Although a large percentage of Milwaukee’s population was German, surprisingly few chose to build in their “contemporary” national style. Called German New Renaissance” by the family, it was a modern blend of traditional forms created from new materials and in daring new compositions. Here in one structure we can see medieval Gothic buttresses, fachwerk (timbered) gables, the jerkin-head roofs of medieval farmhouses, and the stone-trimmed ornamental gables of the Renaissance.
The story behind three architects and their complex interrelationships sheds much light on the reason behind Gustav Trostel’s selection of this style.
Adolph Finkler, who had studied in Ausburg and Munich and later practiced his profession in Chicago was the architect of record. He married Gustav’s sister, Ida Trostel, and within three years had joined the family tannery in the sales department. He went on to become secretary-treasurer of Albert Trostel & Sons and probably earned many times the income he could have expected as an architect. Finkler is known to have worked on this house and on an even more radical design for himself at Pine Lake (his own home followed the “Jugendstil” or German equivalent of Art Nouveau). Little else is known about the few pre-tannery years when he practiced architecture.
Hans Liebert, a German-born architect, collaborated with Finkler on the design of Gustav’s house. This is the only Milwaukee project he is known to have worked on. Later he moved to Michigan’s copper country and, when the boom subsided there, left for Chicago. He was a well-known pianist, but little knowledge survives of his architecture. Hans was drawn into this job through a relationship established by his brother Eugene. Eugene’s first employment in the United States had been with the Trostel tannery in 1883. He later became the favorite architect of the wealthy Germans here. He designed churches for German speaking congregations, an office building for a German language publishing dynasty (Germania), and mansions for such local millionaires as Henry Harnischfeger, John Schroeder, George Brumder, and Fred Kraus. But Eugene Liebert’s greatest residential commission was a huge lakefront mansion for Gustav’s brother, Albert O. Trostel in 1907. Assessed at $346,000 in 1927, that estate was once the most valuable residential property in the city. For some unknown reason Eugene stood aside while his younger brother Hans and his brother-in-law Finkler designed Gustav’s mansion. He then became involved by designing the related 25′ x 35′ barn.
With few exceptions, the exterior is virtually the same as it was in 1899. The two open porches on the southeast corner have been closed in and a very large pair of winged gargoyles on the south gable rotted and had to be taken down. The crisp, clean lines of the exterior walls reflect not only the Germanic love for precision, but the rich complement of costly materials. The walls are veneered with slender brown pressed brick laid with narrow mortar joints. The front porch, and much of the other trim, is executed in precisely cut limestone. The basic materials are decorated with sheet copper, stained glass, false timber and stucco work, and a roof of red terra cotta pan tiles.
Cyril Colnik, Milwaukee’s celebrated master of wrought iron, executed many of the fine ornamental details on the Trostel mansion. His had-wrought porch balustrade closely follows the historic precedent of seventeenth century German grille-work. Elsewhere on the exterior he provided artistic tie rods, chimney braces, downspout brackets, and a richly ornamented front door grill which bears a cartouche with the initial “T” for its owner. Colnik’s gargoyles and scroll-work did not stop at the front door. He created an iron balustrade –much like those on the front porch — for the main staircase as well as many of the light fixtures and andirons throughout the house.
The principal rugs, predominantly in light green tints, were designed and handmade in Austria. They were complemented by a selection of more traditional orientals. The most elaborate room in the house is the baroque parlor. Unlike the bold black iron and oak treatment found elsewhere on the first floor, this room is trimmed in enameled woodwork and ornamental plaster/ Originally, when the wall panels were filled with pink brocade and the trim was white accented with gold, the effect was even lighter. Gone, too, are the original gilt rococo wall sconces and chandelier. A ceiling height fireplace, the room’s focal point, is still intact. Its firebox is framed with large onyx slabs and above the overmantel mirror is a fine, typical, rococo cartouche supported by a mustachioed man and flanked by a pair of life-sized cherubs.
The rest of the interior is more typically heavy handed German in design. Oak woodwork, wrought iron detailing, and bold proportions are the rule. Six foot oak wainscoting surround the dining room where a pair of large carved caryatid figures decorate the built-in sideboard.
A three-window complex of stained glass fills the east wall with color. The finely leaded windows are surrounded by colored roundels and include hand-painted heraldic escutcheons with Latin mottos. The most unusual features in the house are the two large fireplaces in the main hall and the dining room. They are constructed entirely of richly colored mojolica glazed tile. On the staircase landing is the strongest reminder of the house’s Geman influence: Here is a large stained glass window which depicts Queeen Louise of Prussia sitting in a garden. The second floor includes a sitting room, three bedrooms, and an office.
A large ballroom occupies almost the entire third floor. The children However, had their own use for that room and used it as an early counterpart of today’s recreation room, zooming around its fine hardwood floor on roller skates and bicycles. The tall mansion is high enough to also include a large attic space above the third floor. The Trostel’s modern mansion was so up-to-date that it was completely wired for electricity even though power was not yet available in that area. All of the lighting fixtures anticipated the future and were designed for both gas and electricity.
After Mrs. Trostel’s death in 1944, the home was sold and in that year minor alterations were made to convert it into a two family dwelling. In 2947 a garage was added to the northside. The only other significant change was when the “barn” was moved from the northwest corner of the lot to a spot nearer to Belleview Place. In what is now a completely filled neighborhood, it is interesting to recall the days when the lighthouse beacon shone in the second floor bedrooms of the Trostel mansion. And it is amusing that its location- once considered too remote — is now nearly eight miles INSIDE the city limits!
The history in the articles was taken from the Book: Magnificent Milwaukee 1850-1920 Architectural Treasures by H. Russell Zimmermann and published by the Milwaukee Museum.