George Wiswell / Edward Gillen house, now for sale

Judith Zeng

Like so many beautiful Milwaukee homes, the English Tudor gem at 2701 N. Lake Dr. – which is for sale – has had a number of interesting residents.

Among them was Edward Gillen, whose company mastered the art of – among numerous other things – piling stones up to create Milwaukee’s breakwaters.

The house he occupied in the 1940s until his death in 1951 is made of stone, but it can hardly be described as a pile.

Built in 1895-6 at a cost of $6,000, the house was designed by George Bowman Ferry and Alfred C. Clas, the renowned Milwaukee architects of structures like The Pabst Mansion, Central Library, St. James Court Apartments and, in Madison, the Wisconsin Historical Society.


Two views of the entrance hall, above and below.

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Entrance
(PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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It’s clad in ashlar red sandstone quarried at the Prentice quarries in Ashland, and has ornate Gothic details and half-timbered gables.

In 1908, architect William Schuchardt designed a $10,000 addition to the west with a four-car garage and a small guest apartment above.

The home, built for Milwaukee Mutual Life Insurance Company executive and Republican political activist George Wiswell, it was among the earliest homes erected in the Prospect Hill Subdivision facing the then-new Lake Park.

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“Perhaps more influential in setting the architectural one for the future development of Lake Drive was the George Wiswell House,” notes the North Lake Drive Historic District Historic Designation Study Report.

“This Elizabethan Revival house with its rambling, multi-gabled, picturesque silhouette, and half-timbering is the earliest of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Revival style houses that would dominate architectural design on North Lake Drive in the twentieth century.”

Who was George Wiswell?

Born in LaFayette, in Walworth County, on July 19, 1852, George Nelson Wiswell was the son of Welsh immigrant farmers.

The youngest of the sons, young Wiswell was enlisted for farm work while his brothers were off fighting the Civil War. He attended school during winters in Elkhorn.

According to an obituary in the Milwaukee Journal, when Wiswell was 15 he began a four-year apprenticeship with a tinsmith, after which he started working at a hardware business in Elkhorn.

In 1873, he married Clara M. Perry and went back to farming and in 1886 opened a cheese factory on his property.

He launched a career in politics, winning the 1886 election for Walworth County Sheriff, an office he held for two years. The following year, President William Henry Harrison appointed Wiswell U.S. Marshall for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and he served in that role until 1893.

Next, he entered the insurance game, serving as general manager of Milwaukee’s Fraternal Alliance Life Insurance Company and then as president of Milwaukee Mutual.

At the same time, he was extremely active in Republican Party politics.

He was assistant sergeant-at-arms at two national party conventions– in 1888 and ‘92 – and in 1900 drew much acclaim for his work as sergeant-at-arms at the Philadelphia Republican National Convention at which Teddy Roosevelt was nominated as vice president on a ticket topped by the incumbent, William McKinley.

Back on Lake Drive, the Wiswell’s new house was the scene of their daughter Harriet Lou’s wedding to Walter Layfield O’Neill in July 1896, not long after the completion of the house. And it was quite an affair, earning a lengthy description in the pages of the Milwaukee Journal:

“One of the prettiest of the summer weddings was that of Miss Harriet Lou Wiswell to Walter Layfield O’Neill which took place last evening at 7 o’clock at the residence of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. George N. Wiswell, 609 Lake Avenue,” wrote the paper. “The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Otho Humphreys and the wedding couple stood under a canopy of smilax festooned from the bay window to the chandelier. The decorations in the parlor were white sweet peas and asparagus ferns and roses of all colors, which were gifts to the bride. The decorations in the dining room were red, with red sweet peas with ferns and the centerpiece of the table was American Beauty roses.

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The bay window and chandelier from with the smilax was hung at Miss Harriet Lou Wiswell’s 1896 wedding. (PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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“The bride wore a gown of white silk and carried a bouquet of white sweet peas. Her bridal veil was fastened with orange blossoms. The bride was attended by Miss Minnie O’Neil as maid of honor and by four bridesmaids, the Misses Lillian Ferguson, Minerva Ellsworth, Rosalie Morefield of Elkhorn and Agnes Seabrease of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and two little flower girls, Jean and Margaret Wiswell, sisters of the bride. The bridesmaids were attired in gowns of white organdie and carried bouquets of pink sweet peas. Ludington Patton was best man. Miss Rosalie Morefield was the fortunate young lady who caught the bride’s bouquet when it was thrown. At the reception Mrs. Frank Hall Cottrill and Miss Julia Davis presided at the table in the dining room. Others assisting were Mrs. James. H. Turner, Miss Mildred Ormsby, Miss Alice Blanchard and Miss Bates of Racine.”


If that weren’t enough detail, the Journal also listed the names of all the wedding guests.

Dining room
The dining room. (PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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Sadly, on Jan. 10, 1902, less than two years after the glory of the Philadelphia convention, the Wiswell home hosted another ceremony, this one considerably more somber: a memorial for owner George Wiswell.

“A large concourse of friends assembled at the home of the late George N. Wiswell, 609 Lake Drive, this morning at 10:30 o’clock to pay their last respects,” wrote the Journal. “In the library, the walls being almost hidden by the various floral offerings from the different clubs, lodges and business organizations to which the deceased belonged. … The Rev. C. S. Lester of St. Paul’s officiated, a quartette from Immanuel Church, of which Mr. Wiswell was once a member, rendering Lead, Kindly Light and Rock of Ages.

“The funeral party left the Union Station at 12:15 in the cars Richwood and Okauchee, which were attached to the regular train. Many of the political and business friends of Mr. Wiswell who were in town for the funeral went to Elkhorn. Fifty-six members of the uniformed rank of Knight Templars and a delegation from the consistory also went. The train arrived in Elkhorn at 2:30 o’clock and the body of Mr. Wiswell will lie in state at the court house.”

Wiswell was buried in his family plot at Elkhorn Cemetery.

Judge Frank M. Fish

Wiswell’s widow sold the home to Racine native and circuit court judge Frank M. Fish.

In 1902, Fish had left his position at the Racine firm of Fish & Gillen (formed that same year with City Attorney Martin Gillen) to move his family to Beaumont, Texas, where, according to a newpaper report, “he ha(d) interests in property on which are paying oil wells.”

But by 1904 Fish was in Milwaukee, where he was president of the Badger Long Distance Telephone Co., which was one of about 300 independent Wisconsin phone companies working with the new U.S. Telegraph and Telephone Comany, joining a new network that was expected to connect as far east as Boston, as far south as Galveston and at least as far west as Omaha, if not farther.

Fish, however, died in 1908 at age 50, before the telephone really became ubiquitous.

The Prescotts, sawmill moguls

The home was sold to Fred M. Prescott, who had moved to Milwaukee in 1904 from his home in Menominee, Michigan, where he worked in the family business.

Born Sept. 30, 1863 in Denver, Prescott was the son of the colorfully named DeWitt Clinton Prescott, who had founded the Prescott Co. in 1867, manufacturing and repairing sawmills. Five years later, the elder Prescott bought out his partners and started the Marinette Iron Works Co., which continued to make sawmill machinery, but expanded into steam engines, locomotives, car wheels and mining equipment.

In 1890, the family moved to Wisconsin, near Duluth, but his company tanked during the financial panic that year and Prescott relaunched the Prescott Co., moving to Chicago in 1898 and the next year to Menominee.

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It was the younger Prescott who built the large addition (which you can see in the photo above), but within five years, he continued the family tradition of moving on and the house was listed for sale, with a note that read, “Continued absence from the city renders this home unnecessary to the owner and the disposal of it desirable.”

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A Nov. 30, 1913 real estate display advertisement described the home:

“Those who know this location know it to be one of the most charming residence spots in Milwaukee’s fashionable residence district. Beautiful Lake Park, maintained forever at public expense, is yours, as it is directly opposite. The panoramic views of Lake Park – of the majestic Lake Michigan and the glorious Milwaukee Bay are unequaled anywhere in the state. The interior of this homestead is a real home. The quiet refinement of every detail is indeed impressive. Three commodious tiled bathrooms, vacuum cleaner and every modern convenience is available. A three car capacity garage, fully equipped with tanks, washracks, etc., etc., is an incidental of this complete homestead.”

The Wahls

The next resident appears to have been Natalie Rice Wahl, the widow of George Henry Wahl, who died in 1900.

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Natalie Rice Wahl’s The Badger yearbook photo.

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Wahl, the son Forty-Eighters who fled Germany after the failed revolution of 1848, had briefly been a public school teacher before studying law in Madison and opening a firm with Emil Wallber, a future judge and mayor of Milwaukee. (It’s unclear if Wahl was related to Christian Wahl, for whom nearby Wahl Avenue is named.)

Wahl arrived by 1915 – potentially as early as 1913 – and remained until 1922.

In her 40s, Rice Wahl had just earned a degree in letters and science at Madison and alongside her yearbook photo in “The Badger” is her motto: “It is never too late to learn.”

Abraham Saltzstein, civic leader

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A.L. Saltzstein. (PHOTO: Jewish Museum of Milwaukee)

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It’s unclear how long Wahl remained in the home, but she was still there in 1917. By 1925, however, she’d been replaced by A.L. Saltzstein, an insurance man just like the home’s original owner.


Saltzstein – whose name was Abraham Louis, but was always referred to in newspapers by his initials – was born in Plock, Poland in 1867. He went to Washington, D.C. in 1884, where he married Fannie Cohen.

He arrived in Milwaukee in 1896 as an agent for Templar Insurance Company and four years later became the general agent for Wisconsin of The New England Mutual Life Insurance Co. That was a position he would hold until his death 47 years later, at which point he was both the oldest and the longest-tenured in his position at the company.

Well-known and respected in insurance circles around the country, Saltzstein was also extremely active in civic and Jewish causes.

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In 1902, he was among the founders of the Federated Jewish Charities and the following year Saltzstein became president of the Hebrew Relief Society. In 1904 he proposed creating a loan bureau for poor people, hoping to prevent them having to deal with loan sharks.

He served on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which aided Jews around the world, Hebrew College and of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In 1926, he was Wisconsin chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, raising a record amount that year.

In 1929, he went to Switzerland to help found the Jewish Agency for Palestine.

Saltzstein also served as president of Temple Emanu-El-B’ne Jeshurun.

It was presumably in one of those roles that, in 1914, he went to Rome with Milwaukee Italian Consul Erminio Conte for an audience with the Pope at Vatican City, and a tour of Italy, France and England. A decade later he visited Palestine and gave public lectures on the subject when he returned to Milwaukee.

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Presumably to downsize, Saltzstein and his wife moved to the Shorecrest Hotel in 1946 and sold the house to Edward Gillen.

Edward Gillen, builder of Milwaukee

Gillen was, and remains, a well-known name in the construction and marine worlds in Milwaukee (and beyond), as his eponymous company has, for more than a century, built docks, seawalls and bridges, towed boats, dredged waterways and driven piles for the construction of buildings like the Plankinton Arcade, the 1930 Northwestern Mutual addition on East Wisconsin Avenue and brewery structures for Miller, Pabst and Schlitz.

Gillen built slips for carferrys like the Milwaukee Clipper  in Milwaukee, Muskegon and Ludington, as well as the Kilbourn Avenue Bridge in Milwaukee and the State Street Bridge in Racine. It also constructed Lock No. 5 on the Mississippi River and a levee near Kansas City.

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Building a dock on Commerce Street, 1929. (PHOTO: Gillen Marine Construction)

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Dock and bridge runway construction, Menomonee Valley, 1929. (PHOTO: Gillen Marine Construction)

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The company built docks on Commerce Street, structures in the Menomonee Valley and, on Jones Island, the bulkheads and foundations for the sewage treatment plant and a 1951 tanker pier.

Edward E. Gillen was born in Racine in on Dec. 30, 1878. His Ohio-born father, also named Edward, was born in Ohio and arrived in The Belle City in 1861, where he worked in marine construction.

Edward Jr.  ditched dental school at Marquette University for his father’s marine construction business and in 1910, he launched his own marine construction company in Milwaukee and brought his brother Harry up from Racine to join him in 1917.

According to one newspaper article, Gillen’s company “developed harbors and rivers along Lake Michigan shore. He was one of the pioneers in the construction of rubble mound breakwaters on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He originated the use of self-unloader boats for laying the stone cores of breakwaters.”

He and his Chicago-born, Racine-raised wife Mae (O’Laughlin) lived at the Lake Drive home for just a few years when Gillen fell victim to asthma and heart problems and died in 1951 at the age of 72.

The Gillens had no children and Edward left his entire estate to Mae. His brother, Harry, had passed away 15 years earlier. Mae was an experienced businesswoman who by 1921 was secretary and treasurer of her family’s quarry business – Waukesha Lime and Stone Company –  which like Gillen still exists.

Living room
The living room.

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I asked Jullane Jackson of Gillen Marine Construction about what happened to the ownership upon Mae’s passing.

“My grandfather, Andrew E. Jackson started accumulating company shares from Mr. Gillen starting in 1945 through 1953,” she said. “ Edward Gillen’s estate passed the shares to Mae in 1953.  In 1960, her estate passed  the remaining shares to my grandfather, Andrew Jackson. My grandfather started with Mr. Gillen right out of MU as an engineer.”

Mae, in the meantime, listed the house for sale the year after her husband’s death, sparking a number of sales and residents over the next 15 years. A 1952 display ad for the home offered a photo and a terse description: “Estate offers beautiful compact older home at an incredibly low price. Excellent condition and construction. Immediate possession. Consult.”


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Mae moved to Cudahy Tower, where she died in 1959.

The Kissingers

In 1966 the Kissinger family moved in, breathing life into the house again.

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The Kissinger family on the stairs. (PHOTO: Courtesy of the Kissinger family.)

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John Kissinger, who is CEO of the design, engineering and architecture firm GRAEF, which has its stunning offices in the former Grand Avenue Mall food court, was 9 and lived there until 1980, when he was 22 and says his family remained there until 1983.

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The Riverside float in the driveway. (PHOTO: Courtesy of the Kissinger family.)

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“I remember painting the house with my dad and brother and erecting scaffolding, breaking up and removing giant old cast iron furnace in basement, having a clubhouse in the old coal bin in the basement, climbing on the roof and watching people leave lakefront fireworks, watching bike races go past our house in Lake Drive, my sisters and their friends making Riverside high float in our driveway.”

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And, he says, he had a party there in honor of his wedding in 1980, reprising that classic moment in the house’s first year of existence.

“We just had a party there,” he says, “(but) my brother Bill was married in the house.”

Wiswell’s house today

These days, the house is back on the market, or soon to be.

I got a look inside after its current owner, a designer and adjunct member of the MIAD interior architecture and design faculty, moved to a new place.

It felt a little moving to stand in the dining room and see the bay window and chandelier from which the canopy of smilax was hung for Miss Harriet Lou Wiswell’s 1896 wedding.

Moving, too, to stand in the library – with its built-in bookshelves and gorgeous plaster ceiling, which suffered water damage from a bathroom above and was repaired at great expense by the Kissingers – and imagine the friends (including neighbor Edward Cowdery, whose home I wrote about recently) mourning the passing of the home’s building George Wiswell six years later.

Library
(PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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But it’s easy to see why so many have lived in and loved the home, which manages to feel both intimate and grand at the same time.

The entry and grand staircase are beautiful, as are the fireplaces in the parlor and library and the built-ins in the dining room.

The kitchen has been modernized and the current owner just recently installed a large, bright, useful laundry room upstairs.

There’s a lot of space – a few feet shy of 6,000 square feet –  including six bedrooms, five and a half baths (including one with a vintage claw-foot tub), spacious servant’s quarters and likely a former ballroom on the third floor, plus that four-car garage and apartment above.

Kitchen
The modern kitchen. (PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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Wine cellar
Wine cellar. (PHOTO: Redmonds Architectural Marketing)

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In the basement, there’s a wine cellar, and tucked away out of the public eye outside is a pool.

The yard isn’t huge, but with the landmark Olmsted-designed Lake Park literally a few steps out the front door, that would hardly seem to matter.

The home is certainly as lovely as you’d expect a Ferry & Clas-designed place to be, but part of its charm is the pantheon of interesting Milwaukee folks who have lived their lives inside.

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