It’s difficult to imagine living in a local landmark, especially one linked to one of the city’s cultural cornerstones, but John Sheaffer and his partner Tim Baack have managed to make one completely their own. “It’s important to us that it feels like home,” Baack says, a goal they say they’ve met since moving in early in 2016. The process began, though, by looking closely at the structure’s historic details. In doing so, Baack says, “We often reflect on the many lives this place has touched.”
Last spring the couple uprooted from their 1975 Colonial on one-and-a-half acres in Pewaukee, a place they’d call home for 14 years, to a rambling Queen Anne mansion on Milwaukee’s Near West Side. The house, built in 1890, had lured them in with its renovation potential, stately bones and local significance. Spread across three floors and 7,000 square feet are five bedrooms and three baths, all wrapped in a Cream City brick exterior. Built for Victor Schlitz, and dubbed a Milwaukee landmark in 1977, it’s the only local property linked to the nephew of beer baron Joseph Schlitz, who founded Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company in 1849.
The move was also personal. Baack, president and chief executive officer of Pathfinders, a nonprofit social-services organization that helps teens affected by homelessness, pregnancy and human trafficking, felt the area’s deep urban-suburban divide in his 40-minute work commute, practically airdropping from a tony suburb to an urban corridor. Instead of feeling physically separated from the teens he works with, Baack now drives just five miles, a perk that puts time back into his day. Similarly, when appearing before politicians and county board meetings in support of social initiatives that would improve the lives of Pathfinders’ clients, Baack says he wanted to prove he had “skin in the game.” Now he can. The neighborhood is familiar, too. While attending Marquette University, Baack lived nearby on North 21st Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. “It was interesting for me to come back to this neighborhood,” he says. (Sheaffer felt a call back to the city, too; he raised his two sons in Shorewood and lived in the Third Ward.)
Almost as soon as they picked up the keys to the mansion, Sheaffer and Baack began to see a clearer picture of Milwaukee’s geographic divide. While their former Pewaukee neighbors had asked if they owned guns when they found out where the house is located, their new neighbors inquired whether the couple was opening a bed and breakfast. After announcing that there would be no B & B, and that they had planned to make the house their own, they learned their new neighbors were equally as passionate about historic preservation and keeping the neighborhood safe as they were. It made the couple feel like there was a greater sense of community in their new neighborhood than they’d experienced in the ‘burbs. “We feel strongly about the health of cities, especially Milwaukee,” Sheaffer says.
“We really wanted [the Schlitz mansion] to get back to what it was,” says Baack, a master gardener, on a recent tour of its grand quarters.
The house’s intricate oak woodwork, including a carved staircase in the entryway, is enhanced by the 10-foot ceilings throughout. One of their first projects was to hire an artist to restore the entryway’s embossed Lincrusta wallpaper, as well as refurbishing the dining room built-in and updating all electric light fixtures. The exterior’s Pepto-Bismol-pink paint trim was coated over with sage and brick-red hues and the cedar-shake siding was replaced. To the couple’s delight, the previous owner – only the mansion’s third individual owner – had already put 15 years of work into the home, which has served as Highland Community School, a St. Vincent de Paul Society orphanage, and was once owned by the Milwaukee Archdiocese. (Schlitz resided in the home until 1928.) The owner before Sheaffer and Baack had added a period-replica fireplace to the “ladies’ parlor,” updated the kitchen with granite countertops and contemporary cabinetry, and modernized the bathrooms.
Many of the couple’s furnishings blend into their new residence, but, taking advantage of the larger rooms, they purchased a nine-foot-long Danish dining-room table set with 12 chairs upholstered in their original green velvet, and a five-piece settee set with carved oak and a red-and-gold motif. “We want a house that feels to both us and our guests like a true, lived-in home – with three dogs, of course – rather than a period museum that may look authentically Victorian but doesn’t feel lived in,” Baack says. “Furnishings that have a story and a long life appeal to us regardless of what period they originated from.” They proudly incorporate gifted Schlitz items into the décor, including two Schlitz uniform shirts and logoed memorabilia.
In his free time, Baack says, he polishes the elaborate door hardware until it shines, often working in a tiny corner of the basement where schoolchildren once ate lunch underneath a colorful mural depicting a woodland scene and forest animals. The couple won’t be painting over it anytime soon, they say. “It reflects yet another period of the house’s eclectic history,” says Baack. Eventually they hope to convert the third floor from an attic to a workshop or reading room, where bands of sunlight will filter through bay windows.
“We’re stewards of the property,” Baack says. “We own it, but it really belongs to the city.” ◆
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris