DAY TRIP_Decor and more: Milwaukee mansion-turned-museum offers quite the sights to ‘sea’

May 29, 2019

At Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, it’s what’s inside that counts.

While the museum offers a great view of Lake Michigan, the sites to be seen inside its walls and halls are the real treasure – in fact, some of them are positively mythical. 

The Italian Renaissance-style villa, originally named Sopra Mare (“above the sea”), was built for the Smith family – Lloyd Agnes, and their six children – who moved in in 1923. Today, it’s ours to explore. Guests should come early and enjoy the museum at their own pace.

Let’s take a look around.

The Mercury Courtyard is on the first floor, open to the outdoors. It’s a cloister with a statue of Mercury, Roman messenger to the gods. The fleet-footed fellow replaced a fountain that stood in that spot before the family donated the home to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The Great Hall, which served as both a family room and a place to entertain, features two huge fireplaces, and on the west wall two oil paintings by Abram Poole (American, 1883-1961) depicting Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, and Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt.

In the dining room are chairs and a table designed by David Adler, the house’s architect, and in the library can be found Queen Anne wood paneling. 

Moving on, visitors will come to the Smith Gallery, which is now devoted to information about the family and the A.O. Smith Corp., which was founded in 1874 as a baby carriage and bicycle parts manufacturer and has since grown into the largest manufacturer and marketer of water heaters in North America. 

The gallery, which used to be the nanny’s room, features family pictures and home movies. 

Upstairs is the Zuber Gallery, which was the Smith’s eldest daughter’s bedroom. The wallpaper here is French and is classified as a work of decorative art. Be sure to take a look out the windows at Lake Michigan. 

The Dake Gallery is paneled in oak and modeled after a 17th-century manor house at Bromley-by-Bow in England. The manor was a hunting lodge for Henry II. Look up to see the work of Milwaukee artist Julian Orlandini.

The master bedroom has Greek key wallpaper, a master bathroom with a marble tub, and access to the north sleeping porch which features another view of Lake Michigan.

The museum displays rotating art exhibits as well as decorative art from its permanent collection. Before leaving, check out the 15-year-old Renaissance Garden. To truly get the feel of the garden and its sculptures, visitors need to get out and walk in it – just looking from the terrace won’t do. The garden open this year on June 2.

The museum offers some helpful tips for visitors. Something that shouldn’t be missed is the Cyril Colnik iron work, which dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his work that was part of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Visitors are fortunate to be able to tour Villa Terrace. It had a close call back in the 1960s when it was on the list of houses to be demolished on the avenue. Fortunately, it was spared and stands today as a great place to enjoy art and get to know the Smith family.

If you go …

What: Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and 1 to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday

Where: 2220 N. Terrace Ave., Milwaukee

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

Distance: About 147 miles from Dixon

Accessibility: Accessible to wheelchairs

Information: 414-271-3656 and villaterrace.org

Note: The museum is popular for weddings and special events, but remains open to the public with limited access. Calling before visiting is encouraged to avoid limited access times.

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