Mary Nohl

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Visiting Information

While conservation and stabilization efforts are underway, the site is not open to the public. JMKAC is hoping to obtain an occupancy permit by the end
of 2016.

About the Artist/Site

Nohl earned her Bachelor of Fine Art art degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937 and a teaching certificate in 1939. Most of her classmates graduated, married, and stepped into family roles, but Nohl wanted to make art. She taught in middle schools for a few years and then returned to Wisconsin, opened a commercial pottery studio, and moved back into her family’s cottage home on Beach Drive in Fox Point, north of Milwaukee. Located on land her family had acquired in 1924, at that time, due to limited roads, it was rural and not very accessible. She worked in an interdisciplinary manner, taking on new materials with enthusiasm. She melted her mother’s wedding silver to make jewelry, carved logs washed up from the beach, prided herself in mastering power tools, mixed cement, made collages, painted, drew, sewed hemp figures, turned beach stones into rings and amulets, and drip-painted her furniture, carpets, and telephone.

From the 1950s until her death in 2001 at age 87, Mary Nohl transformed the yard, the interior, and the exterior of the small lakeside cottage into an expansive work of art that was inspired by her childhood roots in this setting. Sand and stones from the beach were used to mix the concrete that formed the many yard sculptures. Cutout wooden reliefs of swimmers and boaters created patterns on the house. Wind chimes hung in the trees, translating the significant breezes into aural compositions. Nohl used what was on hand for her artwork, being both resourceful and inspired by the process of making something from the land. All of her endeavors, be it jewelry making and painting during the winter months, or outdoor sculptural work in the summers, emanated out of a direct conversation with this particular site.

But as she worked, Beach Drive slowly underwent transformation. First it became the setting for small cottage-style vacation homes, but now the neighborhood boasts large ranch-style homes of affluent owners.  Concerned about the future of her artwork, before Nohl died she worked out a contract with the Kohler Foundation, Inc., the country’s leading private foundation dedicated to preserving art environments. She gifted her house and all of her artwork to the Foundation for preservation. She also left $11 million to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to distribute to individual artists to help support their abilities to focus on their work. Mary had been grateful to have had the financial resources to be a full time artist (her father was a prominent attorney who had invested well). She felt that there couldn’t be a more meaningful pursuit, nor a more pleasurable one, than the engagement of making, of using one’s hands, of design and invention.

The site is listed as a Milwaukee County Landmark and in the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.  However, upon her death, the battle to preserve the site in its original location began, by neighbors who object to a site open to visitors, despite the fact that the site is owned by the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s nonprofit arm, Creation and Preservation Partners. After many years struggling with Beach Drive neighbors, it was announced in March 2014 that the site would be dismantled and shipped north to Sheboygan County, despite the fact that the artist had gifted the house, yard, and all of the art with the intention that it would truly be preserved in situ. Although she changed the legal language of the contract at the very end of her life, she had vocalized many times that she did not want it moved.

Only a few of the neighbors on Beach Drive vehemently opposed every preservation proposal and effort that had been floated over the past thirteen years. Their main concern was that the art environment brought additional traffic to this residential enclave, although they ostensibly purchased their houses in the area knowing the draw of the site. As they battled to move the site, they seem not to have understood its value to the broader world, nor its value as art, and considered it an eyesore.

Update, Aug. 2016:

The Kohler Foundation and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center fought this battle privately and quietly, outside of public input and press coverage,
but after a flood damaged the heating and electrical systems in 2010, Kohler decided not to repair the house. And, with the neighbors intransigent to all
proposals, they came up with a plan is to dismantle and re-assemble the house in Sheboygan County, along with the exterior sculptures, an effort to
be partially funded by the sale of the lakeside property. However, when extensive research confirmed that moving the environment would jeopardize
the art to an “irreversible degree, ” in March 2015 the Board of Directors of the JMKAC changed its mind and confirmed its intention to preserve the
Nohl home and artwork at its current Fox Point location, restoring it so it may exist within applicable zoning regulations.

Phase One of the project restoration, estimated to cost nearly $1 million, is nearing completion. It began in September 2015 and involved the
reconstruction of much of the infrastructure, stabilizing the structure and installing a foundation in the rear of the house, and moving the mechanical
systems from the basement to the ground floor. A generator will be installed as backup, and engineers have been redesigning the landscape to channel
water away from the structure. Wood rot and carpenter ant infestation damage has also been addressed, and the trees nearest the house have been trimmed. Many of the outdoor sculptures have been undergoing restoration at the Art Center.

Phase Two is a longer-term project in which the interior objects and furniture will be restored at the Arts Center and then returned to the
house. It is as yet unclear what the costs will be for this phase of the project, but fundraising is underway. The intent is that, when completed,
the Mary Nohl House, both inside and out, will look like it did when the artist herself was living and working there.

While conservation and stabilization efforts are underway, the site is not open to the public. JMKAC is hoping to obtain an occupancy permit by the end
of 2016.

Map and site information

Not Exact Address
Fox Point, Wisconsin, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 43.156037 / -87.891265

Visiting Information

While conservation and stabilization efforts are underway, the site is not open to the public. JMKAC is hoping to obtain an occupancy permit by the end
of 2016.


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