Last look inside Elm Grove Abbey ahead of the condo project
Passing through Elm Grove on Watertown Plank Road, you can’t miss the dramatic Notre Dame Hall designed by architect Eugene Lippert in 1898 for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, 13105 W. Watertown Plank Rd.
The cream city’s brick gem is topped by a striking stepped gable, a feature the architect later incorporated into his 1905 mansion at 35th and Wisconsin for industrialist Henry Harnischweger, and again three years later into the stately Lake Drive home (which Demolish it now) which was painted for Albert. Oh Trostle.
But there are also a large number of arches, ledges, vertical sections of the building and other details as well.
The Lippert Building on the site was quickly followed by a 1903 orphanage, where architect Mark Faller recreated the stepped gable, which was added 30 years later.
The sprawling 30-acre complex is joined by a Prairie Style tuberculosis hospital called “The Bungalow” and a 1920 boiler house designed by Backes & Pfaller. The Great Maria Hall, by the same architects the following year; the rural grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1926; two wings of the infirmary designed by Proust, Proust, Herbst and Jacobi and Herbst in 1955 and 1959 respectively; Fidelis Residential Hall in 1967; And the Holy Family Church, designed by Herbst, Jacobi and Herbst in 1975.
The campus also includes a cemetery covering just over five acres.
The entire property – except for the cemetery – has been purchased by developers Mandel Group, who are keeping the beautiful Lippert Building and its attached Maria Hall, demolishing the rest and building three new buildings to create 237 apartments, including 35 large apartments in the historic buildings.
Enberg Andersson is the project architect.
Ten acres of the site are being sold to another developer who will build 21 single-family homes along the eastern edge.
The project will be named Caroline Heights, in honor of Mother Caroline Ferris, who arrived in Wisconsin in 1848 and established the first mother house in North America for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee two years later.
When Friis arrived, she was accompanied by her fellow Bavarian, Mother Teresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, who founded the order whose mission was education. Mother Teresa decided that Milwaukee would become the center of the order’s activities in the United States
Five years later, while searching for a suitable location, Ferris selected the Elm Grove property as the site of the sisters’ retreat.
While this is a workaday story, the more fascinating story is that Ferris was on her way to Watertown one day when her horse unexpectedly stopped at the site and refused to budge. This, Mother Caroline thought, was God immediately dropping a pin.
Purchasing the acreage in 1856, in the next three years the sisters established a cemetery, then a convent, an orphanage, and later a school.
As the order grew, newer buildings were needed, and thus the evolution of the above-mentioned structures was built.
Eugen Liebert was born in Germany in 1866 and arrived in Milwaukee in 1883. His mother was a member of the Gallon-Tannerre family – the perfect choice of architect to reflect the order’s Bavarian heritage.
The year before construction began on the Notre-Dame Hall, Lippert dissolved his partnership with Hermann Schnitsky, with whom he had designed a number of buildings, including the Germania Building, the Basilica of St. Michael, and others.
Although Lippert’s work is somewhat diverse, it has always harkened back to his German roots, as evidenced by the German Renaissance Revival style of his building, which is the centerpiece of the site.
“The finished building is redolent of somewhat Bavarian detailing, and the creative use of yellow brick in Cream City Milwaukee merits close study,” historian H. Russell Zimmerman wrote in his study of the architect.
“With its castle skyline and stone and sheet metal decoration, it certainly fulfilled the demand” of the Louis Mission Society of Bavaria, which donated funds for the project.
The association — founded by King Ludwig I — requested, according to Zimmermann, the creation of a “castle-like design in the Bavarian style.”
It is no less magnificent on the inside, with multiple staircases decorated with beautiful woodwork and a two-storey chapel.
There are heavy wood doors with fine hardware, leaded glass windows, built-in cabinetry and more.
The complex, noted a report prepared for the campus’s 2011 listing on the National Register of Historic Places, “serves the sick, disabled, and handicapped in the SSND community. The combination of the buildings, and the associated cemetery, stands as a testament to the need for and commitment of the School Sisters to ongoing (perpetual) care.” to its residents, whether it be physical illness, mental infirmity or simply old age.”
While there was a time when hundreds of sisters lived on campus, by the time they sold it and moved in 2021 to the Mount Mary University site a few miles northeast, there were approximately 100 remaining.
Talks began in 2017 with the Mandel Group, which has now begun work on the Caroline Heights development site.
As part of the project, Wauwatosa agreed to provide municipal water service for the Elm Grove development, which relied on well water, according to Dan Rumnick, Mandel’s senior development associate.
“Mandel delivers water to the project site,” he says. “Elm Grove residents along the route will be able to connect to the water main.”
While the site will lose some trees, it will remain densely wooded.
“You can’t recreate this,” says Romnick, as we tour the campus on foot, passing under giant maples, chestnuts and other trees. “At least not in less than 100 years.”
The property’s surface parking will disappear as 386 spaces will be hidden underground.
Above ground, the two most striking buildings on campus will remain and feature apartments that will include many of the buildings’ unique features, including original woodwork, leaded windows, stairs, balconies with terrazzo floors and more.
“People who live in Elm Grove and might be looking to downsize won’t want to downsize to a 1,200-square-foot apartment, but they might be willing to do so in a space that’s about 2,000 square feet,” says Elm Grove’s Romnick. Historical buildings.
“It’s not a lot of units, but it will be unique apartments.”
Some of them at Maria Hall will be garden apartments with areas providing access via the front gardens, for example. Another unit, in the Lippert Building, will have one of the building’s entrances entirely to itself.
Apartments range from one-bedroom units with an area of 826 square feet to three-bedroom units with an area of 1,751 square feet. Rents will range from about $1,700 to $3,500.
The first transfers are expected to take place in late 2024 with final completion the following year.
While Mandel initially planned to seek historic tax credits for the project, he decided it made sense to remove some of the newer buildings and give up the credits. The cave will also be demolished.
Rumnick said Mandel worked with the sisters to consider moving it, but given the nature of its construction, the business could have reached seven figures, he said.
These structures will be replaced by two C-shaped buildings surrounding a large common area in the center of the site, behind the historic buildings. This “main square” will be surrounded by a semicircular building at the back.
A later addition to the back of Maria Hall will replace it.
While tree removal work was underway outside and some demolition work was underway inside, Romnick showed me around.
While the interior of Maria Hall has been extensively renovated over the years, leaving it looking somewhat underwhelming – other than those large outdoor terraces at the front with terrazzo floors – the Lippert Building is truly stunning.
In the basement we saw an opening – now blocked – leading to a tunnel leading to a red barn at the east end of the property. (Stay tuned, as Romnick has promised to contact me or at least send photos/video of when the tunnel opens before it is filled!)
Turning the corner we came to the bottom of the main staircase, which is of stunning beauty and winds its way up to the top of the building, topped with a dome-shaped skylight.
There is another, smaller staircase, which is equally beautiful, though less dramatic in scale.
As I headed upstairs, I had a similar discovery as I entered the porch church, with its plastered heads and floral decorations atop sturdy columns, its dark wood ceiling and its stained-glass windows.
“One story was that the church was a replica of the throne room at Neuschwanstein Castle at the request of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria,” Black Husky Brewing owner Tim Eichinger, who was head of buildings and grounds at the complex in the 1990s, told me.
It certainly seems reasonable.
As he climbed into the attic, Romnick says the sisters told him that when there is an outbreak, some of them set up cots here to isolate themselves and avoid getting sick.
We went up another level and out onto the roof, where we could get close to the many construction details at the top of the building.
As is usually the case with buildings of this era, the brickwork is as detailed and decorative in areas the public would never see as in the more visible parts of the structure.
Back inside, Romnek opens a door downstairs and we stand on the upper floors of an old water tower that once spanned the entire height of the building.
At some point, the lower portions were filled in to provide usable space on the floors below.
Despite the fact that the buildings served as residences, most of the interior floor plans of these buildings will have changed, and the combined buildings, while preserved and reused, will not necessarily remain in their original locations.
But those stairs will be there and the church will remain in place for use as a community room. Certainly, one of the most impressive rooms in any apartment complex in the area.