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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012

When Villa Terrace Was Home, Sweet Home

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Many Milwaukeeans know the Villa Terrace as an East Side decorative arts museum, but to the Smith family who occupied the grand villa, it was Sopra Mare, their home “above the sea.” OK, so it was above Lake Michigan.

There’s a small south-facing room on the main floor of the villa known as the Smith Gallery. On a sunny day it’s washed with golden light rippling over golden drapes sporting golden tassels. The walls are hung with text panels detailing Lloyd Raymond Smith’s lucrative career as a Milwaukee industrialist. His portrait and that of his wife (the mother to six kids) hang above the fireplace mantel. They look ever so young and attractive.

A DVD unreels on a television set. The room has but one chair. Take time to watch a series of home movies of the Smiths in their home, this home, where now you sit. Winter, spring, summer and fall, the home-movie home is lively with folks under the arches, on the curved stone stairs, and outside on the terrace riding tricycles in the summer and skating on its iced-over surface in the winter. Here comes Mr. Smith wrapped in a fur coat; another skater staggers toward the camera while holding onto a chair.

Images from 1927-1937 (and beyond) are set to the tunes of the times. For the girls: summery smocked dresses, white knee socks, patent-leather slippers. A boy sporting knickers speeds by in a wagon. A girl with a ribboned bob kicks a football. A woman dripping fox fur adjusts her cloche and smiles for the camera. There’s dad in his white straw hat with the black band, feeding ducks, geese and chicks with his lively brood, while a uniformed nurse stands by. The oldest boy, Robert Lewis Smith, dies at age 9, one year after the family moves to the Villa. And then there were five. In these images, Robert lives.

I’ve visited the Villa often, particularly in summer, but it seemed to cry out for a genuine family to fill the elegant spaces. In this room, in the year 2012 and beyond, the Smith family does just that, over and over, and over again. Life continues as if forever.  

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