Some of us know the joy of traveling in Italy, land of art and culture, couture and cuisine… and, not coincidentally, stronghold of the Church and home of saints and popes and prelates from ancient times. But eventually you have to leave Florence or Perugia or Sienna and head back to old Milwaukee. Right?
Not if it’s the go-go 1920s and you’re a rich Milwaukee magnate like Lloyd R. Smith.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith trotted ’round Europe and decided they liked the villas very much, especially the Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Lombardy. So they decided to replicate it on a hillside overlooking Lake Michigan. Why not?
Today, you can point yourself to a magic address on the North Side and fall through a wormhole into the Renaissance. You enter upon an atrium in the original sense… an open-air courtyard with a fountain and dashing figure of Mercury surrounded by shaded arcades, topiaries, and intricate stone pavements. Is it 1550 AD? 40 BC? No, it’s 2220 N. Terrace Avenue.
Not Italian enough? Prepare to be astounded. Every Sunday during the summer, from 10:00 to 12:30, you can sit in this courtyard and sip a cappuccino while you listen to the lute (or cello or recorder). The coffee and music create a salubrious scene of Milwaukeeans from four generations smiling in the sun and inhabiting their architectural heritage with éclat. There’s no excuse not to be transported entirely to the bel paese. And the concert costs just five bucks.
Behind the atrium is the home itself. The Smiths’ manse, dubbed Villa Terrace, is now a museum packed with tasteful tchotchkes from centuries past. Cyril Colnik, an Austrian blacksmith whose masterpieces decorate many old Milwaukee homes, filled this place with wild hephestian creations. Admission to the museum will cost you another seven dollars.
But wait! We’re not out of Lombardy yet. Behind the villa is one of Milwaukee’s most sumptuous, least known secular splendors. The house sits high above the lakeshore, and the gardens in back plunge down, down, down in ravishing swoops toward Lincoln Memorial Drive. On this hillside a stalwart WASP, the landscape architect Rose Standish Nichols, channelled her inner Mediterranean mamma and brought forth a triumph of her art. She gives us terraced gardens in pristine Renaissance symmetry, with jaw-dropping “water stairs” bisecting the perfect view.
Modelled on the 16th-century “scalinetta” at Cicogna Mozzoni, the Villa Terrace “water stairs” are a sublime folly. A long, stone staircase descends regally toward the Lake while, by some miracle of hydraulic engineering, a trickling stream runs daintily down its center past your feet. At the final stage, on a smooth green lawn, the rivulet flows through fountainheads into a placid pool: an earthly paradise.
One is not required to don hose and doublet to prance through this arcadia, but you might feel more at home if you do. Except that you are already home. Only in Milwaukee, folks!