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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Charles Allis Art Museum Enriches and Delights Milwaukee

Historic mansion celebrates a centennial

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The Pabst Mansion is a familiar local landmark from the era when Milwaukee was one of America's industrial capitals. Less well known, however, is another gem of the city's past, the Charles Allis Art Museum. A visit to this mansion-turned-museum is an intimate and engaging stroll through history, featuring in-house displays of art from the original Allis collection along with the works of contemporary Wisconsin artists.

Currently celebrating its centennial anniversary, the house was designed by acclaimed Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler for Charles and Sarah Allis. Charles Allis (1853-1918), the son of famous Milwaukee industrialist E.P. Allis, headed the Allis-Chalmers Co. for its first five years, as well as the Chicago Belting Co. Allis' abiding interest, however, was art connoisseurship. As current curator Martha Monroe puts it, "He built the house in order to build a collection."

Upon her death in 1945, Sarah Allis bequeathed the residence to the city of Milwaukee, which initially converted it to a library featuring art books. After it passed to Milwaukee County in the late 1970s, the house began its transformation into the unique historic and gallery space it is today.

The English Tudor-style mansion, indicative of the wealth and taste of its original owner, was intended as a "well-appointed home" where comfort, efficiency and a focus on art took precedence over ostentation. With these goals in mind, the house boasts several cutting-edge accoutrements of the time, including an ammonium freezer with ice cube racks, an automobile turntable in the garage, three-layered Cream City brick walls for fireproofing and a spa-like rib-cage shower. The customized Brunswick bowling alley in the basement is impressive even by today's standards!

Undeniably distinctive for its physical features, the house is also important, Monroe tells us, as a "historic document" of Milwaukee's social stratification. It is representative of the upper class' foothold on the shores of Lake Michigan, and its sharp interior divisions clearly separated the Allises from their servants. A marked decline in wealth was also apparent mere blocks west of the mansion in its heyday.

Currently featuring a multi-sensory exhibit titled "The Charles Allis: 100 Years," the museum encourages a dialogue between past and present. Six installations are spread throughout the house in furnished rooms that had not been used for contemporary art displays prior to Monroe's tenure. Particularly memorable is the collaboration between Martha Glowacki and Alexander Boyes to transform Charles' bedroom and bathroom into a haunted, provocative space full of skeletal curios and the echoing sounds of a derelict factory. The installations inspire reflection on the meaning of collecting, as well as the nature, relationship and consequences of art and industry. As Monroe notes, "Everything in a house museum is a compromise, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing."

The historic collection is fascinating as well. Currently on display are breathtaking watercolors by naturalist Bruno Ertz, as well as many paintings by prominent pastoral realists such as Adolf Schreyer and Eugene Verboeckhoven. The collection also features many exquisite examples of Chinese and Japanese porcelains and cloisonné, Japanese netsuke and bronzes by Antoine-Louis Barye.

The recent recipient of a prestigious Conservation Assessment Program (CAP)grantfrom Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the museum also hosts diverse events including lectures and film screenings. The Margaret Rahill Great Hall, patio and garden are likewise available for private functions. To book, call Katie Shorts at (414) 271-3656. Regular museum hours are 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Steeped in local history, the age-darkened brick mansion on Prospect and Royall continues to satisfy and surpass the purpose stated in Sarah Allis' will: "to enrich, educate and delight."

Selena Milewski is a writing-intensive English major at Marquette University and an A&E intern at the
Shepherd Express.
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