Milwaukee's Pabst Mansion : The House That Beer Built

Pabst Mansion historian John C. Eastberg takes us inside Milwaukee’s most famous residence.

Milwaukee has long been synonymous with beer, so it’s altogether appropriate that one of the city’s greatest architectural landmarks should be the historic Pabst Mansion. Built by Pabst Brewing Company president Frederick Pabst at the height of Milwaukee’s mansion-building era of the 1890s, the home occupies a place on Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue), a street which at the time was lined with literally dozens of mansions built by the city’s newly moneyed class.

Grand Avenue was a far cry from Pabst’s roots as a young immigrant from Germany who arrived with his parents in the frontier town of Milwaukee in 1848. As a teenager, Pabst signed on as a cabin boy on a Great Lakes steamer, eventually attaining the rank of captain by the time he was 21. He met Maria Best, daughter of brewery owner Phillip Best, during a voyage and eventually married her. After his ship ran aground a few years later in a Milwaukee harbor, Pabst changed course and partnered with his father-in-law in the beer business.

Under Pabst’s leadership, within 25 years the brewery had become the world’s largest, and its name was changed from Best to Pabst in 1889. That same year, Pabst began to contemplate the creation of his dream house. After long years of hard work, he could finally enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Designed by George Bowman Ferry of the Milwaukee firm of Ferry & Clas, the Pabst Mansion promised from the outset to be something special. With a projected budget of $75,000 ($1.8 million in today’s dollars), construction began in 1890 and continued apace for the next two years. The 20,000-square-foot mansion quickly took shape as dozens of craftsmen labored in an effort to build one of the finest homes in the Midwest. Costly cuts of wood, imported wall coverings, hand-painted ceilings and custom-built furnishings were all part of the lavish atmosphere created for Milwaukee’s great beer baron.

When the keys were placed in Pabst’s hand in July of 1892, the project was late and had tripled in budget to an astounding $254,000. However, Pabst had received something of lasting beauty. Each of the mansion’s state rooms was expressed in a different architectural style and had been furnished to match. The Pabsts were avid art collectors and invested a small fortune in adorning their home’s walls with masterful paintings by Bouguereau, Schreyer and Verboeckhoven.

Interestingly, the mansion was not fully completed until three years after the Pabst family had already occupied the house. The final piece was an elaborate terracotta and glass pavilion that was created to display the company’s range of products at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Pabst won the gold medal for the finest beer in the world. (As a side note, of all the awards Pabst received, a blue ribbon was never among them; the brand’s best-known beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, actually began as a marketing ploy Pabst conceived in 1882, when blue ribbons were tied around the necks of “Best Select” beer bottles.) After the fair, Pabst had the pavilion dismantled, crated, moved and reassembled as a private summer house. The structure survives to this day as the Pabst Mansion’s gift shop.

The Pabst Mansion was the setting of many of Milwaukee’s grandest parties, and an invitation to dine with the Pabsts was highly prized. Theodore Roosevelt visited the mansion in 1899, as did numerous musicians, singers and entertainers after a performance at the Pabst Theater.

Regrettably, the Pabst family was only able to enjoy their exceptional home for a decade and a half. Captain Pabst passed away in 1904; Mrs. Pabst followed in 1906, leaving the mansion’s future uncertain, as their children were at that point grown and had large dwellings of their own. But in 1908, the Pabst Mansion found a willing buyer in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. For the next 67 years, the mansion housed five archbishops, as well as many priests and nuns.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, many mansions around the estate were razed for apartment buildings, hotels and offices. The Pabst Mansion was attended to by a small staff of Sisters of St. Francis, who continually polished the magnificent woodwork of the house’s interior. It was as if time had stood still and the 20th century had not intruded on this Victorian gem. With the energy crisis of the 1970s and mounting maintenance costs, the Archdiocese decided to sell the mansion in an effort to reduce expenses. As the house had been so well kept, there was hope that a preservation group might acquire the Pabst Mansion and open it to the public. Unfortunately, the fledgling preservation group, Wisconsin Heritages Inc., lacked the funding to acquire the house.

To many in the community’s dismay, the mansion was purchased by a developer who planned to demolish it and construct a parking structure to accompany his neighboring hotel. The potential destruction of the mansion galvanized the town’s leaders and after a hard-fought battle, Wisconsin Heritages Inc. purchased the Pabst Mansion with the aid of 23 mortgages from 23 banks.

Over the last three decades, millions of dollars have been expended on restoration of both the mansion’s interior and exterior. Shortly after the mansion became a museum, an album of 1897 photographs of the Pabst Mansion’s interiors surfaced and has proven an invaluable resource not only in the restoration of the mansion, but also in the successful retrieval of original furnishings and artwork from around the world. Today, the Pabst Mansion is visited by tens of thousands of guests each year and remains the most authentic historical experience one can have in Milwaukee. Indeed, even a century later the mansion is as fit for a beer baron today as it was in Pabst’s time.

The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion is open daily and is located at 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, call 414-931-0808.