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The House that Whitnall Built
One man’s struggle to keep a piece of Milwaukee history from crumbling.

The Whitnall House (photos by Samy Moskol)
The Pabst Mansion. The Brumder Mansion. The Matthew Keenan Residence. The Whitnall House.

While all four of these structures still stand today, the last does so not because of architectural exquisiteness but because of the tenacity of its owner.

Kurt Holzhauer, 64, a stagehand, has lived in the Whitnall House since his parents bought the home in 1951, when he was three years old. Although the house’s layout is complex, its simple stone façade is a relic of a time when living as far north as Locust Street meant one was a country dweller.

The living room's cream city brick fireplace.
This dwelling, located at
1208 E. Locust St., dates to 1851, when Frank Whitnall and his wife Eliza, recent immigrants from Kent, England, dug a basement shelter. Above, they constructed a loft, and that’s where their son Charles – whose legacy, after a long adult life, would be as the father of Milwaukee County’s park system – was born eight years later. As Frank’s flower business grew, he also added 30,000 square feet of greenhouses to the property, a kitchen, parlor and upstairs sleeping quarters for the family. Another bedroom and parlor were added in the 1890s, bringing the house to its present-day 1,700 square feet.

As the house grew, so did Charles Whitnall’s influence. His father instilled in him a respect for the public good. Charles was a socialist who advocated that nature should be preserved and that everyone should be able to have access to it.

Kurt Holzhauer
“He thought a lot of people should get a fair shake,” Holzhauer says.

Since the days of the Whitnalls, the home has fallen on hard times. Holzhauer says his parents put off repairs because they couldn’t afford them. On the upside, this means the house is nearly the same as it was at the end of the 19
th Century. It also means the house is barely standing: There’s no foundation under the kitchen; the ceiling in one of the bedrooms is caving in; and cracks appeared in a wall after construction began on a condominium project next door. And before Holzhauer had saved enough money to replace the chimney, he feared on windy nights that it would blow to the ground.

“With home ownership,” he says, “there’s always something. But with an older home – especially one this old – there’s a lot of something.”

Ceiling area over an upper-level bedroom
If he had the money, he’d make a laundry list of improvements, he says. He began repairing the bathroom last year but stopped the work when he broke his ankle. While recuperating, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, further postponing the work.

The Whitnall House is the oldest (surviving) residential building on the city’s historic registry, though in some seasons, it’s barely habitable. It’s freezing in the winter, and defects in the house’s foundation make living in the structure almost dangerous.

Today, the land surrounding the house is worth more than the house itself. So why invest? “It’s important that there be a little reminder, even an insignificant one like this, that other generations came and went and they did things that effect us today,” Holzhauer says.
“This was the standard. This was the way people lived. It’s important to show how just regular everyday people survived.”

In 2011, more than 700 people passed through the house during Historic Milwaukee’s Spaces and Traces tour. Still, The Whitnall House remains a relative unknown. Milwaukee’s best-known historic homes housed aristocrats in decades past. Not so often is the house of a poor English florist preserved.

-- Samy Moskol

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