For the first half-century of its existence, the stately, Queen Anne-style Victorian on N. 8th St. in Manitowoc was home to two prominent families.
For the 75 years since then, it’s been an art museum — considered by many as one of the best of its kind for a small city — with works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Georgia O’Keeffe, thanks mostly to the generosity of local and regional benefactors.
Built by Joseph and Mary Vilas in 1893 at a cost of between $35,000 and $50,000, the home was designed by architects George Ferry and Alfred Clas — who also drew up the plans for Milwaukee’s Pabst Mansion. Joseph Vilas was a successful mining engineer and a former mayor of Manitowoc.
The home featured 13 bedrooms, seven full and partial baths, hot-water heat, six fireplaces, gaslight, cistern water and a number of turrets, dormers, stained-glass windows and beautiful woodwork. The home was, for its time, a palace.
Mary Vilas died in 1901 of heart disease and Joseph Vilas later became ill and took his own life with a revolver. After sitting empty for several years, Reinhardt Rahr, president of the Rahr Malting Co., bought the home for his family. The Rahr clan added electric lighting and city water. Reinhardt died in 1921 and 20 years later his widow, Clara, gave the home to the city for use as an art museum and civic center. In 1975, an exhibition wing was added to the rear of the house.
Greg Vadney, executive director of the museum, said the Rahr family is still involved in the malting business in the Twin Cities. The West family name was added to the museum in the 1980s to honor John and Ruth West, who were “patrons of the arts and donated many of the top-level paintings and objects to the museum,” Vadney said.
John West was the president and CEO of Manitowoc Cranes, which remains a major employer in the city. It was because of the Wests’ philanthropy, in large part, that the facility’s exhibition wing was built, Vadney said.
“It had gotten to the point in the ’80s where it seemed fitting that their name be added to the museum,” he said.
“For a community of this size, this facility has some incredible possessions, both American and international,” Vadney said. “It’s a worldly collection, modest by large museum standards, but quite outstanding at the same time.
“Our hallmark art piece has to be the 1924 Georgia O’Keeffe ‘Virgin Pine Tree No. 2,’ a work from her early New York years that was painted in Lake George.”
Vadney said the pine tree painting by Sun Prairie-native O’Keeffe “is very indicative of her signature style. If you think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, the trees are done in that very stylized way that she used to draw out an almost human quality in the flowers. So it is a wonderful painting for us to have.”
Vadney said the museum also owns a large surrealist painting by Chilean Roberto Matta from his later years. The painting was a gift from the West family.
Another interesting work, Vadney said, is by Andy Warhol that’s a “stitched photo series connected with thread.”
Other pieces in the museum collection include works by Joan Miró, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alex Katz, Mark Rothko and Stuart Davis. They range from oil to watercolor to prints.
The Rahr-West also has a number of ceramic pieces by Picasso, which he created in the 1950s and ’60s when he was living in Portugal, Vadney said.
Though Picasso’s ceramics are less well known than his paintings, Vadney said more attention has been given to his ceramic efforts in recent years.
“They definitely have a Picasso quality to them, with bizarre imagery and vibrant colors on painted stoneware,” Vadney said. “One has the image of one of his wives, Jacqueline, whom he met while at the pottery studio. It is very angular.”
The museum also has works from Wisconsin natives, including portraits of a number of prominent Manitowoc residents.
One of them, dubbed “Bestemor,” which means grandmother in Danish, is of Dorothea Berthelsen, who grew up in Denmark, divorced, moved to Manitowoc with her children and was a midwife. She was a cousin to the Rahrs.
“Legend has it that she delivered about half of Manitowoc around the turn of the 20th century, so she is a figure in our collective history. Beside her in another painting is her son, painter Johan Berthelsen. Both were painted by Wayman Adams,” Vadney said.
One room, a parlor on the first floor, has been kept as it was when the Rahr family lived in the house and is dedicated to the home’s history. A recent addition to the room is a 7-foot-tall wall clock that once belonged to the Rahrs.
One of the museum’s most unusual artifacts is a model of a piece of Sputnik IV, a Soviet spaceship that crashed into the street directly in front of the museum in 1962.
“The rest of whatever was left of the craft — which had tumbled through the atmosphere out of control — presumably landed in Lake Michigan. It probably had disintegrated down to nothing,” Vadney said. “The piece that crashed here into our street looked liked a melted-down hubcap.”
NASA scientists, who got the original chunk, determined it was Soviet by the screw threading because it was in millimeters. They made several castings and returned the original piece to the (most-likely) chagrined Soviets in 1963.
“After that, it appears to have been lost. We’ve reached out to Moscow and their version of the Air and Space Museum, and they claim we don’t know what we are talking about. It was a failure, which they probably didn’t share with the public.”
Manitowoc hasn’t forgotten the incident, however, and celebrates the satellite’s crash each September with Sputnik Days. This year’s event will be held Sept. 9-10.
More information: The Rahr-West Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free, but donations of $4 for adults and $2 for children are suggested. For more, see rahrwestartmuseum.org or call (920) 686-3090.