Michael Orth Residence: the “House that Ice Built”

posted in: Neighborhood Histories | 10

POST_Orth_MJ 1959

 

As it stands, the northeast corner of Humboldt Boulevard and North Avenue is an uneven mash up of gravel and broken concrete, unkempt and alluding to the likely brown-field left from the Clark filling station that was last located at the intersection. Depending on age and length of residency, some may well remember the Clark station but of distant memory, and in some cases disbelief, is the towering Queen Anne that stood over the intersection until 1960.

 

Michael Orth, Sr. Residence

In 1891, Michael Orth, Sr. constructed the three-story wood frame residence for all of $12,000.[1] The home featured numerous Queen Anne hallmarks– a rotund, three-story corner tower with conical roof, Palladian windows in the gable, a delightful array of patterned wood shingling and clapboard siding, projecting bay windows and a one-story front porch supported on Tuscan columns. Purportedly, the interior of the Orth residence was treated with as much admiration as the exterior featuring oak and birch woodwork, murals in lieu of wallpaper in the bedrooms and a marvelous staircase rumored to have cost $4,500. Surrounding the Orth residence, the wrought iron fence and gates were the work of Milwaukee’s very own Cyril Colnik.[2]

 

Three generations of the Orth family resided in the stately home. The Orth family patriarch and pioneer iceman passed away in 1907. His son, Michael Jr., succeeded him in business and later lived in the family home until his death in 1958.[3] The following year, the Orth residence became the favored site for a two-story “modern office building.” Adopted zoning changes in 1959 paved the way for the home’s demolition and the non-residential construction. However, the office building was never realized and the northeast corner of Humboldt and North Avenue was soon occupied by a Clark Filling station – also since demolished.

 

Orth and Company

Given the current context, this location seems an unlikely choice to erect the built culmination of one’s life work. However, the coming and going of Michael Orth’s residence is yet another chronicle of Riverwest’s multi-layered history. As with many Milwaukee tales, the origin stems from Byron Kilbourn and the Rock River Canal. In the mid-1830s, Kilbourn envisioned a great canal that could stretch from the Milwaukee River to the Rock River in Jefferson County and thereby connect Milwaukee markets to the Mississippi and beyond. Ground broke for the Rock River Canal in 1838. However, due to insufficient buy-in and lack of funding, construction came to a halt in 1842 leaving a canal between the North Avenue dam and the corner of what is now MLK Drive at McKinley Avenue.

 

POST_Orth_MS 1884

Resourceful man that he was, Kilbourn promoted the unfinished canal as an ideal location for mills and factories, and subsequently, an industrial district developed along the canal spur utilizing the water for power and transport. By the 1850s, the rail quickly replaced water transport, and a line of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad was constructed alongside the canal.[4]

 

Immigrating to Milwaukee from Saxe-Weimar, Germany in 1848, Michael Orth became known as a pioneer in the ice business. In 1870, Michael and his elder brother, Daniel, incorporated a new ice company aptly named, Michael Orth & Brother.[5] The brothers took up residence near their ice company at Humboldt and the Milwaukee River below the North Avenue Dam, employing 300 men to cut ice from the Milwaukee River.[6] However, in the subsequent decade, perhaps due to the growing toxicity of the Milwaukee River, Orth began cutting “pure Random Lake Ice.”[7] Following Daniel’s retirement, the family ice enterprise continued into the 1890s under the direction of Michael Orth, Sr. as M. Orth & Son, and into the 20th century by Michael Orth, Jr.[8]

 

In 1884, owners of the “canal lots” quit-claimed a portion of their land to the city of Milwaukee to fill in the canal for a public road—Commerce Street. Among these business owners, the Orths too relinquished a portion of their “canal lots” to the city. M. Orth & Son – later Wisconsin Lakes Ice Company – had two icehouses in the vicinity of Humboldt on either side of North Avenue. One stood at the river bend just south of North Avenue at the foot of East Garfield and Commerce behind the Milwaukee Road roundhouse and repair shops and Rohn’s Swimming School. The other icehouse stood on the west riverbank just north of North Avenue between the river and the rail line.[9]

 

North of the Commerce Street industrial district and North Avenue, Humboldt Boulevard remained a leisure route in the late 1800s to the summer estates of Milwaukee’s German manufacturers and merchants.[10] However, as the city expanded nearer to the summer colony, the open land along Humboldt was subdivided and advertised for beautiful suburban homes in the mid 1880s and 1890s.[11] Near industry and river resort, the Orth residence was constructed in 1891 at the tail end of the summer colony era, and by the early 1900s, the city’s ever expanding limits soon enveloped the former country road and estates.

POST_Orth_Michael Jr_Image

 

Little of the Orth’s built heritage remains in the area. The Icehouses too have disappeared along the Milwaukee River bank. Presently, the only extant building in the vicinity attributed to the Orth Family is the first home of Michael Orth Jr. at 2316 N. Humboldt Boulevard. Constructed circa 1885,the home still stands on the lot directly north of the elder Orth’s Queen Anne residence. After Michael Jr. inherited the elder’s estate, his daughter, Augusta, resided in her childhood home with her husband, Carl Weisel, who operated Weisel & Company – sausage manufactures – down the street at 2113 North Humboldt.

 

[1] “Era of Good Buildings,” Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Sep. 20, 1891.

[2] “Orth Home Razing to End Era Here,” Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Dec. 27, 1959.

[3] “Michael Orth is Dead at 93,” Milwaukee Journal (Milwauke, WI), Oct. 22, 1958.

[4] Sanborn Map Company. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 1894.

[5] “New Ice Company,” Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Oct. 4, 1870.

[6] “Orth Home Razing…”

[7] “ICE,” Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Apr. 21, 1884.

[8] Milwaukee City Directories, 1875 – 1907.

[9] Sanborn, 1894.

[10] Tom Tolan, Riverwest: A Community History (Milwaukee, WI: Past Press, 2003), 11 – 14.

[11] “Suburban Residence Property,” Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Mar. 29, 1885.

10 Responses

  1. April Klinter

    Here’s an interesting little bit of charma… My grandpa was William Orth – a great grandson of Michael. I met my husband in 1984 at Zak’s which was the bar you mentioned in your last article in the building kiddie corner from the mansion lot. A few years after we met my mom and I were talking about the origins of my relationship we realized the connection. My mom had told me stories before of playing in that mansion as a child but we never had put two and two together before. So crazy that a girl from Glendale and a boy from Port Washington would somehow find each other only steps away from the origins of her family in Milwaukee! Sincerest thanks for writing the article.

  2. I’m an Orth by marriage. From a sister-in-law, I was informed that the Orth grandparents’ home was not the house pictured. She said she was in the home as a child, and it was exactly on the NE corner of Humboldt & North, right where the former Clark station stood. Many years ago there was a photo of the home in the Journal or Sentinel that I saved. Will see if I can “dig” it out.

  3. Vicki LeBlanc

    I am a descendent of the Orth family – there are a number of others who remain in the greater Milwaukee and Random Lake area. I had the opportunity to go to the mansion, which is written about in Milwaukee Historical Books, as a child. I remember a curving staircase with stained glass windows, the round room which they used for wakes and other family events. I also recall the huge safe which was taken out and a beautiful 4 poster bed which I coveted. I do have a carved humidor made especially for the family.

  4. Rita Lester-George

    Loved reading this history as I grew up on Walworth Street. There were several chestnut trees on the Orth property, and we used to sneak on to the property to collect chestnuts. I recall that on more than one occasion a woman, whom we assumed was the maid, turned the hose on us to chase us out. Happy to finally have proof that the mansion even existed, as many people seemed to doubt my stories about it.

  5. Doug Lang

    Thanks very interesting Carl Weisel Sr was my grandfather s (Hans Gestewitz Sr )uncle my great great uncle. My mother said she took piano lesson in the house. She and here family lived behind the Weisel hous on walworth st She also always talking to Augusta Orth Weisel. On the porch. Anymore photos and history?

  6. Vicki LeBlanc

    Thank you for this post – although I am a direct descendant of the Orth family, I wasn’t aware of all of the details. I was in the home only a couple of times. In particular I remember the stained glass windows going up the staircase, handpainted wallpaper, and the circular room where they kept the bassinette of the new baby or the body for viewing when a family member passed. I’ll be forwarding this to my cousins.

    Vicki

  7. The fence around the Orth mansion was designed & built by Cyril Colnik. It is pretty spectacular, with lightning-bolt finnials, hammered cast iron flowers & vines. A lot of the sections were repurposed & installed on the Victor Brown mansion, at the triangular intersection of Lake Dr. & Terrace Pl. in North Point.

  8. Fascinating post! I had no idea there was ever anything so beautiful on this bleak corner. Yet another surprise in the quirky history of Riverwest.

  9. Megan Daniels

    Thank you. I’m really glad that you enjoyed the post. This is one that I’d been hemming and hawing over for some time before I finally posted so you’re feedback is especially appreciated.

    Also, to be quite honest, I have no idea why nothing else has cropped up on this spot. It very well could have to do with the long term effects of the gas station. I feel as though I heard something within the last six months or so about an apartment complex, similar to 1910 N Water style, possibly going up, but I’m not sure what became of it.

  10. Great post! I have been curious about this long ago mansion. Do you know why the lot is undeveloped? Perhaps a brownfield from the gas station days?

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