Inside the Mary Nohl House Controversy

A controversy over the Mary Nohl property, a beloved art environment, unfolds in a neighborhood with a heck of a lake view.

For decades, neighbors of the Mary Nohl home in Fox Point have claimed that their privacy has been invaded by unwelcome visitors – art aficionados and unruly teenagers alike – who have flocked to their exclusive Beach Drive neighborhood to view the artist’s unusual former house.

This winter, a request by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center to increase the number of sanctioned visitors to the property became a flash point in the long-simmering conflict. A tentative agreement was reached in February, but its outcome remained uncertain at press time, ahead of a potentially pivotal village election on April 4.

Photo courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

In December, the Sheboygan-based art powerhouse requested that the Fox Point Village Board designate the Nohl house at 7328 N. Beach Dr., and an adjoining lot, as a “cultural overlay district.” This designation would allow the properties to be used as an art gallery, museum or library in spite of their residential zoning, be exempt from taxes and, under Kohler’s initial proposal, allow as many as 80 people to visit the property at a time for fundraising events twice annually.

A forest of blue-and-white yard signs sprouted repeating a simple message: “No Nohl Museum.” “They should put this house on a large barge with the rest of the art and send it up to Sheboygan,” says Bonnie Joseph, who lives about a mile north of the Nohl house. She’s worried increased traffic could endanger her grandchildren; other opponents cited a potential loss of tax revenue or depreciation of property values and worry the designation is a first step down a slippery slope of public access. 



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Amy Horst, director of the Kohler Arts Center, says the house is so significant because it, the artwork and location are so innately tied together. “There’s truly no separation between Mary’s home and property with its connection to the lake and her work,” Horst says. “There are few sites of such scope and scale built single-handedly by a woman that remain intact.”

The compromise was reached between Kohler and five Beach Drive residents who were authorized to negotiate by 56 fellow residents of the street, according to John M. Wirth, an attorney representing the five. It limits the number of visitors to the Nohl house for fundraising events to 60 and proposes that Kohler pay the property’s share of taxes to the village and the Fox Point-Bayside School District. Wirth says a small number of neighbors still oppose the compromise, and it was unclear at press time if they could sway the village board, which has the final say on the agreement. The village Plan Commission voted 3-2 to recommend its adoption at a sometimes rancorous meeting on March 6.

NOHL WAS A PAINTER, sculptor, ceramicist and woodcarver who described herself as simply “a woman who likes tools.” The epicenter of her work – running the gamut from whimsical to spooky – was her home, often called the “witch’s house,” surrounded by concrete heads, anthropomorphized fish and other pieces she made.

She died in 2001, leaving her $11 million estate to the Kohler Foundation. Roughly 80% of Nohl’s artwork has been moved to the Kohler Arts Center. And since 2012, Kohler has spent over $3.6 million to buy the adjacent property, as well as restore the home and art with the help of artist in residence Alex Gartelmann.

“The sheer dedication, passion and creativity she had for creating and building her own world is unprecedented,” Horst says. “The cultural overlay district gives the Arts Center the opportunity to invite guests there, rather than us just serving as a landlord for our tenant. We anticipate very little change in the neighborhood from what’s happening there now.”

Photo courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Thus far, the only restrictions on the property have been the same as those on any of the neighboring houses. The village has disallowed street parking near the fenced-off property. Gawkers have to slowly drive by the property, while pedestrians can stand outside and view the statues.

In a January letter sent to village residents asking for their support of Kohler’s plan, Horst says the Nohl property would not be open to the general public, and it would “not become a public museum.” Kohler’s original proposal included precise restrictions on access to the property: prescheduled private visits of up to 10 scholars and historians at a time, up to three days per week, with no more than 20 visitors per day. No more than two fundraising events each year at the Nohl property, each with a maximum of 80 people (transported by shuttle bus) and following a detailed plan to be approved by the village. 

The property tax exemption is specified in state law; in 2021, Kohler paid about $54,000 in property taxes on the Nohl  house and the adjacent property. 

The village’s cultural district ordinance specifies that the property’s use cannot depreciate the property values in the immediate neighborhood nor adversely affect nearby homes. Also, the new use should “not create traffic beyond the capacity of the street system to reasonably serve it.”

Most neighbors at first were skeptical of Kohler’s assurances. At a January public hearing on the matter, Wirth said he represented 34 homeowners opposed to the changes. In a letter to the village, Beach Drive resident Mark Levin notes there is no residential neighborhood in Fox Point “with a museum and public fundraising space. It is a commercial use of residential property and is completely incongruous in a neighborhood of single-family homes.” Levin also spoke against the compromise at the Plan Commission meeting. 

Photo courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

VILLAGE OFFICIALS HAVE BEEN cagey about the hot-button issue amid a slew of calls, letters and emails. “There’s passion on both sides of the issue,” says Scott Botcher, Fox Point’s unelected village manager.

Looming over the decision is the April 4 election in which Trustee Christine Symchych faces former Trustee William M. Kravit to succeed Village President Douglas Frazer, who is not running for re-election and declined to comment on the Nohl matter. Two trustees also will be elected to the seven-person village board. 

Before the compromise emerged, some officials likened the debate to that of a court trial in which they are jurors who should not discuss the case until all the arguments have been made. “I cannot have a pre-formed opinion,” Symchych said at that time. “I have to first hear all of the evidence.” She did not respond to requests for comment after the agreement was struck. 

Kravit was pleased the sides had come to an understanding. “I’m happy that they recognize Kohler as a valued neighbor,” he says, “and that Kohler has the flexibility to accommodate the neighbors’ concerns … and that we’re not going to explode into further acrimony.”   

One village leader who has been a longtime watchdog of the Nohl property is Trustee Eric Fonstad, who lives directly across Beach Drive from the Nohl house. Several village officials say he originally ran for trustee in 2007 on a platform opposing expanded use of the Nohl house. All attempts to interview Fonstad for this story were unsuccessful. But his wife, Bridget, wrote a letter of opposition to the zoning change dated Feb. 20, the same date on the compromise. The letter says the Kohler proposal exceeds preserving and protecting the Nohl property, will negatively affect property values and is “more about increasing the number of visitors to the site.” This district “is bad for Fox Point and bad for this neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Karen M. Schapiro, the wife of the outgoing village president Frazer, says in a letter that although the Beach Drive residents’ concerns should be heard, “the notion that a loud group of residents should feel it is their ‘right’ to dictate village policy is contrary to notions of good government and representative democracy. The board needs to consider ‘the greater good,’ and in this case the greater good must include village residents who do not live on Beach Drive, and the wider community.” 

The Precedent: Chipstone

THE KOHLER PROPOSAL for the Nohl house has one analog in Fox Point: a cultural overlay district covering the Chipstone Foundation, an unmarked museum in a mansion tucked away among other estate homes. The Chipstone collection, created by former Boston Store executive Stanley Stone and his wife, Polly, includes furnishings, home goods and art objects, mostly from the American colonial period.

The Village Board granted the property a cultural overlay designation in 1988. The agreement permits scholars, collectors, historians and educators to have limited access to the museum – no more than 10 people at a time or 30 people a day, other than staff or local school field trips. There also can be two social events associated with Chipstone activities annually.

The property is tax-exempt under state law, but the agreement with the village calls for the Chipstone Foundation to pay 100% of the village and school district shares of the property taxes, which for 2022 came to $24,500.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s April issue.

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