Preserving Our Past
A regular feature about the historically significant buildings in Whitefish Bay
The Claudia and Herman Uihlein House
5270 N. Lake Drive, Whitefish Bay, WI 53217
Dramatically sited on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in the village of Whitefish Bay, the Herman Uihlein house is an imposing limestone residence, characterized by classical detailing, ornate craftsmanship, and eclectic interior design. Constructed between 1917 and 1919, the exterior of the house reflects a monumental yet restrained classicism while the interior boasts a variety of period designs executed in lavish materials.
An architectural landmark in the village of Whitefish Bay since its construction in 1919s the Herman Uihlein house ranks among Milwaukee County's most significant examples of the classical tradition in early twentieth century residential design. Distinguished by an academic synthesis of Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts motifs, a lavishly ornamented interior, and the work of master craftsmen, the Uihlein house is an imposing suburban "villa", palatial in both conception and execution.
The formally balanced composition, highlighted by classical details- symmetrical fenestration and a monumental pavilion, was designed by Milwaukee architects Kirchoff and Rose and con¬structed of Bedford limestone 'from a single level of an Indiana quarry. Extensive and elabo¬rately crafted ornamental ironwork--including an intricate front doorway grille and a majestic stairway railing--were designed by master craftsman Cyril Colnik who reputedly spent three years completing the commission. The carefully detailed period interiors, executed in a variety of marbles, carved stone, and ornamental plaster, are embellished by the ornately carve1 woodwork of the Matthews Brothers firm, and are considered among the finest in the area. Interior fixtures of bronze, silver, and iron complement the richness of the design.
A reconnaissance survey conducted by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1980 identified the Uihlein house as the finest example of its type and period of construc¬tion in the village. Even when evaluated in the context of the county's lake shore estates, stretching from Milwaukee to Fox Point, the house is distinguished by its design, scale, setting, and interior. A guidebook to architectural resources in southeastern Wisconsin identifies the house as "one of the best built and most finely detailed" in the Milwaukee area. Indeed the outstanding craftsmanship exhibited on both the interior and exterior place this house in the first rank of "classical" homes of the period in Wisconsin.
Article from "Lakeshore Guide," April 1984:
"The stone was carved on the job site to avoid damage in shipment. The lavish interior was built with 8 different marbles, Caen stone with walnut doors and paneling, and ornamental plaster. The grand sweeping staircase in the main hall has an incredible wrought iron balustrade."
The architectural firm of Kirchoff and Rose designed frequently for the Uihlein family and their businesses; commissions included the former Second Ward Savings Bank building (now the Milwaukee County Historical Center), 1911-1913 (NRHP, 1973); the Tivoli Palm Gardens, 1901 (Walker's Point Historic District, NRHP, 1978); and the Paula and Erwin Uihlein house, 3319 N. Lake Drive, 1913. Formed in 1894 as a partnership between Charles Kirchoff ( - 1915) and Thomas Leslie Rose (1867 - 1935), the firm continued under the same name after 1915 when Roger Kirchoff succeeded his father upon the latter's death. Two years later, the firm accepted this commission.
The WFB Historic Preservation Commission has significant additional information regarding this residence. In addition, the current owners (Dr. Kailas and Mrs. Becky Rao) commissioned a book which provides numerous photographs that describe the residence.
This residence was designated as an official Whitefish Bay historic landmark in December 2006.
The first residence constructed in the "Pabst Whitefish Bay subdivision," the Herman Uihlein house was built on the former grounds of one of Wisconsin's great beer gardens." Captain Frederick Pabst established the Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort in 1888 as an eighteen acre pleasure resort offering recreation, fresh fish, band music, and, of course, Pabst beer. The resort was a popular retreat for nearby urbanites who traveled to the site on the streetcar lines which came from Milwaukee. But the appeal of the resort had faded by the twentieth century and in 1914 the complex was closed and the buildings razed.
In 1915, the Uihlein family purchased a lot near where the bandstand stood. Although suburban homes had already begun to dot the landscape, replacing farmland and changing the character of the old fishing village, the Uihlein house introduced a new scale to the village. Completed after three years of work, the house was larger and more pretentious than any earlier--or later-house in Whitefish Bay.
Herman Uihlein, son of long-time Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company president Henry Uihlein and, heir to a substantial family fortune, was not closely identified with the daily operation of the brewery, although he had served on the board of directors. Born in 1886, he graduated from Cornell University in 1908, studied law at Columbia for two years, and took his first job in 1911 when he was appointed president of the newly-formed Lavine Gear Company, a manufacturer of steering gears for trucks. Capitalized at $40,000, the firm had amassed $1,000,000 in capital by 1918, the year that Uihlein constructed his house. Uihlein served as president of the company (which later became known as the Ben-Hur Manufacturing Company) until his death in 1942 at the age of 52. In 1931, he became president of Manerlein Investment Company, a realty firm, and he also served as vice-president of the Sanitary Refrigerator Company in Fond du Lac. Together with his wife, the former Claudia Holt, Uihlein was a leading patron of the Milwaukee Philharmonic symphony orchestra. After Uihlein’s death, Mrs. Uihlein remained at the house until 1946 when it was sold to a real estate holding company.
In 1953, the mansion was purchased by the Milwaukee vice-province of the LaSalette Fathers, who used the building as a mission house for five priests and two brothers. In the late 1970s, the Grant C. Beutner family purchased the home. They sold the residence to Steve and Christiana Nicolet in 1988. The Nicolet’s spent a significant amount of money on maintenance and renovation, selling it the following year to Peter and Mary Buffett.
Peter Buffett is the son of Omaha billionaire Warrant E. Buffett, who controls Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a diversified holding company. Peter Buffett is a music composer and songwriter.
The Buffett’s sold the residence to Dr. Kailas and Mrs. Becky Rao, who carefully maintained and restored the property.
Dr. Rao was a founder, Chairman and President of Industar Digital PCS, a digital cellular telecommunications provider established in March 1995. Kailas later sold Industar to ATT Wireless in 2000. From April 1993 to July 1996 Kailas was a partner of Glaisner, Schilffarth, Grande & Schnoll, Ltd., the parent of GS2 Securities, Inc., an investment-banking boutique based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1981 Kailas founded Computer Bay, a retail computer company. By 1992 when Kailas sold Computer Bay, they had over 350 computer center franchises and resellers in 44 states and Canada. Kailas has a PhD in accounting from Oklahoma State University.
Mrs. Becky Rao holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sam Houston State University and a Master's Degree in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. Her professional career included four years as Administrative Assistant to the Honorable Leo H. Whinery, Presiding Judge of the Municipal Court of Norman, Oklahoma, and Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma. In addition, she was the Graduate Program Administrative Assistant to the Associate Dean, School of Nursing, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Rao’s sold the residence in 2007 to Tim Sullivan and his wife. Sullivan was former chairman and chief executive officer of Bucyrus International, manufacturer of mining company in Milwaukee. In early 2012, he was appointed by the Wisconsin Governor to a new position called “Special Consultant for Business and Workforce Development” for the state.
Born in Austria in 1871, Cyril Colnik studied ornamental ironwork in Vienna before coming to Chicago in 1893 to work at the German exhibit at the Columbian Exposition. The next year, he moved to Milwaukee and by the early twentieth century had established himself as the city's leading craftsman in ornamental ironwork. In addition to his work for the Uihlein house, Colnik did commissions for the Pabst, Trostel, and Allis families as well as "most of the millionaires" residing in Milwaukee. His decorative designs can still be seen in the Lloyd Smith house (now Villa Terrace Museum), 1923 (NRHP, 1974); the Frederick Pabst house, 1890 (NRHP, 1975); and other Milwaukee buildings. Examples of Colnik work (and some of his drawings) are included in the collections of the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Milwaukee Public Library.
Established in Milwaukee in 1857 by E. P. and A. R. Matthews, the Matthews Brothers Furniture Company (known after 1891 as the Matthews Brothers Manufacturing Company) remained a nationally recognized interior woodworking firm until the middle of the twentieth century. Although the firm's Milwaukee commissions included the Frederick Pabst house in addition to the Uihlein house, the company had a nationwide clientele, designing woodwork for the Allegheny County Courthouse, Pittsburgh; the Copley Plaza hotel, Boston; the Henry Ford house (Fair lane), Dearborn; the A. Ringling house, Sarasota; and the Palmer House hotel and Tribune Tower building, Chicago.
Note: Please respect the rights of private property owners when viewing this or any of properties listed in this column.
About "Preserving Our Past"
The Village of Whitefish Bay is a community of residential neighborhoods, punctuated with an attractive walking district of fine stores, excellent schools and vibrant houses of worship. It is filled with homes and other buildings that are architecturally rich, well-designed and maintained, and diverse in character.
Its residents have contributed much to the broad cultural, political, economic and social history of the area. And its residents are interested in maintaining their connections with an historic past.
To help maintain these connections, the Historic Preservation Commission is in the process of identifying buildings and historic sites that it believes may be architecturally significant or historic. On a weekly basis we will feature a building or site from our inventory.
- Archive: Read about the village's other historic buildings
- From the commission:
About our inventory and a request for help
- More more information: Historic designation application and procedures online
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