Gilded Age Milwaukee Mansion the Link to Pabst, the Man

February 23, 2010


By Brian D’Ambrosio, Portal Wisconsin 

Esteemed for its cheap cost and blue-collar image, Pabst is the perennial favorite of college kids, country folk, and your average patriotic red-white-blue beer guzzler. Behind the legendary product, however, is the unique life of the forgotten Captain Frederick Pabst (1836-1904), an enterprising immigrant, a successful industrialist, and a fine philanthropist.            

Frederick Pabst emigrated from Germany in 1848 at the age of twelve with his parents. After they arrived in their new country, they traveled west to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, still a frontier town in 1848, was not to their liking and so they settled in Chicago. During the next two years, Frederick and his father made a living by working in various hotels and restaurants. He worked as a hotel waiter, then as a cabin boy on a Lake Michigan steamer, eventually becoming head of one of the vessels. By age 21, he had worked his way so far up the shipping trade hierarchy that Frederick Pabst became Captain, a title he affectionately retained until the day he died. In his riverboat travels, he met a German entrepreneur named Phillip Best, owner of a small Milwaukee brewery. After marrying the man’s daughter, Frederick came into partnership of the brewery’s operations. A few years later, Frederick bought out his father-in-law, and, in 1889, Best Brewing became Pabst Brewing Company. Soon the prosperous man needed a home fit for his needs and those of his family. He chose Grand Avenue in Milwaukee as that place, for it was an attractive, well-heeled, tree-lined thoroughfare with many great mansions. Construction began in the summer of 1890, and over the course of the following two years, the Pabst Mansion took ornate, extravagant shape, each room ingrained with Flemish style custom furniture, paneling, and panache.  At the time of its completion, in July 1892, the Pabst Mansion represented novel standards of modernity and sophistication in design. Since then, it has stood sentinel to Milwaukee’s history, tendering one of the few constants in its changing urban environment, surviving as the epitome of America’s Gilded Age splendor in that city.            

John Eastberg is the Director of Development at the Pabst Mansion, and a senior Pabst Historian. He started as a volunteer at the mansion more than 15 years ago. Since then he has learnt the details of every nook, cranny, cubbyhole, slot, ornament, and piece of artwork inside. “Up until the 1890s,” said Eastberg, “there really weren’t any major Flemish Renaissance Revival Style buildings like this in Milwaukee. This was an aberration and a trendsetter. It has the classic American gilded age interior that exemplifies the very best that European design had to offer. Here, we see everything from the artwork, furniture, paneling, and the compartmentalizing of rooms harmonizing with that style.”            

At several points, from the beginning of the 20th century onward, the Pabst Mansion has faced the unfortunate prospect of annihilation via the crashing thud of the wrecking ball. The Pabst heirs sold their family home in 1908 to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For sixty-seven years, five archbishops called the Pabst Mansion their home, preserving the house during urban renewal demolitions. “There were so many structures of the same character and caliber lining the streets here,” said Eastberg. “And this one is the only one left still intact with its original furnishings. Original furniture and family heirlooms are always filtering back to us. We just received armchairs from Mrs. Pabst’s sitting room.” At the time of his death, Captain Frederick Pabst had amassed a veritable brewing and real estate empire. He died on January 1, 1904, leaving the brewery to his sons. Eastberg says that Pabst was far more complex and multi-dimensional than simply being a wise business magnate; he was humbly devoted to his family, friends, and charitable works.            

“Frederick Pabst was known in his lifetime to be a very good person,” said Eastberg. “Many famous people in American history we come to learn are not-so-great people. He did great things for the community, his employees, and his family. As far as any gossipy stuff, he was a beer baron who drank a lot of wine. He may have even preferred it.”             Pabst Brewing Company closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, and now conducts operations out of corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago. The mansion exists today as one of Milwaukee’s great architectural landmarks, and towers as a prominent link to the Captain’s life and times, bridging three centuries in the process. While dignified, proud, and in remarkably good overall condition, certain rooms show inevitable signs of decay. The success or failure of tending to the Pabst Mansion, says Eastberg, has broader implications than whether or not Pabst enthusiasts have a fun destination for an eccentric road trip or not. The way we treat our historical sites, he says, is a good indication as to how we treat our community, and a building of this stature deserves vigorous attention.             “The restorations here never end,” said Eastberg. “It’s just like owning your own home, the work never ends. I know that the restoration projects here are complicated and expensive, but there’s no place that’s anything like this in the state – or anywhere else for that matter. It is definitely its own entity and destination.”  

Brian D’Ambrosio is the former Director of Development at the Pabst Mansion.


Let’s Go to the Film Festival?

February 16, 2010

An article earlier this month in the New York Times about the Sundance Film Festival, held annually in January, and about film festivals in general asked: Are they still necessary?

I think it’s a valid question, though I certainly hope the answer is yes. Or that they are at least still considered a pleasant and worthwhile way to spend a weekend. I am coordinating four film festivals this March and April here in Wisconsin.

Ghostbird film still

"Ghostbird," the movie, will screen at three of the Making it Home Film Festivals. See film information on the Making it Home Film Festival Website at

The festivals are called Making it Home, and they each will use a variety of films, from Wisconsin and around the world, to explore the many ways people and place affect one another. The first festival opens during Aldo Leopold days and the fourth and final festival takes place during the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The environmental themes of the Making it Home Film Festivals make it especially important to ask out loud: Should we all save the carbon output by staying home and ordering up movies on Netflix?

The Wisconsin Humanities Council strives to support strong communities with public programs that encourage the use of history, culture, and conversation. We understand that films are powerfully good at telling stories and giving people something to talk about. We also figured that communities around the state would enjoy seeing free films and that, considering the strong tradition of caring deeply about the Wisconsin landscape and its natural resources, Wisconsinites would be eager to see some of the latest, most exciting new films from filmmakers around the world.

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, which includes the annual festival and the Sundance Channel on cable, chooses to embrace technologies that allow people greater access to non-hollywood films. “Opening new vistas,” he is quoted as saying to describe his approach to the broad distribution of Sundance selections. He believes that the more access people have, the greater their overall appetite for independent film. The Making it Home Film Festivals draw from the Tales from Planet Earth Film Festival produced by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute in Madison.

Whats on your plate stars

The film "What's On Your Plate?" will screen at Making it Home Film Festivals, followed by family-friendly conversations about food! Film info at

Ultimately, the goal and the appeal of film festivals like Making it Home and Sundance is to bring folks together to spend some time sitting still, in a darkened theater, to share the experience of a well-told story. Because when people gather, and feel moved or inspired, they are inclined to turn to one-another, friends and strangers, to talk.

The Making it Home Film Festivals, organized by the Wisconsin Humanities Council with local partners in Baraboo, Dodgeville, Milwaukee, and the Chequamegon Bay (Ashland/Bayfield), have been designed by and for those communities. Films were selected and events planned specifically to meet the interests of the people living in those regions, making the drive downtown to the main street theater worth the time (and energy). And while you can go to the Making it Home Website and watch trailers for some of the films, as well as short films made by Wisconsin filmmakers that will be interspersed throughout the festivals, I would agree with the Sundance fans: Attending a film festival is a life experience for which there is no substitute.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Art Events Help Fight Winter Blues

February 8, 2010

I love Wisconsin during spring, summer and fall. Not so much during winter. Winter blues get the best of me. I have low energy when it is cold and it has been a struggle for me even to paint during last few weeks. In order to wake up from this winter apathy I decided to attend as many art-related events in La Crosse as possible. As soon as I surround myself with art and creative people, I feel better.

La Crosse offers a vibrant art scene. During last two weeks there were 6 different art opening receptions. Several new plays are showing in local theaters. Cold weather did not prevent art patrons and friends to attend these events. All events have been attended by a lot of art enthusiasts. I was particularly impressed by James Gill’s “Back in the World: Portraits of Wisconsin Vietnam War Veterans. ” This photographic exhibit runs at the Pump House regional Arts Center at 119 King Street, in La Crosse from January 27 through March 13, 2010. Especially touching are the short stories each veteran said about his/her experience. Those stories are mounted next to each photograph. It is hard to hold back tears when you read these words and then look at the photographed eyes.

If you can not plan a trip to La Crosse to see this wonderful exhibit be sure to check the following link: You may watch the interviews with the featured Veterans recorded for the Wisconsin Public Television documentary Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories. The documentary will be released in May.

In the conjunction with the exhibition, the Pump House has produced 5,000 Pounds: Seven Soldiers’ Stories, a new play detailing the lives and toils of seven soldiers in Vietnam in 1968. I plan to see it on Thursday, February 11. For more information please check:

–Martina Skobic

Bread to Drive For

February 7, 2010

by Joan Fischer

Have you ever eaten something so delectable that you felt slightly haunted ever after? So it was for me after trying fresh-from-the-oven bread—rustic peasant wheat, crispy yet moist baguette, foccacia with blue cheese and artichoke, and the best challah I have ever tasted—at an unassuming, you’d-drive-right-past-it bakery on Highway 14 in Arena. I’d stumbled upon it about a year ago and more recently decided I had to go back, despite a round trip of more than an hour.

“I’m the worst marketer in the world,” jokes owner Bob McQuade, 78. “The Shoppe: Herbs, Spices and More” is all you see on McQuade’s billboard, no mention of bread. But customers have been finding him anyway during his career as an executive chef (the former Spring Green Restaurant) and a master blender of herbs and spices that he sells to other chefs and home cooks (he did this as a booming wholesale business before semi-retiring 10 years ago). Jars and jars of them line a wall, most selling for 50 to 75 cents an ounce.

Especially popular with chefs and home cooks alike is a blend called Exotica, eight herbs and spices including coriander, juniper berries, thyme, onion, and garlic, which is especially good on roasted meat. Another favorite: Papa Bob’s Rib Rub. So original and bewitching are his seasonings that many chefs have purchased proprietary blends to serve as an exclusive signature for their dishes. Over the years his customers have included Madison’s legendary Ovens of Brittany, the Concourse Hotel, Food Fight, and the Edgewater Hotel.

In the shop he runs with wife Kate you’ll also find kitchen supplies (Berghoff knives, beautiful handmade maple cutting boards, ceramic serving dishes) and art. Yes, art. A large adjoining room is a gallery displaying work by local artists (John Sheean, Ed Wohl, Jean-Marc Richel) and exhibitions that change every four to six weeks. Nor do the café-style tables and chairs go to waste. Every Sunday people from the wider community gather for coffee and conversation over McQuade’s home-baked pastries. They call it “The Church of Sweet Rolls,” McQuade says. Visitors can also buy a selection of homemade frozen soups and sauces.

You can’t see a trace of it, but McQuade is half Italian. He learned cooking and baking from his mother and grandmother, who hailed from Sicily, and he and Kate have spent time with family there. They swoon over the food and know how to replicate it at home.

McQuade’s baked goods—which, in addition to bread, include biscotti, tirami su, and many kinds of cheesecake—are available at a few restaurants and other venues (examples: Convivio in Spring Green and Crossroads Coffee House in Cross Plains). His challah goes all the way to Bushel & Peck’s in Beloit. But if you’re at all in the area, you might as well drive straight to the source. You’re assured of delightful conversation and a very fragrant ride home.

The Shoppe at Herbs Spices & More
7352 Highway 14, Arena
Tel. 608-753-9000

Thurs. 10-5
Fri. 10-6
Sat. 10-5
Sun. 9-2
Closed Mondays
Open Tues./Wed. by chance

Rare Taliesin Images

February 3, 2010

When I was a boy I traveled often with my family to Spring Green to visit my great aunts. They lived in town and earned income from the family farm a bit north of the village. Not too far south of Spring Green — across the Wisconsin River in Iowa County — is Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and one of the most important works of art in Wisconsin. What we see today on the brow of the hill is merely the last and latest incarnation of Wright’s home and retreat. It has suffered from fire, harsh Wisconsin winters and, a few years ago, an oak tree that fell on part of the building. Taliesin was an ongoing experiment for Wright as he expanded and altered spaces up until his death in 1959.

Wright first built at Taliesin in 1911 and it was this structure that was so damaged in the murderous fire of 1914 that is recounted in Nancy’s Horan’s popular novel, “Loving Frank.” Sadly, few images of the original building exist.

In 2005 a rare album of photos appeared on eBay that Wisconsin historian Jack Holzhueter called “a Rosetta stone for the building.” In a matter of days, he helped pull together the money that allowed the Wisconsin Historical Society to purchase the album. You can read about that adventure here.

Through March 13, you can view images from the album at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square in Madison. Presented as framed reproductions in the first floor gallery, they are a wonderful collection including interiors, exteriors and landscapes. If you care about Wright, Wisconsin, history or art, it is well worth a visit.

–Michael Bridgeman