Michael Horne
House Confidential

The Town’s Most Ship-Shape Home

The "Boat House" on Cambridge, built in 1920s, is internationally known.

By - Apr 21st, 2016 05:50 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
The "Boat House." Photo by Michael Horne.

The “Boat House.” Photo by Michael Horne.

“The Edmund Gustorf House is architecturally significant as a unique expression of early twentieth century fantasy architecture built to satisfy the whimsical residential aspirations of its nautically oriented first owner. It is the only known such ‘boat house’ in Wisconsin.”

— City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission’s Historic Preservation Study Report, 1985.

E. B. Gustorf, the district manager of the Milwaukee Tank Works, spent a good deal of his time in the 1910s-’20s travelling the country by motor car visiting his company’s warehouses in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City. The firm principally manufactured filling station equipment for the burgeoning automotive business.

The new form of transportation helped to spawn an era of bizarre buildings designed to catch the eye and draw the trade of travellers as they sped past. In 1926, a restaurant in the shape of a giant hat was built in Los Angeles, and the Brown Derby became a place of legend. Gas stations themselves took on the form of pagodas [Wadham’s, Milwaukee] and other shapes, including a politically inspired “Teapot Dome” service station built in Washington state in 1922 complete with handle and spout.

The 52-year old Gustorf, who lived in a pleasant traditional bungalow on N. Cambridge Ave. a few blocks north Locust St. decided to construct his own whimsical structure — a 72 foot nautical-themed residence that was described as a “Yacht Bungalow” — on the vacant lot he owned to the north of his home. He called it “The Landlubber,” though a naval name like the “Edmund B” might be appropriate.

Today, the “Boat House,” as it’s popularly designated, along with its accompanying 30-foot lighthouse, is a City of Milwaukee Landmark, and one of the most unusual homes in the nation. It may be one of the most photographed residences in the city, and has caught the eye of nearly every traveller who has passed it.

From stem to stern it is a nautical pun as it rides the waves of clay on N. Cambridge Ave., across the street from the Milwaukee River. The ship heads due west into the wind, its tiny portholes illuminating the bedroom below — the only “berth” in the small, 560-square-foot home, which nevertheless has two full baths (“heads”) and a small kitchen (galley”). The vessel also has a living room (bridge) and a rec room (no nautical equivalent) along with a fireplace. There is a lovely promenade deck that wraps around the white and blue building, along with a few other nautical touches.

Curiously, there is no sidewalk to the north of the property, so the landscape rolls to the street’s edge.

Owned by Former Neighbor

Such a whimsical structure requires a loving soul to keep it from sinking, and this home has found such salvation in William E. Kortsch, a dentist who grew up in the neighborhood and once lived across the street, and who bought the home in 1985 to save it from ruin. With a wife and six children, the home would have proven impracticable for the Kortsch family, and it has been leased to others over the years, including musician Paul Finger who lived there for some time. Kortsch was the sixth owner of the idiosyncratic property. The original builder lived there until he died in 1940. It must have sold several times before it was bought in 1950 by Samuel Burns, who sold it to Kortsch.

Over the years the home has suffered the usual problems attendant to rental properties. Aluminum siding, dating to the 1950s helps keep water at bay, but detracts from the original lines of the home. A fanciful picket fence with wavy lines has disappeared, and would be attractive once again. I suppose it is hard to landscape an ocean, but the home’s plantings could be more suitably deployed. However, it would be a shame if the lot were so crowded with plants as to render the quirky home invisible.

It is clear that improvements are being made to keep the place afloat. The garage in the rear, which predates the home and is itself a remarkable structure, is in a state of disrepair, but is being attended to. A new overhead door seems to be the most solid feature of the structure.

Whimsy for Small Home Movement

At 550 square feet of finished living area, this is the smallest house to be thus far honored by House Confidential, second to that of Ald. Jose Perez, who lives in an 880-square-foot cottage. A full 560-square-foot basement (hold) adds a good deal of storage potential to the structure. The interior is laid out along nautical principles, which is to say features are spare and functional. This is not an environment for those who tend toward clutter. Nor is it suitable for any piece of furniture wider than 24 inches, for that is the width of the doors. Still, having a lovely promenade deck surrounding one’s living room is a charming thought, and it would not surprise me if more tiny homes were built with a bit of nautical whimsy. The Troll Cottage-in-the-Woods small-house look is getting a bit stale and could be freshened up. Boat houses might do the trick.

Nearly Swamped in 1961

Although the home was built to yacht specifications, it never floated in water. But it nearly got swamped once. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal on Thursday, July 23rd, 1964, “the closest it’s ever got to water, though, was 3 years ago when a water main burst and 7 million gallons threatened to wash it into the river.”

Photo Gallery

The Rundown

  • Owner: Kortsch Living Trust, William E. Kortsch, Florence B. Kortsch, trustees.
  • Location: Milwaukee
  • Neighborhood: Cambridge Woods
  • Subdivision: Savings & Investment Society of Milwaukee Subdivision #5
  • Year Built: 1922-26
  • Architect: None. Built to nautical plans.
  • Style: It’s a Boat! 2.0 Story “Residence Old Style” according to city. Described on building permit as “Yacht Bungalow.” Known worldwide as example of novelty architecture.
  • Size: 550 s.f.
  • Fireplaces: 1
  • Rec Room: Yes
  • Assessment: Land: 8,640 s.f. lot is assessed at $56,600 [$6.55/s.f.]. Improvements: $79,600. Total: $136,200.
  • Taxes: Approximately $4,081 based on tax rate of $29.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation.
  • Garbage Collection Route and Schedule: Blue CP1-3A Tuesday
  • Polling Location: UWM Sandburg Hall, 3400 N. Maryland Ave.
  • Aldermanic District: 3 Nik Kovac
  • County Supervisor District 3 Sheldon Wasserman
  • Walk Score: 66, Somewhat Walkable. Nonsense. Much better than that. Problem is, there is a river across the street that inhibits crossings, but still…
  • Transit Score: 63, Good Transit.
  • Historic Preservation Commission City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Study Report, 1985
  • Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory Property Record 78892

How Milwaukee Is It? The residence is about 3 miles from City Hall.

Rundown researched by Dylan Deprey

5 thoughts on “House Confidential: The Town’s Most Ship-Shape Home”

  1. Salty says:

    Rec Room = Saloon.

    Not certain that Living Room = Bridge, the nautical term for the control area, aka helm or pilothouse.

  2. I am pretty sure there is a picture of this house in the photography collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

  3. Tom Guthrie says:

    I remember the ship house very well. My Grandmother lived on Qakland avel. Back in to 40s I remember having my father driver by the place on the way to and from Grandmothers house in his 1940 Chevrolet

  4. The Tile Ninja says:

    How could the city buy this and make it a public structure? It seems a shame that a. They want so much for it and b.) it could fall into disrepair considering that you would have very little money to fix it up with that inflated mortgage. Seems like a landmark that should see open houses and maybe rent out for special events. A management company

  5. Terry Kiley says:

    As of a few days ago, this property was listed for sale for 386K.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *