Pabst Mansion

The original Pabst Mansion reception hall chandelier has been in the news

March 24, 2018

By John Eastberg

During the last week, the original Pabst Mansion reception hall light fixture has been featured in an online auction and made the Milwaukee news headlines, presenting the opportunity for anyone to own an important piece of Milwaukee’s decorative arts history. It has been difficult to weigh our desire with wanting to return this amazing piece of ironwork to the Pabst Mansion and balance it with the several major restoration projects that we currently have in front of us. John Sidoff, the current owner of Von Trier’s has generously reached out to us on several occasions regarding our desire to purchase the fixture and bring it home. Some decisions are easy and some are difficult and as with most non-profit organizations, our ability to spend funds is dictated by the funds available to spend.

The creation of the chandelier dates to the mid-1890s—after a chance meeting between the beer baron, Captain Frederick Pabst and the Austrian metalsmith, Cyril Colnik at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The two gentlemen got along famously and Pabst would provide Colnik with a string of commissions and introductions that would eventually keep Colnik in business for decades into the 20th century. The Colnik chandelier was part of the Mansion’s original interior and greeted visitors in the reception hall from 1895 to the 1960s.

How were the chandelier and the Pabst Mansion separated in the first place you may ask? The last Catholic Archbishop to have lived in the Pabst Mansion moved in 1959. For those of you who might not know it, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee owned the Pabst Mansion from 1908 to 1975 and it served as the private residence to five archbishops. When Archbishop Cousins arrived, he was greeted by a somewhat tired Victorian interior. In truth, not much had been done to the interior of the house since the Pabst family sold it in 1908. Cousins set out on a campaign to refresh the inside of the house. Walls and ceilings were painted white and cream-colored wall to wall carpeting was installed. Several large original light fixtures left at that time, including the reception hall chandelier.

It is our understanding that the chandelier languished in a garage for almost eighteen years until it was purchased by Karl Lotharius for his new bar, Von Trier’s, in 1978. It has been a centerpiece there for forty years. Recently, the Sidoffs commissioned Heritage Lighting in Cedarburg to carefully restore the chandelier to its former glory and it was ceremoniously reinstalled in the main room of Von Trier’s.

In the late 1990s, we were highly motivated by a donor who wanted us to try to purchase the fixture back from the then-owners of Von Trier’s and after several conversations, it became apparent that they wanted it to remain right where it was. Our donor was amenable to place the funds raised towards commissioning a reproduction of the original light fixture. For two years, detailed drawings were done of the original and during an additional two years, metalsmith Dan Nauman of Bighorn Forge in Kewaskum, Wisconsin forged over 325 individual pieces that would comprise a new fixture, identical in every detail down to the three pairs of elk antlers. Dan installed the new chandelier in the Mansion’s reception hall in early 2005 and received an international award for the quality of his work in reproducing the Colnik original.

Now a new chapter for the original chandelier has begun. I always remain philosophical about these things, reflecting on how objects in our world travel in their own universe as we come and go. For almost 125 years, the Pabst Mansion chandelier has had its own history both within the walls of the Pabst Mansion and outside of them. I trust that either now or some point in the future, the chandelier will find its way back to where it started in the 1890s.

Over the last forty years, our organization has been able to retrieve almost 700 original Pabst Mansion objects from all over the world. That is what makes the Pabst Mansion a special place, a place that was almost demolished in the 1970s for a parking structure, but was saved at the last moment and reborn as one of Milwaukee’s most beloved and recognized buildings. As we celebrate the 125th year of the completion of the Pabst Mansion, we welcome Milwaukee to visit and experience why the Pabst is truly Milwaukee’s Mansion and thank the community for its continued support of this important landmark.

P.S.  For a little more, check out Channel 12’s take on the story: