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Travel: Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Esteemed for its cheap cost and blue-collar image, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is a perennial favorite of college kids, country folk, and your average patriotic red-white-and-blue guzzler.

Behind the legendary product, however, is the unique life of a somewhat forgotten character known as Captain Frederick Pabst (1836-1904), an enterprising immigrant, a successful industrialist, and a fine philanthropist. Frederick Pabst emigrated from Germany in 1848 at the age of 12 with his parents. They settled in Chicago, where he worked as a hotel waiter, then as a cabin boy on a Lake Michigan steamer, eventually becoming captain of one of the ships.

In his riverboat travels, he met a German entrepreneur named Phillip Best, owner of a small Milwaukee brewery. After marrying his daughter, Frederick was granted partnership in the brewery’s operations. A few years later, Frederick bought out his father-in-law, and in 1889, Best Brewing became Pabst Brewing Company. Soon the prosperous man needed a home fit for his family. He chose Grand Avenue in Milwaukee as that place because it was an attractive, well-heeled, tree-lined thoroughfare with many great mansions as neighbors. Construction began in the summer of 1890, and over the course of two years, the Pabst Mansion took ornate, extravagant shape, each room ingrained with Flemish style custom paneling, furniture, and panache.

When it was completed in July 1892, the Pabst Mansion represented novel standards of modernity and sophistication in design. Since then it has stood sentinel to Milwaukee’s history, one of the few constants in its changing urban environment. John Eastberg is the Director of Development at the Pabst Mansion, and a senior Pabst Historian. He started as a volunteer at the mansion more than 15 years ago. Since then he has learned the details of every nook, cranny, cubbyhole, slot, ornament, and piece of artwork inside.

“Up until the 1890s,” says Eastberg, “there really weren’t any major Flemish Renaissance Revival Style buildings like this in Milwaukee. This was an aberration and a trendsetter. It has the classic American gilded age interior, exemplifying the very best that European design had to offer. Here, we see everything from the artwork, furniture, paneling, and the compartmentalizing of rooms harmonizing with that style.” At several points, from the beginning of the 20th century onward, the Pabst Mansion has faced the unfortunate prospect of being annihilated by the crashing thud of the wrecking ball. The Pabst heirs sold their family home in 1908 to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

For sixty-seven years, five archbishops called the Pabst Mansion their home, preserving the house during urban renewal demolitions. “There were so many structures of the same character and caliber lining the streets here,” says Eastberg. “And this one is the only one left still intact with its original furnishings. Original furniture and family heirlooms are always filtering back to us. We just received armchairs from Mrs. Pabst’s sitting room.” At the time of his death, Captain Frederick Pabst had amassed a brewing and real estate empire. He died on January 1, 1904, leaving the brewery to his sons.

Eastberg says that Pabst was far more complex and multi-dimensional than simply being a wise business magnate; he was humbly devoted to his family, friends, and charitable works. “Frederick Pabst was a good person,” says Eastberg. “Many famous people in American history we come to learn are not-so-great people. He did great things for the community, his employees, and his family. As far as any gossipy stuff, he was a beer baron who drank a lot of wine. He may have even preferred it.” Pabst Brewing Company closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, and now conducts operations out of corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago. The mansion exists today as one of Milwaukee’s great architectural landmarks, and towers as a prominent link to the Captain’s life and times, bridging three centuries in the process. While dignified, proud, and in remarkably good overall condition, certain rooms show inevitable signs of decay.

The success or failure of tending to the Pabst Mansion, Eastberg says, has broader implications than whether or not Pabst enthusiasts have a fun destination for an eccentric road trip or not. The way we treat our historical sites, he says, is a good indication as to how we treat our community, and a building of this stature deserves vigorous attention.

“The restorations here never end,” says Eastberg. “It’s just like owning your own home, the work never ends. I know that the restoration projects here are complicated and expensive, but there’s no place that’s anything like this in the state — or anywhere else for that matter. It is definitely its own entity and destination.”

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