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A House Divided
When iconoclastic artist Mary Nohl died in 2001, she left nearly $10 million to Wisconsin artists and a trove of original art. Plans were made to turn her beachfront house into a small museum. But a handful of neighbors resisted. Now Nohl’s house – and her legacy – will be dismantled and moved to Sheboygan County.

OUTSIDER ART: The former home of artist Mary Nohl has become a flash point in Fox Point. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

There’s a small bend in Beach Drive in Fox Point with two spectacular views. The first, an easy-access view of Lake Michigan that irks neighbors who are sick of traffic to the shady spot, isn’t going anywhere. It’s the second view, even more infamous, that’s departing.

It’s a house – familiarly known as “the witch’s house,” to the chagrin of many – owned by Fox Point artist Mary Nohl until her death in 2001 at age 87. 

The property was transformed by Nohl for over 40 years into a bizarre, magical and transfixing landscape, filled with sculpted stone heads, concrete poets, driftwood sentinels, sea-stone ruins, wooden silhouettes, beach-pebble mosaics, and figures of all shapes and sizes, built out of the elements surrounding the home and the beach below.

On March 27, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), the current owner and curator of the property, announced it would be relocating the entire house and all its work from Beach Drive to an undetermined location in Sheboygan County, where the arts center is based.

The decision was, to put it mildly, a surprise. True, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the site’s previous custodian – the unaffiliated Kohler Foundation – had been kept from opening the house as a museum for years by strong opposition from the house’s immediate neighbors. But there was little indication its leaders might give up the fight and return to Sheboygan with the entire house in tow, even after an informational meeting as recently as October 2013 revealed neighbors to be as adamantly against the plan as they had been a decade before.

More importantly, no one I spoke to for this story – not the leadership of Kohler Arts Center, nor the Kohler Foundation, the grieving local artists or even the nearby neighbors – says they actually want the site to be moved. It’s the only thing they can all agree on.

Yet in the process of trying to preserve the house on Beach Drive – in the form and function defined by each player’s interest – all their collective efforts have done is ensure that this artistic treasure must be taken elsewhere. It’s anyone’s guess whether Mary Nohl’s legacy will remain intact, once her work is evicted from its natural home.


ART FOR ART'S SAKE: Nohl's home became her canvas as works covered nearly every corner of the structure. Photo courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center Artist Archives.  

For decades, Mary Nohl’s home has been a secret source of fascination for Milwaukee, a place where late-’60s hippies would gravitate to get high amid the statues, half-drunk teens would venture to test their nerves on moonlit evenings, and devotees aware of her work would pilgrimage to pay their respects. But with the artist herself so often unseen, it’s unsurprising a lore as unorthodox and enigmatic as her work would spring up around her life. Rumor would have her a grieving widow trying to re-create her drowned husband and child out of stone, or a murderess with those same corpses interred beneath her sculptures.

The truth is simpler and more intriguing. Mary Nohl never married, living practically her whole life in her home on Beach Drive. She was born the second child in a wealthy family, although her parents practiced a thrifty frugality that Mary would end up using in her own work. After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Mary worked as an art teacher and ran her own pottery studio, but she wouldn’t find her true calling until the 1960s, when the death of her father and brother, and her mother’s admission into a nursing home, gave her free reign over the Beach Drive property.

She took it. In addition to her still-visible works on the lawn, built up and altered over the years as dictated by her fancies and numerous thefts by vandals, Mary transformed the interior of her house, painting every surface available (including the furniture), hanging mobiles from the ceilings, and filling the space with smaller versions of her outdoor works and miscellaneous craftings. Her creative output was mind-blowingly vast; by the time the Kohler Foundation began taking pieces for preservation, her works easily numbered in the thousands.

Mary’s work would be notable in and of itself. But it’s especially important due to the circumstances of its creation, says Debra Brehmer, a Milwaukee artist who wrote her master’s thesis about Mary in 1995 (and who contributes to Milwaukee Magazine). “There’s not an academic in the world who knows anything about art environments who doesn’t know about Mary’s site,” Brehmer says. “There aren’t that many sites built independently by women, first of all … and she’s acting in a way that wealthy people don’t act. She was one of them, but she had an independent mindset.”

Convincing Mary to entrust the foundation with her work was a decades-long project in and of itself. Ruth DeYoung Kohler, the former president of the Kohler Foundation and current director of the Kohler Arts Center, says she first heard of Mary’s work in 1975. Years later, she paid a visit to the artist, beginning an often-erratic relationship that would last until Mary’s passing.

“In the beginning, she really didn’t feel that her work was worth saving,” Kohler says. She spent most of her first visits trying to convince Mary otherwise, and also impressed upon her the importance of preserving the site as a whole. “We told her we really wanted to preserve it in situ [intact] because the lake had meant so much to her.”

They almost weren’t able to. At one point, negotiations with the wary and untrusting artist were severed unexpectedly when Mary took umbrage with a male lawyer the foundation sent over to work on the will – “the meekest, mildest lawyer on God’s green earth,” Kohler says, “but he wasn’t meek enough, I guess.” But after several years, friends of Mary’s convinced her to make contact again, and she updated her will in 1996 to grant her home and art to the foundation after her death. Most of Nohl’s remaining wealth would go to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which created the $9.6 million Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowships, an annual grant program for artists looking to create works in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties. 

By that point, Kohler Foundation officials probably thought the hard part was over. They couldn’t have been more wrong.


UPROOTED: Nohl's abode will soon make the trek to Sheboygan County. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

The Kohler Foundation’s normal methodology in preserving sites like Mary’s, which it calls “art environments,” is rudimentary: Once it takes ownership of an environment, it catalogs the works within, restores as needed, and gifts it to another nonprofit for ongoing care and maintenance. But the foundation held onto the Nohl house for more than a decade after assuming caretaker duties, only granting it to the Kohler Arts Center in 2012.

Most of that time was spent either fighting to open the site publicly or licking its wounds. After Mary’s death, foundation members had hoped to quickly convert the home into a public museum and have the house designated a historical landmark, which would ultimately be achieved at the county, state and national levels. 

But there were several obstacles in the foundation’s way: the house’s infamous reputation, structural damage to the house and works themselves, and a municipal maze of restrictions and ordinances. 

All were problems encountered elsewhere. The Kohler Foundation has been preserving art environments for almost 40 years, beginning in 1976 with a northern Wisconsin park filled with concrete sculptures by artist Fred Smith. Since then, the foundation had built a national reputation for saving almost a dozen more art environments completely intact – in situ – and collected the works of a great many more “vernacular artists” whose creative sites didn’t lend themselves to preservation. And in many cases, the organization overcame impediments similar to those faced in Fox Point.

But this particular battle was different, a perfect storm coalescing from elements both expected and unexpected. Motivated, affluent Beach Drive residents didn’t want the house turned into a museum, and used zoning requirements that shackled the foundation and JMKAC’s ability to operate from the home. Additionally, and maybe more fatally, few Fox Point sympathizers were willing to support the museum publicly and attract the ire of their neighbors in the process.

It also didn’t help that the foundation didn’t know how big the problem was until it blew up in its face. It had known from the start there were members of the community opposed to the plan. But the foundation’s executive director, Terri Yoho, says that’s a response often seen when it enters a neighborhood, and assumed those feelings would soften as time passed. 

If anything, they only intensified. A Lamers bus that pulled up to the front of the house for a tour in April 2003 was a flash point for several, including Eric Fonstad, who lives within viewing distance of the Nohl house and has been a particularly public crusader against the Kohler Foundation and JMKAC. (Yoho denies the Foundation ever organized a tour with a bus so large, although on one occasion, it used significantly smaller shuttles, which didn’t park outside the home.) 

“It was very concerning to a lot of people living down here,” says Fonstad, a retired corporate attorney in his 60s. Shortly afterward, he and other neighbors began discussing ways to force the foundation to again begin using the home as a residence – and not to remove the art from the property, as he says the museum’s supporters have unfairly and mistakenly stated. “People want to blame somebody … it’s easy to say the immediate neighbors want it moved, and that’s not the case,” Fonstad says. “All we’ve been trying to do is preserve the residential character of the neighborhood.”

As years passed, both parties worked behind the scenes to achieve their aims, clashing on occasion. JMKAC staged a fundraiser in 2004 at a nearby supporter’s home that featured trips to the house, and invited graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to live there and catalog the works in 2005. Neighbors responded in kind, circling a petition after the fundraiser that denounced the increase in traffic and monitoring the house’s mail, trash and visitors for evidence of “museum activity” that violated the town’s residential zoning laws to report to the village, resulting in 19 citations against the foundation and one student accusing a neighbor of stalking. (All citations were ultimately dropped.)

In order to truly open the house, the foundation needed to evade those restrictions by receiving a “cultural zoning overlay,” an exemption that would allow it to use the home as something other than a private residence. It never got the chance to go after one. At a meeting in August 2005 with the village’s Historic Preservation Committee, more than 100 residents showed up wearing buttons stating “No Museum” and abruptly changed the playing field. “We were somewhat taken aback,” Yoho says, adding that the meeting was only meant to be an information session. “This swell of negative energy showed up.”

The protesters couldn’t directly hurt the foundation’s efforts then, but their participation in a public hearing to establish that overlay would. With its objective blocked, Ruth DeYoung Kohler says neighborhood allies recommended the foundation drop the issue. “They were told by a couple of people to just lay low, be as quiet as you can and hope it blows over. So that’s what happened.”


See more photos of Nohl's house in our photo gallery here.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

The decision to back down was well-intentioned, but it would have serious consequences. After years without any major incidents, the foundation was blindsided by an opponent it hadn’t seen coming: Mother Nature. In July 2010, a flash flood poured into the basement of the house, gutting its utilities and forcing Kohler preservationists to remove most of the interior art. Yoho says the foundation took it as a wake-up call. Hoping the JMKAC would have better luck after the détente, the foundation transferred the property to the Creation and Preservation Partners (CAPP), an affiliate of the JMKAC.

Once CAPP had a hold of the property, things accelerated quickly – driven, Kohler says, by a desire to not repair the house’s damaged heating and plumbing until it was sure that would be worth the expense. But things didn’t look promising. Representatives of the arts center spoke to the village board again (a body now including Fonstad himself, who now says he planned to recuse himself from any proposals brought regarding the Mary Nohl house), and were told they would need between 100 and 200 public advocates to have their zoning alteration approved. The JMKAC subsequently hired a team from the Milwaukee public relations firm Mueller Communications to survey the 300 households on Beach Drive and nearby streets, and found about 45 supporters of varying degrees.

It was enough to convince Mueller Communications to stage an “information exchange” in October 2013, which featured the presentation of a plan for public observation and commentary. 

But the desired dialogue never happened.

Lori Richards, vice president of Mueller Communications, says the intentions were to lead off with the JMKAC’s current plans – which included a driveway and small parking lot to alleviate traffic concerns, and openings by appointment only to exclude drop-in tourists – and then break off into small groups for further discussion. But that wasn’t what most of the approximately 40 neighbors in attendance were looking for.

“They wanted to sit down and they wanted to have a person to talk to,” Richards says. “I took the lead as facilitator, and it was a firing squad. It was clear that people were just angry, and they just wanted to vent.”
Kohler is less diplomatic: “It was unbelievable. Negative after negative after negative. People that you would think would have enough background in the arts that they would agree to it. … After a while, we just didn’t even say anything, or very little, because that’s not what they wanted to hear. They didn’t care what we thought, or what we had to talk about.”

It had become painfully clear: There was no hope of both leaving the home in Fox Point and opening it to the public. JMKAC Board President Michael Cisler says that’s when alternatives were seriously considered. Once JMKAC officials discovered that repairs to make the home a residence again would cost more than completely rebuilding it, moving the house became the best option.

“We’re really disappointed we had to come to this decision,” he says, “but I think it’s important to note it’s taken us quite a long time. If we could have figured out a way to keep it there, we would have done it a long time ago.”


Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Disappointment in the move seems most strongly felt by members of Milwaukee’s art community. Several of them, including Brehmer, Barbara Manger (a close friend of Mary’s who published a biography of her life and work) and Polly Morris, who currently oversees the artists’ fellowships set up by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, have spoken out against the plan, and a number of online petitions and support groups on social media sites have sprung up protesting the decision.

Manger, a Milwaukee printmaker, lays the blame on Fox Point residents for forcing the museum’s hand. “There are about 6,000 residents of Fox Point,” she says, “and I don’t think a small number of people who may not understand the cultural worth and historical importance of this site, to not just Milwaukee but the greater community, should be the determinant of the fate of this house. … Sites such as Mary Nohl’s are rare, and to be treasured – a jewel in the crown.”

Brehmer, who runs Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, thinks there’s blame to be cast on how the JMKAC handled the situation as well. “I knew they were having trouble,” Brehmer says, “but I thought they would find a solution, some compromise.” Although she acknowledges the neighbors’ opposition hurt the center’s efforts, she says the abrupt announcement would have been easier to take – or maybe not come at all – if the center had included anyone from outside Fox Point in the discussion, instead of taking it all on themselves. 

“I personally felt kind of cheated,” Brehmer says. “I didn’t get to weigh in, Milwaukee didn’t get to weigh in, the people who care who have a history with that site – nobody got to say a word.”

To promote that conversation after the fact and call attention to the loss of Mary's home, Brehmer has helped organize a public forum at the Milwaukee Art Museum on Thursday, July 10, from 7:15-9 p.m. Speakers will include preservationists Matthew Jarosz and Lisa Stone, local historian John Gurda, Ruth DeYoung Kohler and Brehmer herself. 

Kohler says outside support might have been even more detrimental. She says Village Board President Michael West was clear the board’s decision would be based on the desires of Fox Point residents, and that even neighbors more distant from Mary’s house, west of North Lake Drive, wouldn’t be weighed as heavily, much less artists from the city.

Kohler and Cisler were equally dismissive, if understanding, of the grassroots groups hoping to change the center’s plans. “We’ve talked to a few of those people, and their concerns are no different than the ones we’ve had,” Cisler says. “But a lot of them don’t know the amount of effort we’ve put in to getting it to the point we’re at. There’s a lot of things we’ve already tried. And what we’ve been hearing from these grassroots people is essentially, ‘Well, try those things again.’ And we’re not interested in doing that.”

It’s a disappointing resolution, but one that’s hard to imagine could have been avoided. By the time the JMKAC took ownership of the property – or perhaps even by the time Mary passed away – the neighbors’ opposition ensured there were only two options for the site. There was the path they chose, to evict it from its present location and hope the magic of its surroundings would come with it – or the opposite, to leave it where it is with its gates forever barred, knowable only as it always has been, an unexplained yard filled with beautiful and strange sculptures.

In the end, after decades of trying to save Mary’s home intact, the fate of this practical woman’s work has come down practicalities.

“I think [Mary] would be sad,” Kohler says, taking great care with each word. “But I think, somehow, that she would understand.”

***

But even practicality has its limits.

While I’m in Sheboygan at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, someone suggests that I stop by a place called the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, an art environment a couple minutes away named for the sculptor who built it, James Tellen. Armed with an address and my phone’s GPS, I set out, following the route it charts out of the city and into the woods.

I drive past it the first time. And a second.

When the third time proves the charm, I find myself alone in a gravel parking lot beside a forest-green house. Not just the-only-visitor alone. Alone-alone. No patrons, no docent, no caretaker. There’s a stack of pamphlets, though, so I take one and tramp off along a path into the site.

It’s gorgeous. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Tellen began making sculptures of imagined and historical figures, realistic in every detail except their incongruous placement in the middle of the Sheboygan woods. Behind that forest-green house are a half-dozen miniature pioneer-life vignettes separated by life-sized statues of people like Abraham Lincoln, splitting rails as a young man, and mischievous elfin characters, as well as a scarcely tamped-down path with more figures. It winds away from the home until it comes to an end with a thorn-clad bust of Jesus and a re-creation of the famous Our Lady of Fatima. This is a site the Kohler Foundation was able to preserve in situ, as it had wanted to do with the Nohl house, and it feels perfect in its mere existence, even if I’m the only person here to appreciate it this afternoon, or this week.

Will Mary’s house feel as perfect as this woodland path when that house is 50 miles north of the place it’s truly meant to be?

It’s colder up here than it was when I left Milwaukee in the morning, but that isn’t the reason for the chill that goes through me at the thought. ■

Write to freelancer Matthew Reddin at letters@milwaukeemag.com. 

This article appears in the upcoming August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the July issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.




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