The Unusual Sculpture Garden of Milwaukee Artist Mary Nohl

Mary Nohl House
floating_stump/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mary Nohl House in Fox Point is the source of many Milwaukee urban legends. Known to most local school kids as "The Witch's House," Mary Nohl's house and yard are filled with whimsical and bizarre concrete sculptures.

Why she made these sculptures remains something of a mystery; Nohl died in 2001. But she was trained as a sculptor at the Art Institute of Chicago, so it's not accurate to refer to Nohl's art as "outsider" or "naive." 

After Ms. Nohl’s death in 2001, neighborhood residents who consider the site an eyesore tried to have it demolished. But in 2005, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is currently under the care of the Kohler Foundation. The grounds are currently not open to the public but can be seen up close from the street.

History of Mary Nohl

Stories abound about "the witch's house," but the most prevalent was one that claimed Nohl's husband and son had drowned in Lake Michigan just offshore from the Nohl home, and that she had created these sculptures to keep watch for the lost pair.

While morbidly exciting, the story is not true. In fact, Nohl had never married and she never had any children. Born in 1914, after graduating from the Art Institute Nohl became an art teacher. After the death of both her parents in the 1960's, Mary lived alone in the family home, which she began transforming into an art environment.

Her parents left her a considerable inheritance, which allowed her to pursue her artwork.

As the yard filled with whimsical creatures, the legend of the house began to grow. Nohl died in 2001, at the age of 87.

Legacy of the Nohl House

Apparently, some residents of Fox Point, the suburb where the Nohl house is located, considered the house and its sculpture garden an eyesore.

The property had to be cordoned off after it was vandalized several times in the early 2000s. 

There was a plan at one time for the house to be open to the public, but it never came to fruition. The fragile condition of most of the remaining sculptures likely makes it too risky for Nohl's "garden" to ever be a regular museum. But it remains a favorite of area children; although there were many who sneered at Nohl's artistic vision, children often leave notes of thanks for her at the gate surrounding the home.

Continuing Mary Nohl's Work

During her lifetime, Nohl donated much of her work to the John Michael Kohler Art Center, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The Kohler Center recreated the living room of Nohl's house, using some selections from her artwork to decorate the space. 

Today, the Mary Nohl Foundation, which is overseen by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, provides scholarships for artists and arts education for children.

Today, the Mary Nohl house is listed on the Wisconsin Registry of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. It has also been nominated as a Milwaukee County Landmark. The home, located on Beach Drive, remains private.