COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

900 W WISCONSIN AVE | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society

Property Record

900 W WISCONSIN AVE

Architecture and History Inventory
900 W WISCONSIN AVE | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society
NAMES
Historic Name:Mitchell, Alexander and Martha, House
Other Name:Wisconsin Club
Contributing:
Reference Number:41848
PROPERTY LOCATION
Location (Address):900 W WISCONSIN AVE
County:Milwaukee
City:Milwaukee
Township/Village:
Unincorporated Community:
Town:
Range:
Direction:
Section:
Quarter Section:
Quarter/Quarter Section:
PROPERTY FEATURES
Year Built:1848
Additions: 1905 1942 1871 1965 1876 1864 1937
Survey Date:2000
Historic Use:house
Architectural Style:Second Empire
Structural System:
Wall Material:Brick
Architect:E.T. Mix - 1876 , 1874Attrib: John Bentley - 1859
Other Buildings On Site:1
Demolished?:No
Demolished Date:
DESIGNATIONS
National/State Register Listing Name: Mitchell, Alexander, House
National Register Listing Date:8/28/2012
National Register Multiple Property Name:Multiple Resources of West Side Area
NOTES
Additional Information:A 'site file' exists for this property. It contains additional information such as correspondence, newspaper clippings, or historical information. It is a public record and may be viewed in person at the State Historical Society, Division of Historic Preservation.

DESCRIPTION:

The Mitchell House occupies a full city block of landscaped grounds surrounded by a tall iron fence with carved limestone posts (1871). In addition to the mature trees and shrubs, there is a highly ornate, wooden, Victorian, scrollsaw ornamented octagonal, pagoda-roofed summer house (1871). This small structure with its limestone foundation, wealth of intricate sawn decoration, and frosted glass windows is probably one of the finest such buildings to survive intact in the United States. The northern portion of the lot behind the house is paved parking area.

The Alexander Mitchell House itself is a rambling 2-1/2 story, brick slate mansard-roofed mansion constructed by Morgan E. Smith and John Bentley. (B). The present structure is the result of a series of remodelings and enlargements made to an earlier house erected about 1848. Its present appearance is the result of a drastic remodeling of the old house carried out in 1876-77 and the addition of a huge club wing in 1905. The mantlepieces were designed by Gustav Haug. (G). Interior was decorated by Francis A. Lydston.

The house portion of the building is an asymmetrical, Second Empire style brick mansion with extensive exterior trim including elaborate window caps, cornices, bay windows, dormers, porches and roof trim. The bay windows on the Wisconsin Avenue facade were added in 1872. The most distinctive feature of the main elevation (south) is the five-story, mansard-roofed entrance tower built in 1876. On the east elevation, a deep, Italianate, wooden porch extends across the full width of the first story. It has been enclosed, but the columns and cornice detailing survive intact. The north elevation (rear) is not architecturally articulated.

The club wing, constructed in 1905, is a brick, 76 foot long slate mansard-roofed structure adjoining the main house to the west. Although designed to blend with the old mansion, it is of simple design and lacks the rich detailing of the house. Symmetrically arranged, unornamented fenestration enlivens the south elevation, which is fronted by a plain modern porch with trellis style supports. The west and north elevations are utilitarian in design and lack architectural articulation. Subsequent additions and changes to the 1905 wing include raising the roof for a new ballroom in 1937, constructing a one-story addition to the rear in 1942, and placing two storage rooms and a toilet to the rear in 1946. (D).

The exterior of the house portion of the building has been little altered since 1876. The enclosure of the side (east) porch in 1965, the removal of the parapet balustrade from the entrance porch and the addition of a steel fire escape with related conversion of the third floor tower window to an emergency exit door on the front of the tower are the major changes. In addition, the entire structure has been painted white. Various small ornamental features including decorative balustrades, finials and crestings have been removed from the original house. (C).

Prior to the erection of the 1905 wing there were extensive greenhouses and a conservatory that extended from the west elevation of the house to 10th Street and then south along the west perimeter of the lot to Wisconsin Avenue. The conservatory was that portion directly west of the house and the greenhouse extended along 10th Street. Also in the southwest corner of the property was a pond and fountain. At the edge of this feature was a small, rectangular unidentified outbuilding. The rear of the property, at the northwest corner, was a one-story carpenter's shop. Other accounts also indicate that an ice house, carriage barn and windmill were also sited on the lot. All of these structures were razed many years ago.

ARCHITECTURAL/ENGINEERING SIGNIFICANCE:

The Mitchell House is architecturally significant as the finest remaining Second Empire style mansion in Milwaukee. The house, survives largely intact amidst its original setting on a full city block of landscaped grounds ornamented with an extraordinarily elaborate Victorian summer house that is probably one of the finest such structures of its period surviving in America. The house is a major work of master architect Edward Townsend Mix, a renowned nineteenth-century Wisconsin architect.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:

Alexander Mitchell (1817-1887) emigrated to Milwaukee in 1839 from Scotland where he had studied law and banking. Mitchell came to Milwaukee at the request of fellow Scotsman George Smith to manage his newly formed Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company. Because of a special provision in the company's charter, they were able to accept deposits and issue certificates of deposit as a regular bank would. This was interpreted by the territorial legislature as a violation of the anti-banking laws of the period, but Mitchell withstood these attacks and by 1852, the company had amassed over $1.4 million in assets which were instrumental in promoting the economic development of the old Northwest Territory. In 1853 the state laws were changed to allow state-chartered banks and the company was reorganized as the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company Bank (today's Marine National Bank) with Mitchell as president. In 1854 Mitchell purchased Smith's remaining interest in the company and became its primary owner. Mitchell was elected as the first president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association in 1858 and was credited with saving dozens of Wisconsin banks against default during the Civil War by assigning approximately a million dollars worth of Wisconsin War Bonds against depreciating southern state notes held by the Wisconsin banks. In 1861 Mitchell became one of the commissioners of the public debt of Milwaukee, a position he held for almost 25 years. He devised a scheme that readjusted the interest payments at a lower rate and saved the city from default. Mitchell's achievements as a banker of regional importance and power during the early years of Wisconsin statehood cannot be understated.

Mitchell utilized much of his privately amassed wealth to invest in numerous industrial enterprises, including his role as one of the largest local investors in the Milwaukee Iron Co. (Bay View Rolling Mills).

Mitchell's most notable achievement in business was this involvement with the regional railroads. He had been a director and stockholder in the state's earliest railroad ventures, including the Milwaukee and Mississippi and the La Crosse and Milwaukee railroads. In 1865 he purchased the nearly bankrupt Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, became its president, and reorganized it into a profitable venture by the following year. He gradually merged other railroads into his company, which grew from 270 miles of track in 1866 to over 5,000 miles in seven states by 1887. It was reported in several sources that this railroad, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (renamed in 1874), was one of the largest corporations in the country. In addition, he had extensive real estate interests and was a major investor in a number of other business ventures. By 1870, when he was elected to Congress to represent Wisconsin's Fourth District, he was the wealthiest man in Wisconsin. Mitchell was responsible for hiring master architect Edward Townsend Mix to design some of the most impressive buildings in the city for him, including the magnificent Mackie and Mitchell buildings (still extant, listed in the National Register 4/3/73) as well as the Milwaukee Road Depot (razed). (J,K.L.M).

Mitchell's association with the nominated property began in 1848 when he acquired part of the present site facing North Ninth Street. He immediately erected a brick house and was living there with his wife, Martha, by 1850. In 1859 the house was remodeled in the fashionable Italianate style. Over the years, Mitchell aggressively enlarged his property. He erected large green houses adjacent to his residence to accommodate his growing interest in horticulture. Eventually, the greenhouses and landscaping became something of a tourist attraction. By 1870 the complex encompassed over 15,000 square feet of glass and was over 500 feet in length.

By 1876, as Mitchell was approaching the zenith of his wealth, he had succeeded in acquiring the homes of most of his neighbors on the block and had the houses either razed or moved off the site. The grounds were consolidated with his own. In 1871, for example, he built the summer house and the existing elaborate fence around the property and moved the carriage entrance to its present Wisconsin Avenue location after acquiring the old S. C. West House.

In 1874 he bought the former A. D. Smith House and thus obtained possession of the entire frontage on Wisconsin Avenue between North Ninth and North 10th Streets. With the frontage secured, Mitchell extended his gardens and greenhouses and employed architect E. T. Mix to enlarge and remodel the existing house into an opulent mansion in the fashionable Second Empire style. Work continued into 1877 before the interior decorating was complete. It was at this time that the tower, much of the trim and the mansard roofs were added and the entrance was moved to face Wisconsin Avenue. The former entrance on Ninth Street became a side porch.

Mitchell continued to improve his showplace estate and to take a lively interest in his increasingly elaborate greenhouses. An ice house (1880) (razed) and a substantial carriage house (1881) (razed) were erected as outbuildings. The interior of the mansion was consistently described as palatial in contemporary accounts. Imported Italian velvets and brocade covered the walls, which were hung with multitudes of Victorian oil paintings. Although most accounts described the interiors as dazzlingly rich and ornate, it was the extensive greenhouse and conservatory complex that adjoined the house to the west which provoked the most wonder in visitors. The landscape architect was Pollard (4/17/1874).

The Mitchell House was regarded as Milwaukee's finest residence throughout the 1870's and 1880's. As a result, many distinguished visitors were entertained there, including President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. The aging Mitchells, however, were spending an increasingly large part of the year at their southern home, Villa Alexandria, near Jacksonville, Florida. It was after wintering there that Mitchell died in New York City in April of 1887 at seventy years of age.

After Mitchell's death, Mrs. Mitchell inherited the Milwaukee house. Since she was living more-or-less year round at the Florida estate, she transferred ownership of the mansion to her son John L. Mitchell. It is unlikely that the younger Mitchell occupied the house, since he already had a large residence of his own. Eventually, after years of standing vacant, the Mitchells rented the house to the Deutscher Club, now the Wisconsin Club.

The Deutscher Club had been established in July of 1891 to provide fellowship and companionship for the city's affluent German-American businessmen. The group first met in the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House building on East Wells Street, predecessor to the Pabst Theater. This building burned in January of 1895 making it necessary for them to find a new home. The desire to have an opulent, comfortable club house was very strong among the Deutscher Club's membership of wealthy German-American businessmen. Other groups, such as the Milwaukee Club and Phoenix Club, had already built substantial and expensive clubhouses to house their well-to-do memberships and the Deutscher Club felt the need to have similarly impressive quarters.

In 1895 the club was able to lease the Mitchell House for $2,000 a year. For the Deutscher Club it was quite a coup. Not only was the house one of the finest in the city, but its owner had been one of Milwaukee's leading citizens and co-founder of the exclusive, Yankee-dominated Milwaukee Club, the Deutscher Club's chief rival. Rooms were available for rental to bachelor members and possession of the finest clubhouse in the city added immeasurably to the club's prestige, resulting in increased membership.

Mrs. Mitchell and her grandson, David Ferguson Mitchell sold the property to the Deutscher Club for $165,000 in 1898. The club has maintained the property with some modifications. The conservatory and greenhouses to the west of the main house were razed and replaced with a dining hall and bowling alleys in 1906. The Moorish smoking room, main staircase and woodwork on the ground floor of the mansion have remained intact although the upper floor rooms have been considerably remodeled. The club, which was organized purely for social purposes as a businessman's club, changed its name to the Wisconsin Club during World War I and continues today as an exclusive private club. (C).

Edward Townsend Mix (b. 1831-d. 1890) was born and educated at New Haven, CT. Mix moved to Milwaukee in 1856 to supervise the construction of a residence, and on its completion decided to remain in the city. A number of his early works were built in Chicago, planned in association with W. W. Boyington. While in Milwaukee during the 1880's he practiced jointly with W. A. Holbrook. Among the more important commissions were the Chamber of Commerce Building (Mackie Building) and the Mitchell Building; All Saints Episcopal Cathedral; St. Paul's Episcopal Church; and Immanuel Presbyterian Church (all listed in the National Register). He designed many important residences including the Robert P. Fitzgerald House, 1119 North Marshall Street (Historic American Buildings Survey) and the Judge Jason Downer House, 1201 North Prospect Avenue (Historic American Buildings Survey). The Mitchell House is one of two surviving second empire style houses designed by Mix in the state and is the largest extant residence he executed in Milwaukee. Shortly before his death in 1890, Mix moved to Minneapolis where he executed a number of large and important commissions. (O,P).

HISTORICAL STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE:

The Alexander Mitchell Residence is historically significant both for its association with Wisconsin financier and industrialist Alexander Mitchell and as the home of the Wisconsin Club. Alexander Mitchell was an important pioneer businessman and politician who was instrumental in establishing one of the state's first strong banking institutions, and for his role in creating the largest railroad system in the country under one ownership in the nineteenth century. He was also elected to two terms of the U.S. Congress and wielded significant power in state politics during his life. The Wisconsin Club has long been important as a social center for Milwaukee's professional and business elite, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century German-American community in the city.

Another map code is 18/25.

Photo Retake 4-25/20,21.

The former mansion of Alexander Mitchell began in 1859 as a two story Italianate "Villa" facing Ninth Street, which is now a portion of the east wing. According to historian James Buck, the builder was John Bentley, an English-born mason who later became on of the city's most prominent builder/contractors in the 19th century. (Although the Sentinel documents the construction of the "villa" in 1859, research suggests that Mitchell may have lived on Ninth Street before then). The largest and most elaborate additions to the residence date from the early 1870s. Sentinel articles between 1870 and 1876 describe these "improvements". Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix was hired to design the alterations, which resulted in a Second Empire style mansion with a mansard roof, large square tower, and new entrance facing W. Wisconsin Avenue. During these years Mitchell also bought and removed other houses on the block and also "beautified the grounds." The main portion of the stone and iron fence dates from 1871, as does the octagonal gazebo believed to have been designed for Mrs. (Martha Reed) Mitchell. A Sentinel article on April 7, 1871 (p. 4, col. 1) describes at some length the grounds and conservatory, which contained 20,000 square feet of glass and included a tropical room, grape arbors, a rose collection, fountains, and exotic vegetation from all over the world. The Wisconsin Club constructed the present west wing in place of Mitchell's greenhouse. This and other changes have diminished the architectural significance of the structure.

Home of Alexander Mitchell (1817-1887), nineteenth century business magnate and politician. Detailed biographies exist in major local histories. He was born in Scotland and settled in Milwaukee in 1839, making his fortune in banking and railroads. Mitchell was the first president of the Wisconsin Banker's Assoc. and in 1869 became president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. In the early 1870s, he served two terms as U.S. Congressman.
Bibliographic References:A. Buck, James S. "Pioneer History of Milwaukee." Vol. I: 1833-1841. Milwaukee: Milwaukee News Co., 1876. B. Buck, James S. "Milwaukee Under the Charter 1847-1953 Inclusive." Milwaukee: Symes, Swain and Co. 1884, p. 113. C. Leonard, David Blake. "A Biography of Alexander Mitchell (1817-1887)." Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1951. D. Milwaukee. City Building Permits. 1905-1965. E. Milwaukee. City Directory, 1894. F. Milwaukee. "County Deeds," 1848-1898. G. "Milwaukee Sentinel," 1859-1895; 10/27/1859; 1/1/1864; 10/15/1870; 12/3/1870; 3/27/1871; 4/7/1871; 3/4/1872; 4/17/1874; 4/12/1876; 5/26/1876; 6/9/1877 H. Ogden, Marion G. "Homes of Old Spring Street." Milwaukee: Hammersmith-Kortmeyer Co., 1944. I. Ogden, Marion G. "Homes of Old Spring Street." 2nd Edition. Milwaukee: Hammersmith-Kortmeyer Co., 1946. J. Smith Alice E. "Banking Without Banks: George Smith and the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 48 No. 4 (Summer, 1965), pp 268-281. K. "The National Cyclopedia of American Biography," Vol. l. New York: James T. White & Co., 1898, p. 362. L. Wilson, James Grant and Fiske, John, eds. "Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography," Vol. IV. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888, p. 342. M. Malone, Dumas, ed. "Dictionary of American Biography," Vol. XIII, New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1934, pp. 39, 40. O. Flowers, Frank. "History of Milwaukee." Chicago: Western Historical Co., 1881, pp. 1499-1500. P. Whitney, Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn. "Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (deceased)." Los Angeles: New Age Pub., 1956, pp. 423-24. Q. Latus, Mark and Mary Ellen Young, DOWNTOWN. Milwaukee (Milw. Landmarks Commission, 1978) p. 68, 119 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2/13/2000. MILWAUKEE HISTORIC BUILDINGS TOUR: KILBOURNTOWN, CITY OF MILWAUKEE DEPARTMENT OF CITY DEVELOPMENT, 1994. ZIMMERMAN, 178. OCTAGON HOUSES IN WISCONSIN, P. 4 Pagel, Mary Ellen & Virginia A Palmer, University Extension The University of Wisconsin, Guides to Historic Milwaukee: Kilbourntown Walking Tour, 1967.
RECORD LOCATION
Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, State Historic Preservation Office, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin

Have Questions?

If you didn't find the record you were looking for, or have other questions about historic preservation, please email us and we can help:

If you have an update, correction, or addition to a record, please include this in your message:

  • AHI number
  • Information to be added or changed
  • Source information

Note: When providing a historical fact, such as the story of a historic event or the name of an architect, be sure to list your sources. We will only create or update a property record if we can verify a submission is factual and accurate.

How to Cite

For the purposes of a bibliography entry or footnote, follow this model:

Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory Citation
Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, "Historic Name", "Town", "County", "State", "Reference Number".