When Sarah and Charles Allis decided to build a home that would eventually become a public museum, they turned to Alexander Eschweiler — a prominent local architect — to design it. The resulting mansion is strongly influenced by the English Tudor style. Construction began in 1909 and was completed in 1911.
The billiards room located in the basement of the home once contained Charles’ billiards table, one lane of bowling, and the mansion’s wine cellar. Off the room is a full bathroom featuring the original spa shower.
Originally, this space functioned as the Allis’ front entrance hall, where visitors to the mansion were received before meeting with the Allises. The Marble Hall’s name derives from the four Italian marbles covering the walls and floor. Marble craftsmen from Italy were brought over to install it. The use of marble in the entrance deviates from the traditional Tudor-style entryway. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is covered with coved plaster embellished with a pattern highlighting the Tudor rose motif. All of the doorways leading from the Marble Hall are leaded-glass pocket doors.
There is a marble fountain in front of the south window of the Dining Room that was purchased at an exhibition in Paris. It’s dated sometime between 1875 and 1900. The fountain was plumbed and fully functional, and is signed by the artist. The original operating instructions are included in Charles’ correspondence with his dealers and include detailed drawings. To the south of the fireplace stands a sixteenth-century Chinese teakwood screen. It has twelve cloisonné panels, reading from right to left, depicting the months of the year. (See more on the Collection Highlights page.) The Dining Room table, chairs and buffet are Queen Anne style. The table is covered with Venetian lace, an example of the Allis’ extensive linen and lace collection, which is stored in the Flemish linen chest in the southwest corner. Above the table is a chandelier created by Caldwell and Company of Philadelphia. Caldwell was as renowned as Tiffany in terms of household lighting fixtures and adornments. The company also manufactured the mica screen in front of the marble fireplace, which is said to be designed by Charles. The Dining Room’s woodwork is Honduran mahogany.
This is the original entrance to the Allis’ home. The front door is made of bronze and the enclosed porch is walled with Lake Superior sandstone. The sandstone was chosen to create passive heat retention in this outer vestibule. The woodwork is quarter-sawn oak. On display are two baptismal fonts. The one on the east end is Byzantine and decorated with lambs. The other font, on the west end, is of Roman design, indicated by the relief of St. Peter and the upside-down cross. While each font comes from a different era, they share similar mosaic patterns, and each is adorned with lions.
The banister is made of mahogany, the balustrade is bronze, and the steps are Italian marble. The short proportion of tread to riser on the steps was a trademark of Alexander Eschweiler and makes the stairs almost effortless to climb. This shortened stair riser suited the petite stature of Sarah quite well. The Tudor rose motif is repeated in the windows on the stair landing, as are the muted colors of the Marble Hall. The windows were made by the Milwaukee Glass Company from Charles’ design. At first, he commissioned Louis Tiffany to design the windows. Ultimately, he felt that their design was too ornate and detracted from the elegant simplicity of the Marble Hall. The original proposal by Tiffany is in the collection and can be seen in the second-floor built-in wall display case just outside Sarah’s bedroom entrance. On the landing is a fountain made to order for Charles by a Roman craftsman. It is a replica of the Renaissance fountain located in Rome designed by the architect Giacomo della Porta. The dealer, G. Sangiorgi, who oversaw the production of the fountain, was very proud of the piece and wrote that this was a work of art in itself, reproduction or not. He then asked for a small additional payment for his trouble, as he had the bronze figures remade because he was not satisfied with the first attempt. There is no indication whether Charles complied with his request. At the top of the stairs on the south wall hang two exceptional paintings by Winslow Homer, one of the most famous American landscape and seascape painters. These are among the most treasured pieces in the collection. There is quite a contrast in styles between the two paintings. The watercolor depicting a fisherman and girl in a rowboat is thought to be from his later years when he lived at Prout’s Neck, Maine where he painted the seascapes for which he is best known. The other is an oil painting and does not emphasize the human aspect, but is instead focused on the elements of nature itself. (See more on the Collection Highlights page.)
The majority of artwork and furniture in this room is of French origin. The room contains two Louis XIV chairs, and a Louis XV secretary made of tulipwood with ormolu mountings (gilt bronze made to represent gold) and topped with Italian marble. Next to the secretary, there is a Louis XV desk decorated with gold leaf. Finally, in the corner, there is a mahogany Louis XVI table with ormolu mountings and a marble top. Between the Louis the XIV chairs is an inlaid marble topped table commissioned by Sarah and built around the medallion she received as a gift. The piano is Sarah’s 1890 mahogany Steinway. The paintings in this parlor are from artists of the Barbizon School. Barbizon was a small French village on the outskirts of the Fontainebleau Forest, which a small group of artists flocked to in the mid-nineteenth century. Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, Charles François Daubigny, Constant Troyon, and Jules Dupre represent the Barbizon School here. They strove for naturalism and a truer portrayal of the countryside. Other French painters on display here are Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Eugène Fromentin, and Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. (See more on the Collection Highlights page.) On the northwest wall next to the fireplace is a collection of animal bronzes from the mid-nineteenth century by famed Parisian sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye. (See more on the Collection Highlights page.) The fireplace in the French Parlor is Italian marble. Atop the mantle sits a gilt bronze Empire clock. The room itself has walls covered with gold silk damask, which is stretched over the walls, almost like a canvas. The east wall holds two bronze sconces, which bear the Tudor Rose. The woodwork is Circassian walnut and the floors are oak. (Circassia is a region in the southeastern part of Russia.) The ceiling is coffered and covered in gold-leaf shades. Draperies, a Persian rug and a gold settee were added after the mansion became a museum.
The artists represented in the Allis library are all mid-nineteenth century Hudson River School artists who celebrated the American landscape and painted it with a sense of awe and majesty. The painters are George Inness, brothers Thomas and Edward Moran, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and John F. Murphy. Inness is known for the smoothness he imparts to his tamed countryside landscapes. The Morans had a special talent for painting light, with Edward known for his maritime paintings and Thomas his paintings of the Rocky Mountains. The self-taught Blakelock sold paintings in his day that fetched the most any American painter received for his artwork. This led to many Blakelock forgeries, and he still may be the most forged artist in America. (See more on the Collection Highlights page.) The French quatrefoil (meaning four-leaf) cabinet is finished with seven layers of lacquer and houses various Japanese netsukes (from the Japanese “ornament for fastening”) and ivory boxes from the 17th century. Netsukes are small intricate carved toggles, which were used to fasten a small stack of boxes to a kimono sash, as kimonos had no pockets. The Japanese had strict rules of dress forbidding ostentation. However, the netsukes were excluded from these rules and became a means of conveying status. Many of them displayed here are very elaborate in their carving and are signed by the carver. The boxes served as “purses” for the men, holding smoking materials or writing instruments. The bookcases are filled with Charles’ art books, sets of encyclopedias, and many first editions. Nestled in the corner is a built-in desk, which was quite innovative for the time. The woodwork in the Library is Honduran mahogany, and the fireplace is Lake Superior sandstone. The walls are covered with a port-wine colored, embossed Lincrusta-Walton wall covering — touted as the first washable wall treatment. To the east, through the French doors, is a small outdoor porch.
Object: A Glimpse in the Forest of Fontainebleau | Artist: Díaz de la PeñaView Item in Collections
Object: Pasture in Picardy | Artist: RousseauView Item in Collections
Object: The Apple Orchard | Artist: DaubignyView Item in Collections
Object: Three-Legged Table with Medallion Top | Artist: UnknownView Item in Collections
In the entrance area, there is a display of Greco-Roman terracotta and ceramic antiquities. The correspondence with the dealer who sold Charles some of the terracotta is amusing. He tells him that if any arrive in Milwaukee broken, they can easily be repaired using liquid glue. One of the oldest pieces is a fifth-century B.C. Greek krater, a vessel that would have been used to mix wine and water at symposiums. Leon Marcotte, a French-American furniture maker, made Charles’ carved mahogany bed. The bedspread and pillow shams are Battenberg lace and belonged to his mother Margaret. Margery Norris Duke, Charles’ great niece and the second president of the Friends of Charles Allis, donated the lace to the museum. Sarah and Charles also collected quantities of lace and textiles, for which the museum retains the dealers’ correspondence. The room contains more Hudson River School paintings by William Trost Richards, Homer Dodge Martin, and Alexander Wyant. On the south wall are more paintings by Blakelock. On the north side of the room next to the bed, there is a bronze bear sculpture, resting on a table of petrified wood. The sculpture was purchased at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. (Charles’ father, Edward Phelps Allis, was the lead electrical engineer for this exhibition, and the 3,000 horsepower Reynolds Corliss steam engine the company installed in Machinery Hall powered 20,000 lamps and was switched on by President Grover Cleveland.) To the east is an inlaid marble table, made of red porphyry stone, with mosaic stone inlays. The base is made of ebony and gilt wood, and is probably of Italian origin.
Sarah’s bedroom features a collection of watercolors by Milwaukee artist Bruno Ertz (1873–1956) depicting butterflies, insects, and birds. As he aged, he lost his eyesight and therefore used a magnifier to paint in his later years. One can conclude from this that his more detailed paintings were done earlier in his career.
A small sitting room is flanked by Sarah’s bathroom to the east, and a dressing room to the west. To the south, on top of the double-sided desk, is a Tiffany lamp made of bronze and Favrile glass lily shades. Favrile glass is a type of iridescent art glass developed and patented in 1894 by Louis Tiffany. The sitting room also contains Sarah’s nineteenth and early twentieth-century Harper’s Weekly magazines in bound volumes, as well as books on local and regional history.
The Gerald Landt Lobby, which now serves as the museum’s entrance, originally served as the coach house. Charles and Sarah’s first conveyance was horse and carriage. Originally, front steps leading off the dining room porch were used for the purpose of getting in and out of their carriage, avoiding the interior of the coach house altogether. Sarah and Charles believed in modernization, and fairly soon after moving into their residence they bought their first car, a Pierce Arrow. This modernization brought changes to the coach house, which was soon converted to a garage with turntable. Because cars during this time were not yet fitted with reverse gears, the turntable allowed the driver to pull into the garage, rotate the car on the platter, and drive out again on their next voyage. The renovation of the Allis coach house into a museum entrance was designed by David Uihlein as part of the Great Hall addition in 1998. It was a gift of the Jane and Lloyd Pettit Foundation in honor of Wisconsin painter Gerald Landt.
The Richard E. Krug Foyer is located between the Landt Lobby and the Great Hall. It was the gift of Mrs. Lucile Krug, and named after Richard Krug, the former director of the Milwaukee Public Library, who represented the city in accepting the house and its contents in 1947. He devised the idea of using the house as an art library and moved Milwaukee Public Library’s art holdings to the mansion, supplementing Charles and Sarah's extensive collection of art references. The lobby, like the Great Hall, was built in 1998.
The Margaret Fish Rahill Great Hall was built in 1998 and is named for the museum’s original curator, Margaret Fish Rahill. A portrait of her hangs in the space. Over $1,400,000 was raised from the public to erect the Great Hall. It is styled after a Tudor banquet hall to complement the design of the home, and was designed by architect David Uihlein.