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DAY TRIP – Allises’ wonderland: The search for 1,000 faces starts with one step into a Milwaukee art museum

May 3, 2019

MILWAUKEE – More than 100 years ago, Charles and Sarah Allis formed a union that brought amazing art from all over the world to Milwaukee.

The couple never had children, but their passion for culture did give birth to one of Milwaukee’s finest art museums. The Allises built a home for themselves and their collection with the idea of eventually giving it all to the people of Milwaukee. Thus was born the Charles Allis Art Museum, their home sweet home that was finished in 1911 and today has become a home for art and history lovers alike.

The Allises turned to a prominent local architect, Alexander Eschweiler, to design their mansion in an English Tudor style.  

The mansion has a fireproof construction made with a poured concrete framing.

Charles wasn’t able to enjoy his mansion for long. The industrialist died in 1918, but his wife lived for nearly 30 more years, living in the mansion until her death in 1945. The museum was a part of the Milwaukee County Public Library System from 1957 to 1978 when it served as an art library. The home remains essentially unchanged from how it looked in 1979, when it was turned over to Milwaukee County and officially made an art museum.

Visitors enter the museum  through the Gerald Landt Lobby, which started out as the coach house, original for Charles and Sarah’s horse and carriage. It wasn’t long though until the Allises had their first automobile, a Pierce Arrow.

Between the lobby and the Great Hall, both of which were built in 1998, is the Richard E. Krug Foyer. Krug, the director of the Milwaukee Public Library from 1941-74, accepted the house and collection in 1947 on behalf of the city and moved the library’s art collection to the museum. 

The Margaret Fish Rahill Great Hall is designed to resemble a Tudor banquet hall and is named in honor of the first curator.

Now we can take a look at the mansion itself and the artwork on display. The first stop is the marble hall, which was originally the front entrance where the couple would welcomingvisitors. Four kinds of Italian marble cover the floor and walls. In the marble hall, look for the Japanese vase of a thousand faces, the most popular piece in the collection, according to the museum. Guests can examine the vase to see the distinct faces. Also of particular interest are the oil paintings of Winslow Homer, George Inness and Theodore Rousseau.

The dining room is ready to receive guests. Look for the marble fountain by the south window, which came from Paris, and note the 16th-century Chinese teakwood fire screen by the fireplace. Venetian lace covers the table.

The enclosed porch is next. It originally served as the home’s original entrance. The porch is made of Lake Superior sandstone and features a bronze front door.

The marble staircase will catch the eye. Its banister is made of mahogany, the steps of Italian marble and the balustrade of bronze. Museum information says there is a short proportion of tread to riser on the steps, which makes the stairs almost effortless to climb. We can thank Eschweiler for this work.

In the oak-floored French parlor most of the furnishings are, fittingly enough, French. Throughout the room are a Louis XV secretary, Louis XIV chairs and a Louis XV desk. 

The library follows with its mid-19th-century Hudson River School artwork. Painters featured are Ralph Albert Blakelock, George Inness, Thomas and Edward Moran and John F. Murphy. Note the Honduran mahogany woodwork and the Lake Superior sandstone fireplace.

Upstairs, the tour continues with Charles’ bedroom. His bed is carved mahogany, and the pillow shams and bedspread once belonged to his mother, Margaret. The oldest piece in the room is a fifth-century B.C. Greek krater, once used to mix water and wine.

In Sarah’s bedroom is a group of watercolors by Bruno Ertz (1873-1956), a Milwaukee artist.

Sarah also has a sitting room, a bathroom and a dressing room. In her sitting room, a Tiffany lamp sits on a desk. Pay attention to the 19th- and early-20th-century Harper’s Weekly magazines in bound volumes.

In the lowest level of the mansion, visitors will find the Charles’ billiards table, along with a bowling lane and a wine cellar. A bathroom with the original spa shower is also there.

There are also surprises to look for, things visitors might not expect to see – an etching by Albrecht Durer and the gold leaf on the ceilings of the French parlor and dining room, to name a few. 

No matter where you look, you’re bound to see the Allises’ love of art that turned a home into a museum, and brought a world of culture to their doorsteps. 

If you go …

What: Charles Allis Art Museum

Where: 1801 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 1 to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday (special events may affect these hours)

Entrance: Through the coach-house door on the Royall Place driveway

Cost: $10 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and old with identification, for students and active military personnel; free for children 12 and younger; free on the first Wednesday of the month

Distance: About 147 miles from Dixon

Accessibility: Accessible to wheelchairs

Information: 414-2778-8295 or charlesallis.org

Parking: The museum does not have off street parking. Street parking is available, so come with change or download the city’s parking app before arrival.