A woman's home
"Old Friend" hails from vintage era



The fireplace is one of three, all are carved Italian marble. The clock is Parisian and is the same age as the house.

The two girandoles — ornamental candleholders — are European, about 1830.

In 1876, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music for Swan Lake. Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States. In the Milwaukee Sentinel City Carriage Works advertised phaetons and buggies.

T. A. Chapman’s announced a new line of corsets and bustles. Morgan’s on Water offered a sale on parasols. And the Emily Parker Groom house was built.

So reads the announcement that Barbara Nestingen sent out when she moved into her dream home on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. If it sounds like the kind of an announcement a proud new parent would send out, then it is no surprise that when talking about the home, Nestingen refers to it as “her girl.” What was love at first sight for her, however, may not have been as obvious to the casual browser.

“The house had good mechanics,” she said. “The owner from 1984-1994 had done some very needed structural updates to the house, but it definitely needed a lot of cosmetic work. You walk into it now and it is a woman’s house. You just feel it.”

A woman’s home it has been for the majority of its history. Constructed in 1876, probably by George and Louise Knowles who built and occupied a twin house next door, the home was—miraculously—occupied by local artist and teacher Emily Groom from the day she moved in with her family in 1896, until her death in 1975. At the time of her death, Groom was an accomplished artist and faculty member at the Layton School of Art. Her work has been displayed at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Woman’s Club, Immanuel Presbyterian Church and the Charles Allis Museum to name a few.

“I named the house for her because even though her family was not the original owner or builder, she lived here so long and the home was in such great condition when it came to me,” Nestingen said. “I owe a great deal to Emily Groom as she was such a great steward of the antiquity, charm and beauty of the home.”

Nestingen describes the home as southern French style Victorian interior with a Gothic Victorian exterior. She points out that the home is 16 years older than the Pabst Mansion and has had only six owners from its construction to present day.

“The selling point of the house was its history,” she said. “That and the first time I saw the dining room, I knew I had to have this house.”

The decorative three-story home has six bedrooms, three fireplaces, and two stairways. The dining room that so impressed Nestingen upon her first visit proudly displays 1850s French murals depicting Aesop’s fables. Eleven-foot ceilings, fireplace mantels carved from marble and beautiful woodwork are just a few of the aspects that sold her on the home.

“This house features extraordinary architecture—it is just a time machine to the past,” she said. “I knew I would rather fix something that had so much character and beauty than have something new.”

Nestingen first saw the home in September of 1993 and purchased it in April of 1994. The challenges that the house presented were the reason it remained on the market for so long.

“The bathroom situation alone probably deterred a lot of people,” she said. “The full bath upstairs was the most immediate need. Everything else was livable, but there was a lot of work to be done.”

The home has a powder room on the first floor and a full bath on the second floor. Nestingen completely renovated both rooms. The full bath now contains a shower over Jacuzzi tub and plenty of storage space. The home also was updated with a new roof, furnace, forced air heating, phone system, security system and kitchen.

“The kitchen was a challenge as well, but it is now really a beautiful room,” she said. “How many people can say they have a chandelier in the kitchen? There are seven doors in the kitchen alone—a mark of a Victorian era home. When I bought the home it was very very dark—you needed all the lights on at noon on a sunny day. Now it is really a warm place to be.”

The décor Nestingen brought to the home remains true to the time period. There are eight chandeliers throughout the home. She used shell ornamentation from Orlan Din, who created the decorative plasterwork above the doorways in the dining room. A 1920s Karastan rug complements the dining room.

“I managed to acquire the chandeliers at antique shops in the Washington, D.C. area from dealers who service the embassies,” she said. “They suit the home very well. The front parlor chandelier has matching sconces that were shipped from Kensington, Maryland.”

The rear parlors are the reception rooms of the first floor. The antique chandelier is French, the Aubusson rug is needlepoint. The frames, art and prints are European.

More amazing, a lot of Nestingen’s possessions and furniture that she owned before buying the home suit the décor as if they were made for it. On a shelf in the front parlor, old family photographs add to the feeling that you are stepping into a time machine when you think that any of these brides from generations ago could have occupied a home like this when it was new.

“When I entertain, I like to light the house with just candles,” she said. “It completely changes the feel of the house. I think that this is what it looked like back then.”

The renovation process took her three years. She took out a wall between two smaller bedrooms on the second floor to create a master suite with a large walk-in closet. Interior designer Gene Berube worked with her on the master bedroom.

“Gene is really good at seeing that space is used efficiently,” she said. “Other than the bedroom, I pretty much made the decorating decisions on my own from the fixtures to the colors and textures on the walls. Most of what this house needed was pretty obvious to me. The important thing was to keep the fidelity to the past.”

Along the way, she encountered some surprises such as what was under the years of carpet adhesive on the wood floors.

“There was so much gumming from all the years of carpeting that no one knew there was this beautiful wood pattern of maple and black walnut in the floor in the hallway and dining room,” she said. “The woodwork throughout the house has been painted over the years. Other than the white woodwork, I’d like to think that if the original owners walked in today, not only would they recognize the place, but they would approve of what I’ve done here.”

The home also features some modern conveniences that Nestingen considers herself lucky to have in her Brady Street neighborhood such as a two-car garage, a big deck overlooking a large yard adorned with 100-year-old trees.”

Although this is not the first house Nestingen has renovated, it is the one she feels most attached to.

“I just can’t say enough how this is a woman’s house,” she said. “I’m the first woman to live here since Emily Groom. It has been my privilege to restore it and revere its antiquity. It just feels like an old friend.”

Nestingen noted that the oldest house still standing in Milwaukee was built in 1850 making her home a unique treasure to the city as well.

“There just isn’t much from this vintage left in the city,” she said. “It reflects an interesting time for Milwaukee and the Brady Street area. There is a historical bus tour of Civil War properties in Milwaukee and I’ll tell you there is just not much left.”

Ask her what her favorite feature of the house is, and she can’t pick just one.

“The front doors are beautiful etched glass,” she said. “The marble in the fireplaces is really unique. Of course, if I ever do leave here, I’m taking the paintings in the dining room with me. I just love this home though, I can’t ever imagine living anywhere else. I think of this home as my child. I don’t know what my future holds, but I plan to enjoy the past as I live my future.”