Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Pabst Mansion Is a Holiday Classic

Lovely Milwaukee house museum is delightfully dressed up for the holidays.

By - Dec 2nd, 2019 03:07 pm
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Pabst Mansion at night. Photo by Michael Horne.

Pabst Mansion at night. Photo by Michael Horne.

The Pabst Mansion is the People’s Mansion. Open to the public since 1978, the 20,000-square-foot, Ferry & Clas Flemish Revival residence was built in 1892 as the home of Captain Fred Pabst [1836-1904] and his wife Maria Best Pabst [1842-1906]. From November 21st to January 5th it is decorated for the holidays with extended hours and tour times. A preview party for Christmas at the Pabst Mansion was held on Wednesday, November 20th, drawing hundreds of visitors to see the richly furnished rooms in their seasonal finery, which changes every year, and is visibly a work of our times, keeping things fresh and modern, and ever-evolving.

Guests were greeted at the front door of 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave. by the mansion’s executive director, John Eastberg, who has been at the helm of Captain Pabst’s hilltop pressed-brick ark for 26 years, supervising millions of dollars of restoration work both inside and out. He was accompanied by Pamela Williams-Lime, who joined the organization as president in August, 2018, after heading the Trout Museum of Art in Appleton. She wore a white turtleneck beneath a red jacket with black buttons, adorned with a Pabst Milwaukee pendant as she admired a Gaetano Trentanove [1858-1937] marble bust of the captain, who stonily greeted the visiting multitudes. Not far away was Gary Strothmann, the director of guest experience, hauling boxes of champagne flutes to be filled from a table in the entry foyer, opposite a fireplace mantel decorated for the season, thus providing for a spirited and bubbly welcome, reminding us that beer was not the only carbonated alcoholic beverage enjoyed here by visitors in bygone days.

Mrs. Pabst Parlor. Photo by Michael Horne.

Mrs. Pabst Parlor. Photo by Michael Horne.

Few house museums provide a sense of a life lived as does the Pabst Mansion. The dining room features a table elaborately set for a holiday dinner, with a place card for Captain Pabst at one end of the table, seated opposite his wife Maria, and beside their granddaughter Elsbeth [1890-1972], who lived with them. The table settings for the gentlemen included an after-dinner cigar. Over in the southwest corner of the home, in Mrs. Pabst’s Parlor, decorated by Nancy Kruschke, a group of elves sang holiday songs. The elfin youngsters are members of First Stage Milwaukee, which is presenting “Elf the Musical” from November 23rd to January 5th at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

A Study in Domestic Arrangement

The most pivotal parlor in the house, upon which the entire premises revolved, is paradoxically positioned on its periphery. That would be the paneled study of the captain; an intimate chamber (by mansion standards) located on the northwest corner of the 37-room house. The study has a surfeit of nooks and crannies, and secret safes, its mantel decorated with a pair of trinkhorns, mounted above, and not to be readily detached for trinking. The captain’s desk is on the west wall, backed by a quite appropriate bottle-glass leaded window. Also known as a glass rondel window, it provided both privacy as well as diffused light within the intimate room. A couple of clear glass diamond panes allowed Pabst to see the activity outdoors, allowing him to observe the comings and goings on the grounds of the estate, while maintaining his privacy. The study also opened to the carriage entrance foyer of the home, where a porte-cochère protected visitors from inclement weather. The captain could keep an eye on traffic both inside and out from his aerie. These features, and the room’s location, were almost certainly ordered by Pabst himself, since similar elements can be found in his office at the brewery, which projects from the structure, and offered him a good look at his domain. He liked to keep an eye on things. This may also be why the mansion eschewed a grand central staircase in favor of one located just to the south of the study, also in clear sight so the owner could also keep track of vertical activities. Although not central, the staircase was grand enough. You get there by passing a first floor musicians nook. The ascent is interrupted by a trumpeter’s gallery.

19th Century Home; 21st Century Holiday Decorations

Glittering ornaments. Photo by Michael Horne.

Glittering ornaments. Photo by Michael Horne.

There is rarely much life to be found in living museums devoted merely to the dead, and management at the Pabst has been able to provide a contrast with the Victorian era and our own times through the simple vehicle of holiday decoration. Eastberg, in his quarter-century tenure, has succeeded in repatriating some 600 objects and 20 paintings original to the home, the contents of which were mostly dispersed in 1908, when it became the residence of Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic archbishops, as it was to remain until 1975. But the house has a modern touch in its holiday decorations, which make little effort (beyond being over-the-top) to replicate the flamboyant Pabst days. The second floor provides a good example. The foyer there was rather traditionally decorated by Jeff Welk and James Jones with garlands, ornaments and LED lighting. Not far away, a representative of the resurrected Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee served a special release Smoked Porter beer. Down the hall, Elsbeth’s bedroom was decorated by Amy Janowski and Pedro Lima, whose efforts inform us that purple is now a holiday color. (The same hue is employed by the decorated-for-the-season Hop streetcar.) If the reincarnated Elsbeth chose to wash her hands in the marble sink in her bedroom, she would first have to remove dozens of glittering ornaments located in the basin. The same goes if she wanted to take a soak in the bathtub. (This striking holiday touch would be of little practicability in an occupied residence, so please do not try this at home.) The Secondary Guest Bedroom was decorated by Nicole Harris, with gift boxes, set at the foot of the secondary bed, looking as if dumped there by an Amazon delivery person. They were rather plainly wrapped, as would befit a present to a secondary guest overstaying a holiday welcome. By no means (especially after a couple of smoked porters) should you miss the Rundle-Spence “Itasca” toilet, made in Milwaukee and apparently original to the home.

Guests at the party also encountered a tasting opportunity of a variety of liquors from Twisted Path Distillery. A representative enthusiastically poured mini shots of its holiday spirits for them as they readied their approach to the Primary Guest Bedroom, decorated by Scott and Sandy Pagel, assisted by Dana Hansen and Jodi Rich-Bartz. En route, visitors could also enjoy Smoked Two Rivers Whitefish Crostini with Lemon Aioli and Chives.

The Library, decorated by Jooan Kaar, Kathy Drummer and Jill and Jerry Hanson, is stuffed with Steiff teddy bears. They lounge upon a black sofa, taking up space perhaps better devoted to those made drowsy by Pabst Smoked Porter and Twisted Path cocktails. Take a look at the floor and see that within the space of one foot (such as mine) some 19 bands of wood were inlaid to create the elaborate border. This, the millwork and other features, including furniture, was created by Milwaukee’s Matthew Brothers, the finest in the business. The great iron worker Cyril Colnik added his mastery to the mansion’s interior and exterior.

Do note a Victorian painting of a young girl in a crowd scene who savors, straight from the pitcher, a frothy lager. Wine-besotted Bacchus has got nothing on her.

Photos from the Event

Holiday Season Hours

November 21, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Monday – Saturday
Self-guided tours 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., last entry 3:15 p.m.

Sunday
Self-guided tours 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., last entry 3:15 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased here.

Gift Shop Hours

Monday – Saturday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Sunday: 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Holiday Season Admission Prices

Adults:  $14.50
Seniors (62+):  $12.50
College Students:  $12.50
Military:  $12.50
Children (ages 15 & under): Free
Members: Free
CLOSED: Christmas Day & New Year’s Day

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