The Democratic Party is throwing out tradition this year by turning their planned Milwaukee political convention into a virtual event, but on the ground in Wisconsin’s largest city, tradition is back with a vengeance, as the area’s longstanding high-end residential enclaves stage a Covid-era comeback.
“I have never seen this kind of demand,” says Bruce Gallagher, a listing agent specializing in multimillion-dollar properties along a cluster of inland lakes, 25 miles west of downtown, where housing stock has been transformed over the last few decades from Gilded Age getaways into sprawling suburban mansions and grandiose vacation homes. Mr. Gallagher, owner of Gallagher Lake Country Real Estate, a Keller Williams affiliate based in Hartland, Wis., says listings above $2 million are going into contract in less than a week, with competing offers and sales well above the list price.
The Lake Country, as the area is known, competes with the North Shore, a cluster of communities running just north of the city along Lake Michigan, for greater Milwaukee’s wealthy homeowners. Buyers over $1 million are “looking for anything on the water,” says Joan Read, manager of Coldwell Banker’s North Shore office.
The greater Milwaukee real-estate market covers a four-county area, with a population of about 1.5 million. Before the pandemic, luxury sales had nearly tripled in the last few years, says Ms. Read, going from 96 in 2014 to 297 in 2019.
She says the market is now holding up, despite the pandemic. According to analysis from Coldwell Banker, total sales of greater Milwaukee single-family homes between January and June of 2019 numbered 12,914, declining to only 12,053 between January and June of this year. Ms. Read says that a most of the nearly 70 homes sold above $1 million in 2020 are concentrated in the Lake Country or else in the North Shore, with Whitefish Bay, a walkable lakefront village with an urban character, leading the way.
Like other cities in the Rust Belt, Milwaukee has changed over the last several decades, as an economy reliant on manufacturing largely gave way to the service sector. However, the area’s luxury enclaves still bear strong traces of Milwaukee’s industrial heyday, says John Gurda, a local author and historian. He says the city, now the country’s 31st largest, was one of America’s 15th largest for much of the 20th century, and probably sneaked into the top 10 sometime in the 1960s. That is when it was home to three of the four largest brewers in the country and a world-wide leader in the production of heavy machinery.
Many of the city’s industrial elite, from beer barons to tanners, were of German ancestry, says Mr. Gurda, and they liked to build their mansions with European craftsmanship. Starting in the late 19th century, they began commissioning ornate homes to the west and north, and left still-discernible traces in the pattern of high-end areas around the city.
Many of the German elite, such as the Pabsts of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, built palatial summer houses due west on Oconomowoc and Pine Lakes, now the Lake Country’s most desirable locations. The Uihleins, who controlled the company that brewed Schlitz, which once competed with Budweiser for the title of America’s bestselling beer, went north, building mansions on Lake Drive, still one of the area’s premier residential addresses. It runs from the city’s east side to the top of the North Shore.
On Pine Lake, Mr. Gallagher just sold a 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom for $4.15 million, $155,000 above the asking price. On the market for only one week, the 6-year-old home, with a 300-foot shoreline, sits on a lot just over 2 acres. In Whitefish Bay, a 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom on 1/5 acre with an asking price of $1.395 million had an offer accepted within a matter of days of coming up for sale in late July.
Milwaukee’s earliest elite, back in the middle of the 19th century, came from the northeast. These Yankees, as locals still referred to them into the 20th century, left their mark on firms such as Northwestern Mutual. In 1927, William D. Van Dyke Jr., a member of the family that ran Northwestern Mutual in its early decades, built a limestone mansion on a bluff above Lake Michigan in Fox Point, a village just north of Whitefish Bay. Following the death this spring of his 93-year-old daughter, Olive Scannell Bryson, who had lived there since the 1970s, the 7,750-square-foot, eight-bedroom home has come on the market for the first time, with an asking price of $3.8 million.
The 4.9-acre estate is “a world unto its own,” says Mrs. Scannell Bryson’s daughter, Mary Douglass Brown. Ms. Brown, who spent her high school years on the estate and now lives in Winnetka, north of Chicago, says her mother and stepfather, Jack Bryson, updated the home in the late 1980s and 1990s, adding a grand family room, which they liked to call the garden room, as well as a formal rose garden.
The property maintains elements of 1920s grandeur, including the original stone greenhouse and servants’ quarters above the garage. A network of stately stone terraces behind the house overlooks Lake Michigan.
Views of the Milwaukee River replace lake views in River Hills, traditionally greater Milwaukee’s most exclusive community, where lots generally have a 5-acre minimum, and tennis courts are the rule.
In 2001, Bruce Ross, president and CEO of a branding consulting firm, and his wife, Jami Ross, a sales director, bought a 6.5-acre River Hills estate for $1.65 million, then upgraded the 6,000-square-foot Midcentury Modern to 9,200 square feet.
The refurbishment, completed in two stages, required replacing an eccentric Olympic-size swimming pool with a merely large outdoor pool. The family also built two new wings on either side of the original structure, turning the master bedroom into the master bath, and connecting several rooms to the terrace and new pool area. “Even though the house is big,” says Mrs. Ross, 51, “we wanted it to feel cozy.” The terrace includes an outdoor fireplace and kitchen. The home has two family rooms.
Mrs. Ross and her husband, 63, have relocated to a Los Angeles condo to be near their two adult children, who grew up in the River Hills home and are now based in southern California. The Rosses’ estate is on the market for $2.495 million.
Spacious homes in River Hills or the Lake Country may cost well over $1 million, but greater Milwaukee still has luxury-level bargains, says architect Wade Weissmann, a North Shore native whose studio has offices in Milwaukee, Santa Barbara, and Pittsburgh.
Gilded Age mansions and stately homes still dot the east and west sides of Milwaukee proper, says Mr. Weissmann, who specializes in multimillion-dollar renovations of historic Milwaukee properties.
“You can buy a house for $300,000 that would cost $3 million to replace,” he says. On Milwaukee’s east side, a circa 1899, 3,300-square-foot, four-bedroom on a 1/10-acre lot, asking $460,000, went into contract this month after less than two weeks on the market.
Just before the pandemic, the longstanding trend in the area was for empty-nesters and young professionals to move back into the heart of the city, which had seen a growth in luxury high-rises and loft conversions.
In 2007, Mr. Weissmann worked on a luxury condo refurbishment for a downtown high-rise with views of the spanned-wing art museum annex designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The high-rise is walking distance to the lakefront and close to downtown. But Mr. Gallagher says the pandemic is establishing new priorities for homeowners beyond convenience. “People with means,” he says, “are putting an emphasis on homes where they can hunker down.”