Visitation Convent Complex
13105 Watertown Plank Road, Village of Elm Grove, Waukesha County
Dates of construction of contributing buildings: 1899-1958
Architects: Eugene Liebert; Brust & Brust; Backes & Pfaller; Herbst, Jacoby & Herbst
As the story is told, in 1855, Mother Caroline Friess, Vicar General of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in America (primarily a teaching order), was on her way from the Milwaukee Motherhouse to Watertown, when her horse abruptly stopped, refusing to go further. Mother Caroline took this as a sign from God that this was the location upon which she was to build a convent, orphanage and small rural school. The Sisters purchased forty acres in 1856 and, shortly thereafter, a cemetery was established and the convent/orphanage and school were completed by no later than 1859.
Beginning shortly before the turn of the twentieth century, the School Sisters embarked on a new era of construction on the campus. They completed their first building, Notre Dame Hall, in 1899; it served as a combined orphanage, infirmary and convent quarters. Its German Renaissance Revival-style architecture reflects the heritage of the Order, which originated in Bavaria. The building includes a notably detailed Romanesque Revival-style chapel on the interior. In 1903, an additional German Renaissance Revival style building was erected; it included a public meeting hall and later served as the orphanage. The year 1921 brought another period of construction to the campus, including the Classical Revival-style Maria Hall (convent quarters specifically for retired Sisters), a tuberculosis hospital known as "The Bungalow," as well as a combined boiler house and caretaker's residence. The latter two buildings exhibit Prairie Style influence. Over thirty years later, the campus saw the construction of two hospital wings, one to serve the mentally infirm, while the other served as a general hospital wing and included additional services of physical and occupational therapy.
Not only does the Visitation Convent Complex exhibit a range of architectural styles that were popular in Wisconsin between circa 1900 and the 1920s, but it also served the sick, disabled and handicapped of the SSND community. The combination of buildings, with the associated cemetery, stands as a testament to the need for, and school Sisters' commitment to, continuous (and perpetual) care for its own population, whether it be physical ailment, mental infirmity, or simply old age.