by Casey Mysliwy, PortalWisconsin.org
Milwaukee may not be a city that springs to mind when one thinks of Italian villas and Renaissance-style gardens, but that is exactly what can be found on the city's east side.
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is a Milwaukee gem. The museum has an impressive permanent collection of art displayed in the villa's many rooms, as well as temporary exhibits that have ranged from Renaissance astronomical charts to modern landscape paintings. It is also a spot for performances, lectures and other public events. While the museum's works on display are fascinating in their own right, so is the villa's history.
Built in 1923, Villa Terrace was originally constructed for Lloyd R. Smith and his family. Smith, whose grandfather founded the A.O. Smith Corporation of Milwaukee, hired architect David Adler to undertake the project. The villa was originally called Sopra Mare, meaning "above the sea," and was a home for Smith, his wife and six children. The villa's defining feature was its Renaissance garden, complete with statues, a pond and countless trees and plants. The villa was donated to Milwaukee County in 1966 and became the museum it is today.
The villa remains true to its Italian roots. The courtyard is designed with elegant pillars and archways, and a Renaissance-style sculpture greets visitors before they enter the villa itself. The many rooms are as much works of art as the treasures they contain. The Great Hall, overlooking the Renaissance Garden, features works inspired by Greek myths, complete with cherub figures overlooking the room's twin fireplaces.
Most of the rooms still remind the visitor that a family once lived here, most notably the bedrooms on the second floor. The Zuber Gallery is perhaps the most interesting; formerly a child's bedroom, it is wrapped in colorful Zuber wallpaper, from which the gallery takes its name. The wallpaper, depicting an exotic scene with birds and foliage, took 50 men to complete. This room contains an array of vases, bowls and clocks from France and Italy. At the center is a beautiful 19th-century French salon table, emblazoned with images of French royalty. This luscious and breathtaking gallery alone is worth the trip.
The museum also devotes an exhibit to its origins, detailing the lives of the Smith family and architect David Adler with documents and pictures. Home movies offer a glimpse into the life of the Smith family, and watching the Smith children ice skating on the Terrace makes it easy to imagine them growing up in such a distinctive home.
Renovations to the Renaissance Garden were completed in 2002, and the result transports visitors back in time. The Terrace d'Luna offers a picturesque view of Lake Michigan, and visitors can take a tram down to the garden levels below. More Greek statues dot the garden, and the iron Neptune Gate completes the theme. The Renaissance Garden beckons to be explored, and visitors could easily spend hours admiring the view.
Villa Terrace is also known for its special events. It takes on the guise of an Italian café during its Café Sopra Mare program, where visitors can enjoy coffee and pastries and listen to live music. Other concerts, lectures and classes are held throughout the year as well.
Villa Terrace recreates the magic of a traditional Italian villa and garden, and art and history are incorporated seamlessly into every visit. Milwaukee has a true work of art in the form of this museum.
To learn more about Villa Terrace or its sister museum, the Charles Allis Art Museum, visit www.cavtmuseums.org.
Writer Casey Mysliwy is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an intern at PortalWisconsin.org.