By Paul J. Hoffman
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, the heirs of Milwaukee brewer Capt. Frederick Pabst made a decision that forever changed the landscape of the eastern edge of Wauwatosa. In 1915, they subdivided the 133-acre Pabst farm and hired a renowned city planner to design a model residential neighborhood for the site. The result was Washington Highlands, considered a premier example of garden city planning as well as “one of the most prestigious and desirable residential areas in the state,” as touted by the Washington Highlands Homeowners Association website.
Bounded by Lloyd Street to the north, Milwaukee Avenue and Vliet Street to the south, 60th Street to the east and 68th Street to the west, “The Highlands” as the area is known by most locals, was originally part of Pabst’s 217-acre rural oasis. Pabst bought 178 acres in 1871, then purchased additional tracts. He formed a stock farm on the property, where he raised Percheron horses to be used for hauling his beer wagons. He also raised hops, an essential ingredient in the beer he brewed.
Pabst became quite interested in horse breeding and ran a successful stud operation there for several years, according to the Washington Highlands Historic Preservation Corp. website. On a hill above the stock farm was a wood house where the family retreated during the hot summer months, the site says. He also added an apple orchard at some point.
An 1888 Silas Chapman map of Wauwatosa shows the Pabst farm extending all the way north to North Avenue. In 1891, the captain opened a street running east-west through his land (today’s Lloyd Street) and granted a right-of-way for the Milwaukee and Wauwatosa Rapid Transit companies to build a streetcar line on it, allowing easy access to downtown Milwaukee … where of course, his brewery was situated. Pabst died in 1904, by which time he had sold what amounted to the northern third of his original farm. The remaining acreage was redesigned into Washington Highlands by Werner Hegemann, a German native who was well-known in America by this time. He had given lectures on city planning in more than 20 U.S. cities by 1913. In April 1915, during World War I, he stowed away on a Norwegian vessel, making his way to the United States for the duration of the war.
It was during this time that he was hired to design The Highlands. With the help of American landscape architect Elbert Peets, Hegemann employed the latest concepts of England’s Garden City movement, which “was to use an overall master plan to obtain healthful, peaceful environments shielded from the intrusions of industrialization,” according to a history of The Highlands published in the Nov. 13, 1993 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
The plan minimizes through-traffic, while the curving streets meander along the site’s naturally hilly topography and its mature trees. Several private parks help preserve the area’s rolling landscape, as do split-grade boulevards (in which one lane of a roadway sits as many as 10 feet higher than its sister lane).
“Over the years, some have noted the layout of the streets in the Highlands may look like a Prussian or German helmet of the time.
The master plan included the pres- ervation of Schoonmacher Creek and included plans for a commercial center and school, although neither of those were ever built.
While many Wauwatosa residents think immediately of the large lots and ornate homes when they think of Washington Highlands, there is also a ring of more modest dwellings along the borders of the neighborhood. These are the homes facing the streets that form the subdivision’s borders. Hegemann’s plan called for a core of small and large single-family homes, but also two-family and four-family flats.
The earliest building permits were issued in 1918, although by 1920, only eight homes had been constructed. During the 1920s, however, 287 new res- idences were built. By 1940, 86 percent of the 373 primary structures had been completed. It should come as no surprise that most of the homes are constructed in styles popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
These styles include English Tudor Revival, Craftsman, Dutch Colonial Revival, French Eclectic, Germanic Cottages, English Arts & Crafts, Prairie, Mission, Italian Renaissance Revival and Spanish Eclectic. Although there is one home on Washington Circle that bucks the building trend; it is in a Japanese Exotic style. Approximately 320 structures survive today.
Over the years, some have noted the layout of the streets in the Highlands may look like a Prussian or German helmet of the time. There’s no way of knowing with certainty whether Hegemann, a staunch German, did this on purpose. One story says that Hegemann wanted to name the area “Kaiser Wilhelm Platz,” which would have honored the German leader at the time, according to a history of the neighborhood on Historical-Highlands.net. The story goes on to say that Pabst, an American German, was opposed to that name and that Hegemann laid out the streets in a Prussian helmet shape as vengeance because he lost the naming issue with Pabst. However, since Pabst died more than a decade before Hegemann arrived in Wauwatosa, this account can’t possibly be true.
According to the National Register of Historic Places registration form that was submitted in 1989 nominating Washing- ton Highlands for inclusion on the list, the helmet story is most likely bunk. The form notes: “Persistent local gossip claims that the Highlands street plan depicts a ‘Prussian Helmet.’ Probably precipitated by designer Werner Hegemann’s German background, we have found no evidence to support this suposition [sic], although a lively imagination can conjur [sic] a resemblence [sic].”
The Washington Highlands Historic District was listed on the National Register that year.
There is little or no existing evidence of structures from the period when the site was utilized as the Pabst Farms, the Historic Places registration form states. The houses and barns were demolished, although reputedly a new house was built upon the foundations of one of these structures (1524 Upper Parkway South). The location of the Applecroft Park on the site of Pabst’s apple orchard may be the only remaining evidence of improve- ments made by the Pabst family.
A century after Pabst’s land was sold to create Washington Highlands, the area remains fascinating. Take a leisurely walk, ride or drive through it. You’ll experience some of the most interesting houses in the city, not to mention unique street layouts that accentuate the topography and green spaces that belie the fact that this neighborhood is most definitely surrounded by city.