City's oldest home finding new life

Neighbors embrace Lowell Damon House

Aug. 4, 2010

It's doubtful cabinetmaker Oliver Damon could have envisioned that 166 years after building his house it would stand as a centerpiece for an entire neighborhood. That kids would be hunting for Easter eggs on the grounds. That volunteers would be tending the garden. That an addition to the house would one day become a museum.

But it happened.

Now, through partnerships with the Damon Woods Neighborhood Association and the Lowell Damon House caretaker, the Milwaukee County Historical Society wants to expand the site's use by stage activities there and bringing more people in for tours. Efforts to enhance the house and property have been under way all summer.

Through one project, members of the Damon Woods Neighborhood Association are creating a way to allow more Wauwatosa residents to leave a legacy. They're installing a 204-brick path behind the house, with each brick able to be engraved to honor someone living or deceased, as part of an effort to develop a Memory Garden.

"The idea is to remember old neighbors who may not be with us anymore and those who still live in the neighborhood," association President Jim Gehrke said. "I went to the (Milwaukee) County Historical Society - they thought it would be tasteful and enhance the property."

Money raised from the brick sales will help pay for programs and improvements in the neighborhood bounded by North Avenue, Hillcrest Drive, Wauwatosa Avenue and 83rd Street. An annual scholarship is awarded to a local high school senior, seasonal parties are thrown and money is put into the upkeep of the historic home.

"It's one of few historical houses in the county," Gehrke said. "Having access to it is very unique."

Older than Wisconsin

The 1840s home at 2107 Wauwatosa Ave. remains structurally stable, but requires a lot of maintenance, said Melissa Wraalstad, historic sites manager for Milwaukee County Historical Society. It's a classic example of Colonial architecture and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It counts as one of three homes the county historical society owns and operates as a museum.

"It's believed to be the oldest still-standing house in Wauwatosa," she said.

The back portion of the home - now modified to serve as the caretaker's residence - was built by Oliver Damon in 1844, making it older than the state of Wisconsin. The front portion, which serves as the museum, was added a few years later by son Lowell, whom the house is named after.

The property was deeded over to the county in 1941.

Most people don't realize that while it does still serve as a private home, it is open to the public for tours from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Sprucing up the building

In June, the neighborhood association purchased supplies to assist Boy Scout Erik Islo in painting the Lowell Damon House for his Eagle Scout project. Islo and a band of volunteers scraped away chipping paint and repainted the exterior.

"It was in dire need a of a paint job, the last one was done 12 or 13 years ago," Wraalstad said.

The paint had worn off completely in some areas, exposing the wood and hastening the building's deterioration, she said.

A carpenter has been hired to replace rotting wood on the front entry and to repair the trim.

Patricia Zimmerman took over as caretaker this summer, and she's enthusiastic about bringing new life to the property. In the private residence, she pulled up the old carpet and refinished the hardwood floors to return them to their original look. She also repainted the living space.

More to come

Zimmerman has an interest in gardening, and she's looking for volunteers to help. It's a natural fit with the neighborhood association's interests.

A beautification team from the neighborhood comes to the property each spring, but by mid-summer the yard gets overrun with weeds, Gehrke said. The association board is considering hiring a service to do basic yard maintenance.

Wraalstad is looking for an intern to review records of furnishings and decorations in the house, and determine which aren't period or region appropriate, and which items that would give a glimpse of 19th century life are absent and worth obtaining if possible.

By the Numbers


years since Damon Woods Neighborhood Association was established


households in the neighborhood


households belonging to the association


association board members


annual dues, per household, for membership


cost of dues for seniors


WHAT: Damon Woods Neighborhood Association unveiling of the Memory Garden path.

WHEN: 5:45 p.m. Sept. 19

WHERE: Lowell Damon House, 2107 Wauwatosa Ave.

Buy a brick

COST: $50 per brick

CONTACT: Jim Gehrke at (414) 517-9673 or go to


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