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Head down Milwaukee’s Museum Mile

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Story by Nancy A. Herrick

It’s called the Museum Mile, and within those 1,760 yards (or so) is a glimpse into some of the Milwaukee’s most fascinating history, culture and scenery.

Five of Milwaukee’s smaller (and lesser known) attractions, all located on Milwaukee’s East Side, joined forces earlier this year to market themselves to tourists and residents alike who might not be aware they even exist. They are billed as Milwaukee’s hidden museum jewels.

“We came up with the Milwaukee Museum Mile concept as a way to make people aware that the smaller venues of Milwaukee offer something special,” says John Sterr, marketing director of the Charles Allis Art Museum and coordinator for the Museum Mile.

The five offer special events from time to time with free admission and shuttle service between the locations, but discounts are offered each day they are open just by picking up a brochure at any of the locations. On Sept. 23 several of the museums will be open for Historic Milwaukee’s Doors Open event. (Information at

For more information on the Museum Mile program, go to Dates, hours and admission fees vary; the websites below specify days and hours of operation.

The five attractions are:

1 Museum of Wisconsin Art at St. John’s on the Lake

— 1800 N. Prospect Ave.,

This satellite branch of the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend is located in the public space of the St. John’s retirement community. It occupies part of the main floor of the South Tower addition, which opened in 2011. The smallest of the five Museum Mile venues, the gallery at St. John’s features Wisconsin artists and changes quarterly. The current exhibit is titled “Painting Milwaukee.”

There is no admission fee.

2 Charles Allis Art Museum

— 1801 N. Prospect Ave.,

Built in 1911 for Charles Allis and his wife, Sarah, this Tudor mansion was designed by well-known architect Alexander Eschweiler and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Charles Allis was the first president of the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. and a patron of the arts.

It was the intent of the Allises to bequeath their home to the public as an art museum. It contains much of their original furniture and art, including 19th century French and American paintings, Chinese and Japanese porcelains and Renaissance bronzes. In addition, the museum celebrates Wisconsin artists in its changing exhibits.

“Our Gardens Inside and Out,” a special exhibit that features the work of painters, print makers and sculptors interpreting flowers and gardens, runs through Oct. 7.

3 Jewish Museum Milwaukee —

1360 N. Prospect Ave.,

Housed on the east side of Prospect Avenue in the Helfaer Community Service Building, Jewish Museum Milwaukee chronicles Jewish life and culture in southeastern Wisconsin from the first Jewish settlers before the Civil War to the present.

Though less than five years old, the museum has extensive archives and displays. The permanent collection covers subjects such as immigration, how Jews in Milwaukee made a living, the Holocaust and intolerance, Israel and more.

The museum is closed on Saturdays.

4 North Point Lighthouse

— 2650 N. Wahl Ave.,

The lighthouse in Milwaukee’s Lake Park was in and out of service from 1855 to 1994. On the National Register of Historic Lighthouses, the light was at one point the tallest on the Great Lakes, at 107 feet above the water. As erosion threatened the original buildings and trees grew and obscured the light, it was relocated away from the bluff.

What remains is the tower and keepers quarters, restored through the efforts of Milwaukee County and the Northpoint Light House Friends. The buildings are open for public tours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 1 to 4 p.m.

5. Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

— 2220 N. Terrace Ave.,

Located in one of Milwaukee’s most impressive residential neighborhoods, Villa Terrace overlooks Lake Michigan and features room after room of decorative arts from past centuries.

Completed in 1926, the museum was designed by architect David Adler as a residence for A. O. Smith president Lloyd Smith and his family. With its red-tiled roof and decorative wrought-iron work, the Italianate villa also boasts an impressive Renaissance garden that stretches down the hill toward the lake.

While exhibitions come and go, the permanent collection of master ironworker Cyril Colnik remains, providing a detailed look at the artisan blacksmith who was known nationwide. The Colnik Object Collection was donated to the museum in 1991 by his daughter, Gretchen Colnik, and contains more than 200 pieces of ironwork.

The restored Renaissance Garden at Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum is 10 years old this year, but remains firmly rooted in 16th century Tuscany.

Symmetrical and structured, yet lush and inviting, the garden would be right at home in the Italian countryside. Trees, ponds, archways, arbors, statuary and secret hiding places are all a part of the plan, built around a water stairway in the center of the steep incline. Visitors can sit on the benches and terraces and gaze at the dramatic view of Lake Michigan below.

The garden was designed by Rose Standish Nichols in the early 1920s, but through the decades fell into disrepair. In 1997 the Friends of Villa Terrace decided to undertake a much-needed restoration and raised $1.75 million to do so, but Nichols’ original drawings could not be found. So award-winning Milwaukee landscape architect Dennis Buettner came up with a plan that is true to the era, the setting and the architecture. The project took five years.

Buettner, who designed such well-known projects as the Green Bay Botanical Garden and University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Allen Centennial Garden, says the Renaissance Garden is one of his proudest accomplishments.

“The flowering crab in spring, the roses and hydrangeas in summer, the deep, rich colors in fall, and even the structure of the garden in winter — it has something to offer in every season,” he says.

Any visit to Villa Terrace should include ample time to linger in the Renaissance Garden. If you visit on a Sunday morning through Sept. 30, you can enjoy concerts in the Mercury Courtyard, with brunch served on the east terrace overlooking the lake.

For details and a schedule of performances, go to and click on “Cafe Sopra Mare,” which means “café above the sea.”