Mary Nohl’s property still in danger, no known progress

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Photo by Tina Prigge, Vagabond Visual Concepts

What if Mary Nohl was “The Treasure of Fox Point” instead of “The Witch of Fox Point?”

If you have been following this story, sadly there has been no known public discussion or developments between the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the Fox Point village board, despite the packed public forum held last summer.

Mary-Louise Schumacher of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote a follow-up article, “Should Mary Nohl’s ‘witch’s house’ be dismantled without a public vote?” meaning, does this handful of affluent, vocal opponents in Fox Point get to decide the fate of a integral piece of Milwaukee’s history? She writes, “It hurts to think about what this site, famous for attracting countless onlookers and now showing visible signs of deterioration, embodies: a rejection of artistic vision and difference. It has been loved as an oddity but unrecognized for what it is: an integrated work of art and cultural treasure….From where I sit, many of the stakeholders are waiting for others to make a move, from cultural institutions like the Chipstone Foundation, based in Fox Point, elected members of the village’s board, cultural leaders in the region, supportive artists and residents in Fox Point, the long list of artists who’ve received Nohl grants (she left $11 million to support local artists) over the years, and others. A significant response could give this community pause. Why not propose the overlay and let it play out?”

For more about the JMKAC’s proposed overlay and the reaction from certain Fox Point residents, see this 2013 article by Michael Horne. He writes, “The Kohler’s proposal is simple enough. It asks for a ‘Cultural Overlay District Zoning’ to permit limited operation of the site despite the single-family zoning in the neighborhood that has caused the site to be idle for years, right up to this day. The center would like to remove the ugly chain link fence that surrounds the property, and replace it with an iron fence, amply landscaped. It asks to remodel the home — one of the few remaining lake cottages in the area — and to create a few parking spaces, also lushly landscaped, to the west of the property. The home would be open on a limited basis ‘by both size and days of the week.’ Groups would be accepted on an advance-basis reservation system, including scholarly symposia and small member fundraiser events. Visitors would be shuttled to the site, which is to be ‘NOT open to passers-by.’ [Emphasis original.] The center would continue a $17,000 annual payment to the village in lieu of property tax. You’d think that 99 per cent of people might enjoy having a nationally recognized cultural destination nearby, but this is east-of-Lake Drive Fox Point, home of the one-percenters. And they aren’t buying it, according to one attendee who spoke to Urban Milwaukee off the record. ‘When they mentioned shuttle buses, you could hear a groan go through the audience,’ the observer said. ‘People voiced concerns that the visitors would harm the neighborhood, bring an undesirable element, and things like that.

‘They even complained that as things stand people already drive on this public road just to look at the lake!’”

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Photo by Tina Prigge, Vagabond Visual Concepts

The JMKAC never formally submitted the proposal for their modest overlay, having been being beaten down by these few vocal opponents, who bought their grand Fox Point homes on Beach Drive after Mary’s art, and the visits from onlookers, had been in place for years. Yes, Mary’s creations generate a bit of street traffic from admirers, but then, why on earth buy a house there if you are bothered by it? Furthermore, the JMKAC overlay plan would have alleviated the issue of street parking and controlled the public’s access to the site. Based on the massive wave of support from the Milwaukee art community, should the JMKAC formally submit their proposal, instead of dismantling this beloved site?

Debra Brehmer, an art professor at MIAD who wrote her Master’s thesis on Mary Nohl, just wrote a very powerful article entitled, “A single woman is a witch: Battling to save the Mary Nohl Art Environment.” She writes, “Nohl never believed that art existed in a separate sphere, corralled into museums, labeled with text or swept into the marketplace of privilege. On Beach Drive, she created a place where any passerby might stop, marvel, and feel a little freer, especially if you are woman. The power of Nohl’s lifelong endeavor emanates from its site and her personal history there. They might as well burn the witch’s house down, because turning it into a facsimile museum in another county would destroy what makes it monumental — power, authority and difference arising from a single woman who was determined to live inquisitively.”

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Photo by Tina Prigge, Vagabond Visual Concepts

With people discovering Mary Nohl through our book, many have asked us, “What can we do?”
All we can suggest is to communicate to both parties involved, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the Fox Point Village Board, the importance of Mary Nohl’s life work being preserved and protected in place. Be civil, be polite. Tell the JMKAC not to give up, tell the Fox Point Village Board what a treasure they have. It is our sincere hope that they can work together to find a solution to save Mary Nohl.

Fox Point Village Board
7200 North Santa Monica Boulevard
Fox Point, WI 53217

John Michael Kohler Arts Center Board
608 New York Avenue
Sheboygan, WI 53081

All photos courtesy of Tina Prigge, Vagabond Visual Concepts.