Exploring Neenah’s Mansions
By David A. Lande
In March 1872," John Alfred "J.A." Kimberly later reminisced, "two millers, a hardware dealer, and a traveling salesman agreed to pool their fortunes and their future in what was then considered a wild gamble—especially since none of them had any previous knowledge or experience in paper-making."
The "wild gamble" paid off. The four partners—Kimberly, Clark, Babcock and Shattuck—became captains of the paper industry, and successful beyond their wildest dreams. With newfound wealth, Kimberly built a mansion for his family on a choice parcel near the Lake Winnebago shore. Not to be outdone, his three partners bought adjoining expanses of land and built ever bigger and more impressive houses. Other paper industry tycoons—Bergstrom, Gilbert, Wing and more—joined them there.
The paper industry pioneers are long gone and most of their families have moved away, but what remains is a remarkable enclave of mansions that sprang up in Neenah. Most of these architectural treasures were built between the 1870s and 1920s, when Wisconsin's great natural resources—particularly its timber and waterways—made it a veritable bonanza. The Fox Cities attracted a wide array of industries during this time, but none found the area more ideally suited than the paper-makers. Famous for their water-generated power and accessibility by boat, the Fox Cities were soon dubbed the "Paper Valley."
The paper barons amassed huge fortunes in a short time. It's been said that during this period Neenah had more millionaires per capita than any place west of Newport, R.I. That's never been officially confirmed, but a stroll along what was known a century ago as "Millionaires' Row" on East Wisconsin Avenue and Kimberly Point tells you it could be true.
The opulent neighborhood really had its beginnings in 1849, when a pair of adventuresome brothers came from New York state to Wisconsin to establish a flour mill on the Fox River. They built a unique "double house"—two mirror-image halves that shared a common wall—on a picturesque Lake Winnebago inlet at what was then called Winnebago Rapids. They were the Kimberly brothers, Harvey and John, whose descendants soon would discover that milling paper was much more lucrative than milling flour.
John's son, J.A., helped usher the paper industry into the Fox Cities and went on to become the first president of Kimberly-Clark Corporation, today a Fortune 100 company.
J.A. chose to build a home a couple doors down from the double house where he was raised. Completed in 1874, his home is faithful to the definition of an Italian villa in every respect: low-pitched roof, overhanging eaves with decorative brackets beneath, tall windows arched at the top, a square entrance tower and more.
On the opposite side of the street is a regal row of homes standing proudly like a parade honor guard four abreast. First is the Sherry house, built in 1883 by a lumber baron who also owned a paper mill in Park Falls. Like his neighbor across the street, Henry Sherry built a square entry tower as the dominant feature for his front facade—but that's where the similarity ends. In direct contrast to J.A. Kimberly's fixation on a single architectural style, Sherry chose eclecticism, which blends the best of several styles.
The Havilah Babcock house stands next door to the Sherry home. It is the only mansion in the area still inhabited by descendants of the original family. Completed the same year as the Sherry house, this Queen Anne is suspended in time—like a 5,646-square-foot time capsule sealed tightly since the 1800s. Original Eastlake furniture still graces the rooms. Clothes belonging to the original occupants hang in the closets. Neatly folded hankies and knitting in progress lie undisturbed in bureau drawers. One drawer in the parlor even holds an old newspaper Babcock evidently couldn't bear to throw out—an 1865 edition with extensive coverage of Lincoln's assassination.
According to Jim Sewell, senior preservation architect for the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Babcock house is "a highly significant property ... and stands as one of Wisconsin's best-preserved homes."
Another jewel in Neenah's crown of historic homes is the 1893 Colonial Revival design built by Franklyn C. Shattuck, Kimberly-Clark's first treasurer. Despite the home's monstrous 8,961 square feet, Shattuck found its space lacking and, to accommodate his son Arthur's two concert grand pianos, added a bulging bay window area in 1905. Arthur was a world-famous concert pianist who had played at the White House.
The home's current residents, Timothy and Joan Flaherty, raised a family here and are only its third owners.
"The greatest joy of living in the house is seeing the workmanship," says Joan. "There's so much to appreciate in the masonry, the woodwork, the Tiffany fixtures."
Next door is the palatial Clark mansion. In 1890 Franklyn Shattuck and C.B. Clark both contracted with Ferry and Clas, architects of the famed Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, to build their respective homes side by side. While the Shattuck house assumed a more traditional Colonial look, the Clark house bears an obvious resemblance to the Pabst Mansion. Spectacular by any measure, this 12,000-square-foot chateauesque house is where Theda Clark married at age 21 and died at 23 after complications during childbirth. She left behind money to build Neenah's hospital, the namesake Theda Clark Medical Center, located just across the waterway.
So what's it like to live in a house full of history and grandeur? "People do drive or walk by these houses all the time, and they see them as part of their city, part of their lives," says former owner Suzanne Goderstad. "They begin to feel like these homes are kind of their own. It's like my husband, who grew up here. He drove by it often, and it became his favorite home."
A succession of other mansions, nearly all with paper industry roots, continues on the southern side of East Wisconsin Avenue until the street reaches its conclusion at the lapping waves of Lake Winnebago. Here, the road becomes a quaint country lane that turns left to follow the shore and pass behind the Albert C. Gilbert house, the first mansion visible along Lakeshore Avenue.
Built in 1918, it was the dream home of newlyweds Mabel Kimberly and Al Gilbert, the only child of Gilbert Paper Company President W.M. Gilbert. The marriage was one of many between paper company heirs. Al later became president of the paper company his family had founded.
Just north of the Gilbert estate another row of paper mansions follows the dogleg shape of the peninsula known as Kimberly Point. The one-way road stretches along the peninsula, allowing visitors to enjoy the almost fairy-tale elegance of the homes as seen from the rear and set back across the expanse of manicured lawns that slopes gently toward the lake.
Down the lane, the next property is the William C. Wing estate. Begun the same year as the Gilberts’, this 7,399-square-foot French Provincial-style home presides over 3.5 acres. The house was designed by Childs and Smith, who also designed the Gilbert house and Lawrence University's Memorial Chapel in Appleton.
Although now commonly known as the Wing mansion, it originally was the home of George Gaylord, a Chicagoan who acquired paper mills in the valley, and in Wausau and Ashland. In 1917 Gaylord spied a lovely fireplace front in a chateau in France, had it dismantled piece by piece and shipped to America, then literally built his house in Neenah around it. Gaylord's wife was never content in Neenah, though, and the couple sold the house in 1927 to William Wing, a Neenah native who wisely had invested in the Fox River Paper Company in Appleton, and later became its president.
The fireplace, while massive, is delicately carved with characters of mythology. Current owner Cari Ullrich says: "Gaylord had this fireplace shipped in three pieces—the two sides and big, heavy top. He wanted to impress his wife and get her to move from Chicago. But she didn't take to the idea very well. So, here the poor guy gets no credit from his wife, then the house gets named after the second guy to own it, William Wing. Poor George didn't get credit anywhere."
Among the remaining estates on the point, several belonged to members of the Bergstrom family, founders of Bergstrom Paper. At the tip of the peninsula, a small white lighthouse built in 1944 serves as a punctuation point to the neighborhood's architectural expressions. Here, the quiet one-way lane expands to two, loops around to become Park Avenue, which passes in front of the mansions just seen from the back, and routes outbound visitors along the row of East Wisconsin Avenue once more.
These homes—with their very individual designs, irreplaceable quality and craftsmanship, and stories of fortunes won—are steeped in Wisconsin history. Just as the Fox Cities remain one of the greatest concentrations of paper producers anywhere, so, too, remain the grandest of houses built on the valley's earliest successes. They've withstood the shocks of time, most still bearing the names of their original families. The stuff of imagination, they are mansions made from paper.
The only mansion mentioned in this article that is open to the public is the Bergstrom mansion, which has been converted to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum. For more information on the museum, please visit www.foxcities.org.
This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from Wisconsin Trails magazine.
David A. Lande is a book author and freelance writer from Neenah.