Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood of North Point has always been a place of distinction and style. In an excerpt from his new book, Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods, local historian John Gurda leads readers through North Point’s storied past.
A picturesque water tower, a lighthouse, and a hospital—those are the landmarks you see on North Point’s skyline from the far side of Milwaukee Bay. The view from within the neighborhood, below the treeline, is substantially different. North Point is a narrow band of gracious homes inlaid on the lake bluff like architectural gems; the fine homes and the prevailing sense of privacy have made North Point one of Milwaukee’s most desirable addresses for well over a century. But the neighborhood is also an integral part of the intensely urban East Side. Apartment-dwellers are actually more numerous than single-family homeowners, and the community lies barely two miles north of Downtown. Its hybrid character and prime location have given North Point a place of distinction in the city’s history, geography, and civic life — a place the community continues to occupy with unmistakable pride.
In the Tower’s Shadow
North Point’s history began Downtown. In the 1840s, when Milwaukee’s social order was beginning to crystallize, the city’s most prominent families clustered on the high ground between the Milwaukee River and the lake, overlooking the future site of City Hall. There, within a stone’s throw of their shops and offices, prosperous businessmen and professionals built the most imposing homes of their time. As other neighborhoods filled in with immigrants, the high ground became a haven for American-born newcomers of British stock, most of them transplanted from New York and New England. Their neighborhood was called, fittingly, Yankee Hill.
As Milwaukee grew, so did Yankee Hill. Fortunes were being made in milling, meat-packing, finance, railroads, and the grain trade, and architects worked overtime designing homes for the city’s burgeoning elite. Year by year the neighborhood expanded to the north and east, reaching the lake bluff in the 1860s and then edging up Prospect Avenue. By 1890 the avenue, with its magnificent “prospect” of the lake, boasted one of the finest collections of Victorian mansions in the Midwest.
Speculators who owned property in the North Point area had long sensed that a wave of affluence was headed their way. As they played their waiting game, development of another kind was well underway in North Point. In 1846, the year Milwaukee was chartered, the city bought a forty-acre parcel to be used “for welfare or charitable” purposes. The tract was bordered by today’s Downer and Maryland Avenues between Bradford and North. A primitive hospital for the indigent, this poorhouse was erected in 1846, followed by a “pesthouse” for patients with infectious diseases. The Daughters of Charity moved up from Downtown and opened St. Mary’s Hospital in 1858. A public school, Protestant and Catholic homes for the elderly, and an orphanage were added later in the century. The school, the homes, and a much-expanded hospital are still on the original forty-acre site, giving North Point one of the densest clusters of health and human service institutions in the city.
Public works projects also shaped the area’s appearance, beginning decades before homeowners arrived. In 1855 the North Point lighthouse was erected between two ravines on the lake bluff. Its beacon was a welcome sight for mariners at a time when lake traffic was absolutely essential to Milwaukee’s welfare. By 1888 erosion of the bluff was so far advanced that the lighthouse had to be moved 100 feet west to its present location.
In 1871 construction of the city’s first water system began. A powerhouse on the beach below St. Mary’s Hospital pumped untreated lake water up the bluff and under North Avenue to a large reservoir just west of the Milwaukee River. From there it flowed by gravity to the city’s homes and businesses. The original pumps were as steady as a heartbeat, sending the water uphill in an endless series of surges. The constant fluctuation in pressure created stress on the water main, and so engineers connected it to a vertical pipe, 125 feet high and 4 feet wide, at the top of the bluff. The standpipe absorbed the surges and stabilized the flow of water to the reservoir. In a moment of inspired whimsy, city officials decided to enclose the pipe in an ornate limestone tower. New pumps installed in 1908 made the standpipe obsolete, but the tower retains its fairy-tale quality—and its power as a neighborhood icon.
The last public improvement of the 19th century was Lake Park. In 1890 the city’s Park Commission, then only a year old, purchased 120 acres on the lake bluff. The commission hired the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most prominent landscape architect, to design a park on the site. (His firm’s other projects included Washington Park in Milwaukee and Central Park in New York.) The Olmsted plan called for an elaborate system of carriageways, pedestrian promenades, and tree plantings that would divide the park into visually distinct sub-areas. The plan was not executed in its entirety, but Lake Park became, and remains, one of the most artfully crafted links in a world-class park system.
Turn Right at Lafayette
It was in the 1890s, when Lake Park was under development, that the long-awaited residential boom finally reached North Point. As Prospect Avenue filled to capacity, well-to-do Milwaukeeans turned right at Lafayette Place and turned North Point into one of the most prestigious residential districts Milwaukee has ever known. Pabsts, Blatzes, Falks, Vogels, Brumders, and Smiths built homes that epitomized the latest and most luxurious in architectural trends. Some were simple, almost chaste, in their elegance, while others would have satisfied the appetite of any Eastern tycoon. Nearly 400 houses remain from that first, heady stage of development in North Point. The presence of so many homes of such high quality in such a small area makes the neighborhood physically unique. No two dwellings are identical, all are substantial. Brick and stone are so common that frame houses are a rarity. Libraries, multiple fireplaces, and maid’s quarters are practically standard. North Point’s homes embody the talent of Milwaukee’s finest architects, the skill of the finest local craftsmen, and the material success of the neighborhood’s first residents.
Significantly, some of Milwaukee’s most prominent architects lived among their clients in North Point, including the Alexander Eschweilers (Sr. and Jr.), Alfred Clas, Charles Crane, and Armin Frank.
North Point in its original form was different from Milwaukee’s earlier gold coasts in three important respects. It was, first of all, ethnically mixed. When Yankee Hill developed, Milwaukee was a commercial center whose leaders were, by and large, transplanted Easterners of British descent. By 1890 the city was a major industrial center, and scores of immigrants (and their sons) had become captains of industry. German, Irish, Czech, and other European families took their place alongside Yankees in North Point.
A second point of distinction was the neighborhood’s status as a second-generation settlement. It was not the immigrants and Easterners themselves who built homes in North Point, but their children, many of whom headed the family businesses. Villa Terrace, for instance, now a museum of the decorative arts, was built for industrialist A.O. Smith’s son, Ray. His neighbors to the north included Gustav Pabst, Captain Frederick Pabst’s son; and Elsie Cudahy Beck, Patrick Cudahy’s daughter.
North Point was, thirdly, a metropolitan gold coast, especially after 1900. In the 19th century, practically every neighborhood had its own well-to-do sections. As horse-drawn carriages gave way to automobiles after 1900, affluent families were the first to embrace America’s new-found mobility, and they migrated to the lakeshore practically as a body.
The city’s elite relocated from Grand Avenue [now Wisconsin Avenue] on the West Side, from Walker’s Point on the South Side, and from First Street on the North Side. A home near the lake bluff—in North Point or farther up the shoreline—became Milwaukee’s ultimate status symbol.
The lake bluff itself was a problem as well as an attraction. Homeowners with frontage on the lake found themselves literally losing ground as violent storms tore away at the bluff every year. The problem was solved in the 1920s, when the city began an ambitious landfill project at the base of North Point. One result was a democratization of the lakefront. As the erosion process was reversed and the land grew lakeward, every Milwaukeean had access to a stunning stretch of urban shoreline. Lincoln Memorial Drive, dedicated in 1929, ranked among the most beautiful parkways on the Great Lakes.
In the 1920s, as the lakefront drive neared completion, a wave of change began to move north from Downtown. Milwaukee was growing rapidly, and its central business district was absorbing the neighborhoods around it. Yankee Hill in its heyday was already a memory, and now the wave surged up Prospect Avenue. Dozens of mansions were torn down to make way for apartment buildings. The large homes that remained were converted to schools, offices, or rooming houses, and the original gold coast utterly vanished.
The wave of change bypassed North Point to the west, along Prospect and Downer Avenues. A few apartment buildings went up, and a few mansions were divided into rental units, but the neighborhood retained its genteel residential character. The original homeowners typically stayed at least until their children were grown, and those children often bought homes nearby. Intermarriage was common—a Gallun to a Pritzlaff, a Friedmann to a Schuster—and so the neighborhood’s stability was reinforced by family as well as social ties. Change would come, but North Point remained remarkably intact until well after World War II.
Preserving a Legacy
North Point seems to be, at first glance, a haven for the affluent: stately homes on tree-lined streets, abundant parkland, magnificent views of the lake, expensive cars in the driveways. The neighborhood’s housing values are among the very highest in the city, as are the income and educational levels of its residents. Perched above the lake, North Point is at a pinnacle, both physically and socially.
But the community’s social standing obscures its genuinely urban character. North Point is the east side of the East Side. Its residents overlook what is, in summer, the busiest expanse of parkland in Milwaukee. They look west and south to a high-density district of smaller homes and large apartment buildings. One of the city’s most popular nightlife districts—the “six points” cluster at Farwell and North—lies on the neighborhood’s western border. The historic St. Mary’s Hospital complex, significantly enlarged in 2010 after a merger with Columbia Hospital, occupies the very heart of the neighborhood. North Point residents are among those who buy their groceries at Sendik’s, watch films at the Downer or the Oriental, dine at neighborhood restaurants, and borrow books from the East Library. Other East Siders (and other Milwaukeeans) use North Point in turn. Especially during the warm months, the blufftop parks attract an array of strollers, sitters, joggers, parkers, dog-walkers, bikers, and other people who appreciate the finest in urban scenery.
As an integral part of the East Side, North Point’s residents mirror the cosmopolitan diversity of the larger district. There are businesspeople, professionals, professors, and artists. Political views span the spectrum. There are retired couples, young singles, and families with pre-school children. Most of Milwaukee’s major ethnic and religious groups are represented. Three things unite this diverse assemblage: material success, an interest in historic preservation, and a taste for city life.
That taste was conspicuously absent in the decade or two before 1970. Although it survived long after similar districts had disappeared, North Point was, until the later 1900s, an endangered neighborhood. In the 1950s and ’60s, many of the old-line families moved out to newer homes in the North Shore suburbs, just as their ancestors had moved to North Point from Yankee Hill and other affluent districts. Some mansions were donated to religious or charitable groups. Several were bought and razed by Milwaukee County to create more parkland—an approach to green space that most modern preservationists would describe as overzealous. Developers assembled blocks of houses and made plans for high-rise apartment buildings. As the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (established in 1956) drew more students every year, there was a growing demand for high-density housing in the vicinity. Local institutions, particularly St. Mary’s Hospital, also began to acquire land for expansion. There was a widespread belief that North Point would become another Prospect Avenue—a high-rise row whose older homes were expendable or, at best, suitable primarily for professional offices.
A countercurrent was visible by 1970. The preservation movement was gaining traction, and there was a steady growth of interest in historic old homes. New residents arrived, including a sizable number from other states who were amazed at the quality and affordability of North Point’s houses. The new owners joined a stable core of long-time residents to cement a character that had been cracking. The neighborhood mounted a long and continuing campaign to ward off any and all threats to its low-density residential
The effort was informal until 1973, when the Water Tower Landmark Trust was established. Later renamed the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood, Inc. (HWTN), the organization blossomed into one of the most effective neighborhood groups in the city. Its leaders lobbied for a new zoning ordinance and more rigorous building code enforcement. They negotiated with local institutions and developers. HWTN spearheaded efforts to secure landmark status for the neighborhood—both sections of North Point were National Register historic districts by 1985—and there was a social side as well. Neighbors got to know each other through an ongoing round of celebrations and open houses, and North Point became increasingly a community of interest.
Since the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood group was formed in 1973, the trend has been steadily upward. Housing values have soared with the rebound of interest in historic architecture. The Falks and Pabsts, the Brumders and Harnischfegers who built North Point’s homes have long since departed, but they have been replaced by residents of comparable status, or not far from it. Many of them have moved back into town from the suburbs, and there is a growing concentration of young families—an important sign for the neighborhood’s future.
In an area so favored by geography, pressures on the district’s integrity are ever-present—from developers, from local institutions, and from simple age—but North Point has shown an impressive ability to meet its challenges. The grand single-family homes are largely intact, and North Point remains a stratum of quiet elegance positioned squarely between the scenic busyness of the lakefront and the commercial buzz of the Prospect-Downer shopping district. Fine homes, even finer views, and a deeply felt connection with Milwaukee’s past are North Point’s enduring assets, and local residents are determined to preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods is the 21st book written by Milwaukee-born historian John Gurda. Write to him at email@example.com.