Fox Point — Ruth DeYoung Kohler admitted she thought she was going to be "run out of here on a rail" when she took the stage at a forum about the preservation of Mary Nohl's artistic environment in Fox Point last week.
Kohler, after all, is the director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which announced two months ago that it would be moving Nohl's house and lawn sculptures away from its original setting on Beach Drive in Fox Point to a new location in Sheboygan County. All of the speakers who presented prior to Kohler had spoken about the value of keeping the home in its natural setting along Lake Michigan, which inspired many of the sculptures on her lawn.
The forum, held at Milwaukee Arts Museum, was packed with those sympathetic to keeping the Nohl house in Fox Point, but many seemed unaware of the neighborhood tensions that led Kohler to make her decision.
Those tensions include the village of Fox Point taking the Kohler Foundation to court in 2005 because the organization held fundraisers, tours, bus tours and operated the house like a museum. The village won on the grounds that a museum does not comply with the residential zoning of the area.
Also in 2005, 85 percent of households on the same street as the Mary Nohl House signed a statement in opposition to a museum. In 2006, more than 100 residents showed up to a public hearing wearing buttons that said "no museum." Kohler said there were many supporters in the neighborhood who did not go public with their feelings because they did not want to be ostracized in the neighborhood.
In May 2012, the village of Fox Point informed the Kohler Foundation that it could seek cultural overlay zoning, similar to the Chipstone property, to allow public access to the Nohl property.
Village officials told the Kohler Foundation that cultural overlay zoning would require approval from the Fox Point Village Board, which would most likely make a zoning decision based on sentiments from residents on Beach Drive, and to a lesser extent, east of Lake Drive. In preparing documentation for the zoning application, the Kohler Foundation held an informational meeting with local residents in October 2013 with a handful of proposed guidelines — visitors only allowed during scheduled appointments, limited daylight hours and a shuttle van — designed to reduce traffic on the quiet residential street.
Kohler, said the October 2013 meeting was "profoundly depressing," as the neighbors rejected all of the proposed guidelines. She was convinced neighbors would never support even the most limited public access to Nohl's home.
"That night convinced me that a harmonious accord with the neighbors would remain unattainable until perhaps as long as a generation," she said. "Several of the people at the meeting said they needed a gated community. I've always talked about Fox Point as a gated community without a gate."
The Kohler Arts Foundation never submitted a rezoning application, predicting that neighborhood opposition would pressure the village board into rejecting the request. Kohler said it was a depressing moment for her, as she had wanted to restore the site ever since she met Nohl 27 years ago.
"We have not found a way," Kohler said. "We don't think we will find a way."
Barring any reversal in community opinion, Kohler said the foundation will move the Nohl landscape to Sheboygan County — ideally near Lake Michigan. Debra Brehmer, who wrote her master's thesis on Nohl, said the environment is artistically important, as it is only one of three environments in the world to be constructed by a single woman.
As pointed out by Milwaukee historian John Gurda and others, the preservation of the original habitat is particularly meaningful at Nohl's former home in Fox Point.
"We clearly can't save every building — it's even harder to preserve their habitats — but we do need to make the effort," Gurda said. "We subtract at our peril. That applies to individual buildings, but it also applies to context. Stripped of context, any landmark is like a rose without a garden: pretty grass, but in some fundamental way denatured. That is especially true of a garden as carefully grown and lovingly tended as Mary Nohl's."
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