The Story Behind The Big Old House Above Milwaukee's Lincoln Memorial Drive

Dec 21, 2018

Have you ever had a question that just won't go away? Milwaukee-native Ross Kuesel has been dazzled by a Milwaukee home's looming presence his whole life. So, he reached out to Bubbler Talk — our series that answers your questions about Milwaukee and the region.

"What's the story behind the house built into the bluff next to the Villa Terrace Art Museum? From Lincoln Memorial Drive it looks 10 stories tall!"

That grand old home Ross is referring to is located south of Bradford Beach above Lincoln Memorial Drive. The back of the multi-storied building seems to cascade down the bluff, and its large fenced yard below isn't particularly welcoming.

Ross remembers seeing the house as a kid.

“My father had a boat, so we were heading to the marina we would always drive back and I remember thinking as a kid, 'Boy, that’s a really tall house,' " Ross adds. “It really looks like it seven or eight stories, and it always kind of dazzled me.”

To learn about the history of the house, Ross and I met Milwaukee historian Brian Fette below the house on Lincoln Memorial Drive. Brian considers this house — he calls it the Becker-Fitch — unique.

The Home's History

“It has a lot of history. The architecture is absolutely unique. It was built in stages and renovated and demolished in stages,” Brian adds, “You’re only looking at the east wing of what was the original mansion.”

William D. Kimball designed the mansion for businessman William Becker in 1895.

The mansion when it was completely intact. In the 1960s the upper west wing would be demolished.
Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society

“William Becker was extremely successful in the leather goods business, actually started to dabble in poultry and had an architecturally correct and matching chicken house on this side for which he paid in roughly 1895 $20,000,” Brian adds, “What would that be in current dollars? A lot of money.”

About 20 years later, in 1916, life on the bluff changed forever when a generous father purchased the mansion for his daughter.

Harriet Earling Thwaits. After her husband Lawrence Fitch's death, Harriet married Milwaukee attorney Frederick G. Thwaits. She later married Milwaukee real estate broker and art collector Walter Dake.
Credit Image ID: 62598 Stein Photograph / Wisconsin Historical Society

“Harriet Earling was the daughter of Albert J. Earling, the founder of the railroad known as the Milwaukee Road,” Brian says.

Harriet had gone to finishing school (where affluent young women were sent to learn social graces) in Germany and fancied marrying a baron. Instead, Brian says, her father instructed Harriet to return to Milwaukee where she married banker Lawrence Fitch.

“Harriet took one look at the place ... and she told daddy she couldn’t live in the house unless it looked more modern,” Brian says.

Over the years, Harriet made the place her own, guided by Milwaukee-born architect Herman W. Buemming. And the east wing came to life.

“He built on top of the lower levels above what had been stables, a conservatory and the $20,000 chicken coop,” Brian says.

During the home's glory years, Harriet added an outdoor dancing pavilion. “Where 200 people could dance in the moonlight over the lake. So, this became the society entertaining center of the east side,” Brian adds, “Kings and queens came here.”

Harriet didn’t let the Prohibition in the 1920s dampen her drive to entertain guests. She tapped her architect to put some empty space deep in the east wing to use.

A glimpse of the tavern room.
Credit Susan Bence

“A gathering spot which became known as the tavern room. They took beams from old barns to make the place look 300 years older than it actually is,” Fette says.

At the time, there was no road, green space or beach east of the mansion. Lake Michigan still lapped up to its edge, allowing liquor to be delivered by boat.

The Woodland Court subdivision (located in the lower left of the map, and today is Back Bay Park) was just south of the Becker-Fitch house on Terrace Place (today called E. Back Bay), which is shown here in an atlas from 1896.
Credit BAIST'S PROPERTY ATLAS OF 1896

“[It was] delivered by entrepreneurs who brought their boats up to the foundation where a door would open and a hand would mysteriously bring the materials inside,” Brian adds, “To coordinate all this, Herman Buemming, the architect, had a ship-to-shore radio installed to make sure the right materials were ordered.”

Harriet was not only a social leader but a civic one. She founded the Milwaukee Service Club and served as president of the Woman's Club of Wisconsin.

Harriet Earling Fitch with her children. Date unknown.
Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Changing Hands

Decades later Pat Van Alyea didn’t expect to have a lifelong connection to the house. She was a newcomer to Milwaukee when she spotted the mansion from the lake.

“In 1960, I was in a sailboat on Lake Michigan and looking at the shoreline for the first time. I’m from Beloit. I didn’t really know Milwaukee and here’s this house and it was astounding. It’s like 10 stories,” Pat recalls. 

Current owner Pat Van Alyea in the Becker-Fitch house.
Credit Susan Bence

Pat certainly never thought she’d set foot in it, but two years later while dating the man who would become her husband, “He said I’d like to introduce my grandmother and she’d like to meet you. Well, I almost fell out of the car, when he drove up in front of this house.”

His grandmother was Harriet, who still lived in the huge home.

After Harriet’s death, the part of the mansion that she once told her father she couldn’t abide was demolished.

But Harriet’s spirit and style live on in the sweeping east wing, where Pat and her husband raised their family and she lives today.

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