Historic Structures

Robert P. Fitzgerald House, Milwaukee Wisconsin

Date added: November 11, 2009 Categories: Wisconsin House

Edward Townsend Mix, a prominent local architect, drew the plans for this Italian Villa, built in 1874 for Milwaukee shipping pioneer. Captain Robert P. Fitzgerald. Since the 1960s, it has been the clubhouse of the Milwaukee Branch of the American Association of University Women, for whom it has been remodelled and enlarged. It was built at a reported cost of $20,000

In July 1872, Robert Patrick Fitzgerald purchased, for the sum of $8,500, the lots on Marshall Street on which his spacious residence was later erected. In 1897 he sold the house to Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Clyde Fuller, from whom Mr. and Mrs. George Benjamin Miller, the Fullers' daughter and son-in-law, bought it in 1921. Twenty-five years later Miller's widow sold it to Ella Spencer (E. H. Spencer Co.), and at that time the residence was converted into a rooming house-apartment building. It was still serving as such when the present owners acquired it about 1963.

The original owner Robert Patrick Fitzgerald was born in Ireland on May 10, 1825, came to North America as a boy and, at the age of nineteen, was commanding a schooner in the Lake Huron trade. By the 1850s he had settled in Milwaukee. During the next decade, he established what was to become a highly successful vessel brokerage and marine insurance business. He joined in partnership with Captain John B. Merrill, with whom he was associated until Merrill's retirement in 1899. He is reported to have had interests in the Milwaukee Drydock Co. for several years and to have been associated during the 1870s and 1880s with P. D. Armour and W. Egan in the building and acquisition of various schooners and steamers. As one of the founders of Milwaukee's Board of Trade (later Chamber of Commerce), he served as an officer of the Northwestern Ship Owners' Association and a director of the Seaman's Friends Society and Sailors' Home as well. After selling the house on Marshall Street to the Oliver C. Fullers in 1897, Captain and Mrs. Fitzgerald resided briefly in Oconomowoc and then moved to a residence on Grand (Wisconsin) Avenue, where Fitzgerald died on January 9, 1900. Both the house's second owner and the third, George B. Miller, were also prominent businessmen. Fuller having been an officer of the combined First National and Wisconsin National Bank and his son-in-law, a member of a pioneer Milwaukee family, having been an insurance executive and, in later years, president of the Monarch Manufacturing Co.

In an interview with the Journal's Peggy Daum in 1963, Mrs. George B. Miller, who had lived in the Fitzgerald house from 1897 until her marriage in 1911 and from 1921 through 1945, recalled that it had comprised two living rooms, library, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor and nine bedrooms (including three maids' rooms) on the second. The plan was of the central hall type having parlors in the northeast and southeast corners flanking the broad stairhall, dining room west of the north parlor, and library west of the south parlor, with sliding doors separating these rooms. There is no evidence that the house had been altered in any important way during Capt. Fitzgerald's time, and Mrs. Miller has stated, in a recent letter to the recorder, that few changes were made during her parents' and her ownership. She remembers that at early dates electricity was Installed, and a small two-story addition containing a bedroom on the second floor and an open porch below was built near the southwest corner of the house (the porch was later enclosed). She states, further, that the single bath at the head of the stairs, second floor, was converted into two bathrooms and that another bath was added at the front (east end) of the house on the same level.

The earliest building permit on file at the General Office, Building Inspection, dates from January 9, 1946, when Mrs. Miller had sold her home and it was about to be transformed into an apartment building. The permit. No. 560, lists "existing occupancies" as five rooms and two baths on the first story, nine rooms and three baths on the second and describes "proposed occupancies" as three two-room apartments and two one-room units, all with baths, on the first level and two two-room apartments, three single-room units, three sleeping rooms, and five baths on the second floor. Remodelling was to cost $2,500; the contractor was Bernhard Wallner; and the work was finished by June, 1946. A related permit. No. 3609, February 21, 1946, records construction of a fire escape by the Banner Ornamental Iron Works. Six years later furnace and fuel rooms were enclosed to conform with the Wisconsin State Building Code, as is documented by Permit No. 20363A, November 6, 1952, and other records. Contractor for this work was Dan Retzer.

Significant changes were made in the mid 1960s to convert the home into its present use including: Demolition of the rear (west) section of the original building--that portion comprising kitchen, servants' rooms, and the two-story addition mentioned above-and the brick coach house standing just southwest of the house and erection of a single-story L-shaped brick and block addition adjoining the original fabric on the west and southwest.
The central staircase joining main and second stories was removed and a new stairway, connecting basement, first, and second floors was created in the southeast corner of the building. The balusters, railing, and newel of the original staircase were used here.