7328 N. Beach Rd., Fox Point, WI 53217
7328 N. Beach Rd., Fox Point, WI 53217
Artist Mary Nohl filled her yard with whimsical sculptures of giant heads, fish, and other creatures using materials she gathered from the Lake Michigan shoreline. This earned her the reputation as the “Witch of Fox Point.” While her home is officially known as the Mary Nohl Art Environment, it’s still referred to locally as the Witch’s House of Milwaukee.
Mary Nohl died in 2001 at the age of 87, leaving her work to the Kohler Foundation. They removed much of the interior of her home, which can now be seen on display at the Art Preserve. The house, however, remains in a quiet neighborhood whose residents fought for years to prevent it from becoming an attraction. The Kohler Foundation considering moving moving the house and art, but decided it wouldn’t survive the trip.
In April 2023 the village board of Fox Point officially designated Mary Nohl’s house as a cultural space, which will finally allow visitors in limited numbers.
This curious old cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan has been the source of urban legend for decades. The yard is filled with large concrete sculptures of giant heads and abstract figures. Humans, fish, and other water creatures all made with materials gathered from the beach.
Frightened whispers of countless curious visitors tell a story as chilling as the howling wind that blows in from the lake, the tragic tale of a reclusive old crone whose husband and son drowned in the turbulent waters just offshore from their home. In her grief, they say, the “Witch of Fox Point” constructed the bizarre sculptures to keep watch for her lost loved ones to return.
Like most legends, there is little truth to it. Mary Nohl was never married, and had no children. She was simply an eccentric artist who lived alone, conjuring fantastical creations that transformed her home into her masterpiece.
“Mary cared nothing about conforming, resisted the stereotypical roles for women of her generation,” Barbara Manger, author of Mary Nohl: Inside & Out, said in a 2009 interview. “She set her own direction and pursued creating regardless of the views of others.”
In that way, maybe Mary really was a witch – a strong, independent woman who lived the life she chose regardless of societal expectations.
And it seems she had a sense of humor about the legend, if the word “boo” formed by beach pebbles set into her front step is any indication.
Mary was born to Leo and Emma Nohl in 1914. Leo was an attorney in Milwaukee. The Nohls bought the lot where the house stands now on North Beach Road and built a small prefab cottage as a summer retreat in 1924. It quickly became 10-year-old Mary’s favorite place.
At the time, the road was little more than a dirt path that didn’t get plowed during the winter, so it wasn’t an ideal place to live year round. That changed by the early 1940s, though, and the Nohls hired an architect to build an addition. There were some delays during construction as World War II caused a shortage in building materials, but the house was eventually completed in 1943. The family soon sold their Milwaukee home and moved in.
Mary graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937. She taught art in Baltimore and Milwaukee until 1943, when she decided that making art was more enjoyable. She opened a pottery studio in Milwaukee and moved back in with her parents at the house on North Beach Road, where she would spend the rest of her life.
Mary’s parents died in the 1960s, leaving her a sizable inheritance. She didn’t have to work anymore, so she began filling the home where she now lived alone with her creations of concrete, scrollsawn wood, driftwood, glass, bone, and other found objects.
The spectacle soon attracted curious visitors, and with them, vandalism. But Mary didn’t let that hinder her creativity.
“I was awakened early one Sunday morning to the sound of a crackling fire,” she wrote about a particular incident, probably in one of her biannual mimeographed newsletters she sent to friends and family, “and relieved to find that the fire was burning a driftwood figure in the front yard – and not the house. This particular sculpture has been a target for the kids for years – about fifteen feet high and so encrusted with paint and so dried in the sun, that the burning was like a series of explosions. Called the poor, overworked police who sat in three squad cars outside the fence and watched it burn. Sass, Basil and I sat inside and watched from the front window with the aid of a beer. All that was left were two ten-foot pipes anchored in cement, and before the last sparks had drifted off I had plans for my largest cement animal. The two pipes conveniently became the two front legs of a less destructible cement creation.”
Mary died in 2001 at the age of 87. She left her home and sculptures to a philanthropic organization called the Kohler Foundation that works in the areas of art preservation, grants, scholarships, and performing arts. Her estate of over $11 million went to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to oversee the administration of the Mary Nohl Foundation and Mary Nohl Fellowship, providing arts education for children and scholarships for artists.
North Beach Road is a wealthy area, and to Mary’s neighbors, her home was an eyesore. They petitioned the city to have it demolished. Instead, the property was granted entries in the Wisconsin Registry of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, and is now protected.
The Kohler Foundation wanted to open it to the public, but a decade-long struggle with residents and zoning laws proved unsuccessful. In 2014, a plan was announced to move the entire house and sculptures to a more accessible site in Sheboygan County. The plan was never put into motion, as the art was deemed too fragile to move.
Conservators have cataloged hundreds of individual works of art from inside and outside Mary’s home. In her master’s thesis on Nohl, Debra L. Brehmer categorized the yard sculptures into four distinct groups: monolithic heads, figures and groupings, mythic animals, and architectural ruins.
Records of Mary’s works include descriptions such as, “Man & Fish Conversing,” “Tall Horned Figure,” “Wall of Faces,” “Crowned Heads,” and “Mermaids.”
“To build these pieces,” Brehmer wrote, “Mary first develops a rough idea on paper. She then makes armatures out of metal rods, old pipes, fence wire or tin and fills in the forms with stones she collects by the beach in an old red wagon. She applies concrete in sections, from the ground up, allowing each to dry for two or three days before adding the next. She often combs or trowels a texture into the wet medium and adds subtle decorative flourishes, such as beach stone, marbles or reflector eyes and ornamental bits of pottery or tile.”
Among the various exhibitions of Mary’s work over the years was the “Greetings and Salutations and Boo” installation at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2017, which included Mary’s intricately embellished living room, carefully removed from her home and reconstructed for the exhibit.
Today, much of the interior of Mary Nohl’s home can be seen on display at the Art Preserve, part of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center dedicated to showcasing artist-built environments.
The National Register of Historic Places record calls the Mary Nohl Art Environment “one of Wisconsin’s most original and outstanding works of art.” However, it was off limits until very recently. In April 2023, the village board of Fox Point voted to designate Mary Nohl’s house as a cultural space, which will allow it to be used as an art gallery, museum, or library.
“In the new designation, general visitors, including up to 20 art scholars, teachers and students per day, may visit the house three days a week,” Milwaukee Magazine writes. “Village residents and their guests also will be able to tour the house in groups of 10 with advanced reservations. In addition, two special events having no more than 60 people each time may be held at the house annually, subject to village approval.”
Hopefully this will finally provide us with the opportunity to appreciate Mary Nohl’s art up close, rather than peering through the overgrown vines on the fence.