Pabst Mansion

A Picture Perfect 25 Years

September 26, 2018

By John Eastberg

This September marks my twenty-fifth year with the Pabst Mansion organization. Achieving such an important career milestone has meant a great deal of reflection on the ways the Mansion has changed and what endures. There are many bright spots as I reflect on twenty-five years of meeting inspiring people, our fascinating restorations, and thrilling discoveries.  One of the things that has brought me constant joy all of these years has been my quest for photos related to the Pabst story.  I have had an interest in photography since I was a teenager, maybe even before, as I loved taking pictures of Victorian homes in my hometown of Redlands, California. My wife’s favorite fact about me is that my mom purchased my first slide projector when I was in 6th grade so that I could give my first presentation on the mansions of my hometown. True story.

John C. Eastberg, 1994

When I joined the Pabst Mansion in 1993, the organization was in its infancy, and we truly understood very little about Captain Pabst’s family, who they were, and even what they looked like.  Our archives contained two photographs of Captain Pabst, one of Mrs. Pabst, one of their daughter Elizabeth and one of their granddaughter, Elsbeth. That was it. Initially, I thought that like many Victorians, the Pabsts were photographed far less frequently and maybe only had a few studio portraits done over their lifetimes.  I couldn’t have been more incorrect—the Pabst family, as it turned out, were enthusiastic patrons of photography.  It has become very clear over these twenty-five years that Captain Pabst loved having his photo taken.  The Captain posed with family, friends, at the brewery, and even out for a horseback ride. This family photographic record dates back to the emerging popularization of photography in the 1850s.

It seems unbelievable to me now, as I look through the hundreds of photos of the Captain’s era and thousands of photos of the Pabst family into the 20th century that we had so little photographic evidence of the family. Some of my fondest memories have been discovering this record that is so essential to the mission of the Pabst Mansion.

Over the years, as I met Pabst family across the United States and in Germany, one of the first things I would ask them was, “Do you have any old photographs?”  As many Pabst family members can attest, I am fairly persistent (some would say relentless) in my request to see the family photo albums.  Invariably there was the trip out to the garage, down to the basement, or to a hall closet to search for photos.  The Pabst family has been incredibly accommodating to my ever-present requests and they have enjoyed the thrill of the hunt as well.

 Captain and Mrs. Pabst with Elsbeth

In 1897, the Pabst family commissioned Milwaukee society photographer, Simon L. Stein, to capture the interior of the mansion, beautifully illustrating the rooms of the recently completed home and the art collection that had assembled over five years. Thanks to this photographic record, when visitors ask if it is original, we can more often than not say “yes!”  Over the past forty years, these photos have informed our preservation initiatives and guided the craftsmen who carry out our restoration program. When I undertook the restoration of the Servants’ Dining Room in 1996, I must have spent over one hundred hours absorbing every detail of a singular photo of that room in order to insure the accuracy of our work.

Why are these photos important to us?  To begin with, they are essential in interpreting the mansion and in its on-going restoration. Without the historical interior photos of the Pabst Mansion, the house would lack the cohesive quality and professional rigor it has today.  In recent years, those original photos of the mansion have led us to do something magical—rebuild the original art collection of the Pabst Mansion.  The quality of the photos not only allows us to match the paintings to the original art inventory of the house, but also track these paintings down within the family or at auction.  To date, we have well over twenty original paintings that have returned to the Pabst Mansion, an extraordinary feat considering that the mansion’s art collection was divided amongst the heirs and dispersed in 1907.

Pabst Mansion Dining Room Wall

Last year, we held a Pabst family reunion to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Pabst Mansion.  Over eighty members of the family traveled to Milwaukee from across the country and abroad. Everyone enjoyed going through the mansion, and seeing the transformation of their ancestral home, owing in large part to the camera lens that had captured the mansion generations prior.  Of course, their reunion was captured by a photographer, memorializing the historic event and there were more than a few selfies being taken around the house too.  As I observed cousins meeting one another for the first time, new family photos being taken and shared; the connection of the past and present was tangible and represented that the mansion and its history continues.

The faces are the same: five generations represented between little Napoleon looking at a photograph of his great-great grandmother, Emma Pabst when she was his age in 1872

Through the years, I have always considered the best part of my work at the Pabst Mansion to be the friendships and the photographs that have gone hand in hand for a quarter of a century.  The Pabst Mansion continues to be an important site for the Pabst family, for our community, and as a tangible and visible link to our communal past. I look forward to celebrating the importance of this landmark, Milwaukee’s home, during my jubilee year.  I hope you’ll visit us soon and add to the visual record with a few more photos!