Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Father-Daughter Duo Restoring Milwaukee’s ‘Boat House’

Nautically-themed house could be damaged by its lighthouse without a rescue.

By - Jun 7th, 2022 04:14 pm
The "Boat House." Photo by Michael Horne.

The “Boat House.” File photo by Michael Horne.

Milwaukee’s iconic “Boat House” is set to receive new life under a proposal that aims to keep it sailing for the next 100 years. But that involves knocking down a portion of the nautically-themed structure at 3138 N. Cambridge Ave.

When Steven Tilton purchased the historically-protected, East Side home in 2018 a problem was already looming, literally. The approximately 20-foot-tall lighthouse, a decorative yard fixture, was beginning to lean towards the boat-shaped, 550-square-foot house.

The house was completed in 1923 for Edmund B. Gustorf. “It’s thought that the lighthouse came a year, maybe two years after the construction was finished,” said Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) staffer Carlen Hatala during the commission’s meeting Monday.

Now that lighthouse needs to be replaced, lest it sever the timbers of the two-story house by falling on it. The lighthouse is currently supported by scaffolding and wood bracing.

William E. Kortsch, a dentist and neighborhood resident, started the tradition of maintaining and renting out the unusual house after acquiring it in 1985. It’s a practice that Tilton and his wife Nola Hitchcock Cross have continued since purchasing the property from their neighbor’s estate.

But a modification by Kortsch, the addition of what Tilton described as a combination of styrofoam and stucco to the lighthouse’s exterior, has made leveling and restoring the tower difficult. Instead, Tilton is proposing to demolish the structure and build a new lighthouse as true to the original as possible.

Tilton is working with his daughter Claire Hitchcock Tilton, an architect, on the project. The two described to the commission the difficulties of restoring the original structure and their plans for a new lighthouse. Flora Design Collective will perform the actual construction work.

The proposal calls for salvaging glass and door hardware from the original.

A letter from the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance warned of creating a precedent of allowing demolition by neglect, but Hatala said that is not what is happening. “It appears that previous owners… did try to keep the building up. So it’s not like it was completely ignored,” said Hatala. “It looks like the property has maybe met its end at this point.”

The commission unanimously endorsed Tilton’s proposal.

“I’m so relieved and excited to get the project started,” said Tilton. He first filed to get the project started last summer.

“I am so impressed,” said Commissioner Sally Peltz. “All of the individuals that come before the commission should be as dutiful and as thoughtful.”

Alderman Robert Bauman, a commission member, praised Tilton for rebuilding a feature of the house that doesn’t produce any income.

Tilton and Hitchcock Cross rent out the house for short-term stays on Airbnb. It sleeps up to six people across two bedrooms. A brief search for available dates suggests it rents for between $190 to $350 per night. Features include in-home laundry, free wifi, two bathrooms, a kitchen, office and dining room.

Tilton and Hitchcock Cross purchased the boat house in 2018 for $190,000. A contract submitted by Tilton suggests the lighthouse project would cost at least $36,000.

The house is technically across the street from the Milwaukee River, but a sizable, well-vegetated and wooded bluff, and the Oak Leaf Trail, block any sight of the lighthouse from the river and vice versa. As Michael Horne reported in his 2016 House Confidential column, a water main break in 1961 almost had the house floating in seven million gallons of water, but the boat has stayed aground ever since being built.

2016 Photos

Lighthouse Submitted Photos

One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Father-Daughter Duo Restoring Milwaukee’s ‘Boat House’”

  1. Keith Prochnow says:

    Jeramey, by any chance, did you mean to write “shiver” the timbers…?

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