We took a look at Eschweiler, Milwaukee’s architectural Rembrandt.
When dump trucks and bulldozers descended on Shorewood last June to demolish County Executive Chris Abele’s lakefront mansion, it was the end of a futile battle to preserve the 1927 home built by one of Milwaukee’s greatest architects.
The mansion, originally built for Charles Albright, was one of many buildings designed by Alexander C. Eschweiler, whose architectural firm received commissions across the state and the city, leaving a body of work that shaped Milwaukee architecture for years to come.
Born in Boston in 1865, Eschweiler moved to Milwaukee with his parents in 1882 and quickly found a home here. After heading east to study architecture at Cornell, he returned to the Milwaukee in 1892 to establish Eschweiler & Eschweiler.
Milwaukee was in the midst of a late-century economic boom, and the increasing population and new money led to commissions across the city for ornate domestic homes in the European styles. Eschweiler worked in period revival, bringing historical accuracy and a remarkable eye for detail to each home he built. He died in 1940.
“Living in an Eschweiler is almost akin to owning a Rembrandt,” wrote Whitney Gould, former Journal Sentinel architecture critic, in a 2007 article.
While Eschweiler is usually noted for his aesthetics and period revival sensibilities, he was also remarkably practical and sturdy in his every construction, says Win Thrall, who spent six years researching the architect for a 2007 exhibition at the Charles Allis Art Museum, a building Eschweiler himself designed. One of his most noticeable landmarks is the art deco-style Milwaukee Gas Light Building, which towers over Wisconsin Avenue. He also built the pagoda-style Wadhams Service Station in West Allis and the Gothic Marquette University Law School building.
Eschweiler’s Albright Home, though, was in “remarkably poor condition” and required significant and costly repair, according to a statement released in May by Abele’s contractor, who noted the home had been for sale for three years. But the family who sold the house to Abele disputed that characterization of the mansion’s condition, and outrage ensued. “You can’t ruin a landmark like that,” says Thrall. “It shows no respect for history.”
The demolition went through with relatively little legal resistance. The home was not on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was in Shorewood, which does not have a historical preservation ordinance, according to Dawn McCarthy, president emeritus of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.
Milwaukee’s more stringent rules mean that the majority of Eschweiler’s buildings in Milwaukee have some form of legal protection or review process if a demolition is proposed. “When you don’t have good local ordinances,” McCarthy says, “a real treasure gets demolished.”