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The Schlieter Home
Family preserves 1870's home while sharing it with others

By Donna Pinsoneault

 

The parlor of the Schlieter home is located in the front of the house and is decorated with a dramatically-patterned deep mauve wallpaper. A century-old German feather tree stays in the room much of the year.

Even on a quick trip up Waukesha’s College Avenue, the Schlieter home catches your eye. Towering over modern-day condos on either side, the pretty painted residence behind rambling old shrubbery seems bigger than life. One step through the dramatic double doors and you feel as if you have wandered into the workings of an oversized magical music box. Owners Ernst and Faith Schlieter have devoted more than two decades to authentically restore what was once the summer home of Walter S. Chandler. Along the way, they have also managed to set the past to music.

Built in 1876, the house was designed by E. Townsend Mix. “He was the foremost architect of the time, but he usually designed churches and public buildings like Milwaukee’s Grain Exchange,” Faith said. “He only did six or seven homes and those were favors for close friends.”

Chandler, a successful Realtor and lumberman, was one of those friends, Faith explained. The piece of land he purchased presented, at the time, an unobscured view all the way to the Fox River. The home was situated to take advantage of that view. Since it was originally a summer home, the house never took on the size or trappings of a full-fledged mansion. But every inch, from the gold leaf ornamentation on the front door to the built-in wooden benches on the side porch, is marked with absolute attention to detail.

The vestibule, for example, is finished with hand-painted wallpaper above leather wainscoting, intricately embossed. The patterned floor features a complex arrangement of tiles imported from England. A window that extends nearly floor to ceiling fills space that once served as the door to the adjacent porch and gazebo. Wide woodwork throughout the home has been hand-grained, a process in which a base coat is covered by a glaze, then finished with a graining tool.

The entry opens to the central receiving hall with leather wainscoting embossed in an even more intricate design. The hall originally extended the length of the house with rooms opening out on either side.

“The same center hall theme is repeated throughout the house,” Faith said. “You can even see how rooms seem to open off of it in the basement.”

Ernst and Faith Schlieter stand on the porch of their Victorian home.

The hall’s most unusual feature is its ceiling with 135 plaster ornaments lined up in perfect rows. Faith believes them to be pineapples, the symbol of hospitality. Today the hall is filled with a mysterious mix of limited edition pianos, organs, victrolas and the first of Ernst’s many toy collections.

“My husband used to be a singer and our two sons were very musical,” Faith said. “We have kind of a musical museum here.”

On the right, a curtained arch leads to a comfortable parlor decorated with wallpaper in dramatically patterned shades of deep mauve. The paper is new, but looks as if it has been in place since the home was built. An artist, Faith has an eye for choosing products currently available that will help tell the story of the home’s past. For clues, she refers to a thick album filled with photos gathered from former owners.

“The house tells us what to do,” she said.

Once converted to be the main room of a separate apartment, the parlor still has a screen door that opens to the porch. “At the time though, no one would ever have entered directly into the parlor,” Faith said.

As in many Eastlake-style Victorians, the rooms ceiling is painted sky-blue and a pretty sitting bay overlooks the side yard. During much of the year, a century-old German feather tree, a family heirloom, stands in the large front window. School children who tour the home love to see its period ornaments and the Schlieters enjoy sharing it, as well as the rest of their home, with young visitors.

“We planned to do that from the beginning,” Faith said. “We always wanted it to be a place where kids could touch things and enjoy them.”

Initially, the cottage featured a library and billiard room behind the parlor. During the first conversion, those rooms were replaced with a small kitchen and maid’s room.

To the left of the main hall, the first archway opens to a second sitting room. Done in lighter shades of mauve and blue, the airy room feels both bright and soothing. A large pump organ with wooden pipes dominates the west wall of the room and was the main reason why the Schlieters started looking for a big old house in the first place. Finding a home that could house such a large instrument was important to the couple, Ernst said.

The kitchen features a large pantry cabinet built in 1876 which the couple purchased through the Channel 10 Auction.

Comfortable chairs also invite listening to one of the many lively tunes collected on rolls for the child-size player piano, one of
the home’s many interesting player pieces. A Steinway reproducing piano on the east wall uses a special roll. Its digital coding records not only the notes, but the expressions of famous musicians as they played, re-creating the actual sound of a concert grand performance. A second sitting room, filled with music boxes, Faith’s original art and wonderful pieces by other artists that the couple started collecting in the 1950s, opens to the dining room.

“This was the original reception hall,” Ernst said. “When you had guests, they arrived by horse and carriage. The porch outside this room is built at the level of the carriage step.”

Today the dining room’s surfaces feature three patterns of paper cleverly assigned to highlight architectural features. In one corner, a colorful jukebox is set to play dance music from the big band era. A small alcove that provided a place for ladies to sit while they waited for the carriage to arrive from the quarters at the rear of the property still feels welcoming today.

The kitchen features a large pantry cabinet built in 1876. Newer cupboards mirror the style of the old pieces and a marble backsplash flanks the sink. The original front doorbell hangs from a hook on the wall. Ernst pointed out that the house had indoor plumbing from the beginning, rare for the period. Above the kitchen, the cistern that stored household water still remains.

“Just about everything that was here when the house was built is still here,” Ernst said.

The original floors, he said, were pine planks. Hardwood floors were installed over them in 1909 during the home’s first restoration. A furnace was also added at that time and heated the home for nearly 80 years.

The architect’s attention to detail extended to the very core of the building, creating a sense of solidity and warmth more than 125 years later. Door frames are formed using five separate pieces of wood. Exterior and interior walls are constructed with 2-by-6 boards. Double-plastering approximately three inches apart created two dead air spaces between walls, the equivalent of insulation in 1876.

“What was most amazing is that, when hangers hung the wallpaper everything matched perfectly,” Faith said. “The house hadn’t shifted at all.”

Upstairs the center hallway is filled with old, well-played-with dollhouses, games and toys from the 20th century. One end of the play area forms the second level of the home’s three-story tower. At the home’s front, the charming master bedroom is papered in a soft tone-on-tone rose pattern. Its windows are curtained in lace.

Behind the master bedroom, the original nursery has been converted to a full bath. Painted in biscuit tones drawn from the blue striped wallpaper purchased during the most recent restoration, the modernized room still feels as if it was never touched since the turn of the last century.

The room was one that did not evolve from a plan. “One thing led to another,” Faith said. “First we found the paper, then we had to paint because the existing white walls and woodwork just didn’t look right. Then we found just the right curtains.”

The Schlieters love to collect musical pieces including this jukebox that sits in the corner of the dining room. The jukebox still plays dance music from the big band era.

Unable to find a border that went well with the paper they chose, the Schlieters painstakingly cut borders from wallpaper rolls to mimic crown molding and plate rails. The choice also allowed the Schlieters to maximize their financial resources while maintaining a sense of the home’s authenticity.

Most visitors can’t wait to climb all the way to the top of the tower. The way up the wooden attic stairs is marked by amazingly extensive stacks of books and games. Blackie the cat basks comfortably in sunlight streaming through windows on all four sides of the roomy tower. The room is unfinished though the Schlieters have had to install new balcony railings and replace wood that’s been damaged by time and persistent raccoons.

“People used to watch the races at the Fountain Springs Hotel from here,” Ernst said. “Today it’s a great place to read and we can see fireworks from seven or eight places up here.”

Like many old houses, the Schlieters’ ownership almost seemed to come about by destiny. Keeping their eyes open for an old place big enough to store the pipe organ, they came into a very small inheritance which allowed them to buy the house in 1979.

“We didn’t even see the whole house,” Faith said. “A friend called me the day it went on the market. We arrived just as the first viewers were leaving to think about it. We called our sons and bought the place by 6 o’clock. Someone had to save the place.”

In addition to its connection to one of Waukesha’s historic families, the backyard is home to the Eocede Spring, limestone-lined and covered with heavy rock. Named for the goddess of dawn, its water was tested to be of the same healing properties as that of Bethesda Spring. The original carriage house has been left pretty much untouched. It still has storage for carriages on one side and a tack room and stalls on the other where wooden signs indicate that horses June Bug and Dandy once made their home there.

“It’s a wonderful house,” Faith said. “And it’s such a fun house to live in!”