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2011 May 24, Two Rivers, Wisconsin

Rahr-West Art Museum

As mentioned in the primary entry (Two Rivers, Wisconsin, May 2011, “The Prettiest Two Towns Yet!”), there’s so much to do and see on this part of Lake Michigan. If you visit nothing else while in the area, be sure to set aside a few hours to visit the Rahr-West Art Museum (http://www.manitowoc.org/index.aspx?NID=1034 ).

The mansion that is the Rahr-West Art Museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. This Queen Anne style Victorian mansion was built by Joseph & Mary Vilas between 1891 and 1893 at a cost of $35,000 to $50,000. It was designed by the Milwaukee architects George Ferry and Alfred Clas, who also designed the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee.

The house is an eclectic assemblage of turrets, dormers, bay windows, and building materials combined to make an attractive façade and a formal, yet comfortable, interior. The house contains 13 bedrooms, seven full and partial baths, hot-water heat with six fireplaces, gaslight, and cistern water.

Joseph Vilas, mayor of Manitowoc from 1893-1895, was a railroad and mining entrepreneur. Mary Vilas died of heart disease in 1901. Joseph Vilas lived in the house until 1905 - when suffering from a painful, incurable illness - he ended his life with a revolver.

The house remained empty until 1910 when Reinhardt Rahr, president of Rahr Malting Company, purchased it. The Rahr family added handsome wall coverings, electric light, and city water to the house. Reinhardt Rahr died in 1921. His widow, Clara, donated the house to the city in 1941 to be used for educational and civic purposes as a museum and civic center.

The Rahr Civic Center, with the aid of a grant from the Rahr family, was able to hire a professional director in 1950. The City of Manitowoc appointed a Board of Directors and proceeded to repair and remodel the house for a modest program of changing exhibitions and displays. By the 1970s, the Rahr Civic Center had outgrown its quarters and faced abandonment. John and Ruth West became interested and offered their assistance.

With gifts from both the Rahr and West Foundations, land was purchased and an exhibition wing was opened in November of 1975. The brick front porch entrance area was restored in 1979-80. They had been metal and glass from the 1953 remodeling. In 1986, John and Ruth West added an additional gallery space for a rotating display of the permanent collection.

The town of Manitowoc is fortunate to have an Art Center as beautiful as the Rahr West!

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