deal of interest in the fate of the Trostel mansion, which is listed on both national and local registries of historic architecture. The building is “one of the great German-design inspired houses existing in the state,” according to Paul Jakubovich from the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation office.

The home could be returned to a single-family structure. Jakubovich acknowledges that the conversion would take “more than a hefty chunk of change, but (is) not altogether that unusual.”

A number of historic East Side homes have been transformed – some rescued from renovations as rooming houses and brought back to their former grandeur. Jakubovich says tax credits are available to help defray renovation costs. The mansion’s location in a neighborhood with a wealth of one-of-a-kind homes makes such a renovation more than commonly worthwhile and feasible, Jakubovich says.

Before I left the Trostel mansion, I lingered for a few minutes in the dining room. It is formal but intimate, a room that seems certain of its lasting quality and craftsmanship. The soft, gleaming wainscoting made from Black Forest wood and the shimmering green tiles of the fireplace whisper of an aesthetic pleasure that too often seems absent in antiseptic contemporary architecture. Stained glass filters the sun, decorating daylight with fancy and color.

A Latin aphorism is inscribed in the window: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, which means “art is long, life is short.” This house offers proof. It has lasted generations and lifetimes, and it is soon to pass into new hands and begin another chapter.