Whimsy by the Lake

The legacy of an artful eccentric

On the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of Milwaukee, stands a modest 1920s beach cottage known locally as the Witch's House. Primitive patterns cover most of the wood exterior. Chimes and abstract silhouettes dangle from trees. Dozens of concrete sculptures stare out from behind a chainlink fence: giant heads with hollow eyes, a 12-foot dinosaur with jaws wide open, two fish sitting on a bench in conversation. The creator of this wacky environment, an artist named Mary Nohl, lived here and spent more than 30 years turning it into her masterpiece. And though her intent was to create something more whimsical than gloomy, rumors that Nohl was a witch drew a steady stream of teenage vandals—whom she sometimes fended off with a bullhorn and BB gun.

Since her death in 2001, though, the property has been recognized as an important art environment and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It has also sparked a debate between preservationists and neighbors who say the site needs to be dismantled and removed from the residential area.

Last year, the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Nohl environment as one of the state's 10 most-endangered places. Nohl left her house to the Kohler Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that specializes in preserving folk architecture, art environments, and works by self-taught artists. Normally, the foundation would conserve the site before giving it to another organization to serve as its long-term custodian.

Zoning rules in the exclusive area permit only residential use of the property, though, and a group of neighbors has vowed to fight any efforts to change the regulations. "We would like the property to remain a residence," says Eric Fonstad, an attorney who lives nearby. "If the goal is to have it accessible to the public, then I think it has to be moved." He says his concerns include increased traffic and parking on the narrow beachfront drive, and he notes that the foundation has moved other art environments before.

Terri Yoho, the Kohler Foundation's executive director, says that only small groups would be allowed to visit the house, thereby keeping traffic to a minimum. Furthermore, she says, transporting the concrete sculptures and the now-fragile cottage would damage both. Worse, moving Nohl's work would destroy its context, says Tim Heggland, a local historic preservation consultant. The lake clearly inspired Nohl, who used driftwood, beach stones, and broken bottles in her sculptures, and fish and boats as motifs. "She was passionately in love with living on the lake," Heggland says. "You can't really imagine this site not being on the water."

Nohl studied at The Art Institute of Chicago, and the thousands of pieces she created used every imaginable material, including chicken bones and TV dinner trays—"an expression of an artist's entire life without concern for an audience and without concern for the mainstream art world's trends and ideas," according to Lisa Stone, a Chicago art curator and coauthor of Sacred Spaces and Other Places, a book on grottoes and sculptural environments.

The foundation has already replaced the roof and heating and air-conditioning systems, but wholesale conservation is on hold. "We're hesitant to do too much if the house is not going to be preserved in situ and made available to the public even on a limited basis," Yoho says. Though not required to, the foundation has been paying $15,000 in annual property taxes. Says Yoho, "Right now, we're just trying to be good neighbors."

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