A "building watcher's" lazy drive down a short stretch of Wausau's 5th Street

You do not need to confine your "home watching" to the wealthy neighborhoods of your town, though there is a lot to see in those wonderful homes. We branched out, actually a bit by accident, and found a group of middle-class homes in Wausau that we found very intriguing, though at the time we did not know why. After photographing them and learning a little about architectural styles, we found out why. These homes, all century classics, have history and weaves of style in them that are typically midwestern, very American, and fun to study and dissect.

By Ed Marek, editor

Editor's note: We have received a wonderful piece of history about this area from Sharon Trittin Gagliano, who now lives in southern California. On April 2, 2008, I placed it at the close of the story.

April 28, 2006


I moved from the Washington, DC area to Wausau in July 2005, and live on the northeast side. There are only a few ways into town. One of these is to take 5th Street south, straight into the downtown area.

Each time I have made the ride, I have noticed a group of houses, not on 5th Street, but visible from it, which catch my attention every time I go through. I was not sure why these homes intrigued me, but they did. I know I have a weak spot for brick. I love brick, especially the color brick used on these homes. I sent my eldest daughter to Trinity University in San Antonio because I loved the kind of brick they used.

But I also love the style of these homes --- simple, and with that, in my eyes, elegant. The homes are located in a middle class neighborhood, my guess is all hard-working people, and I like that too, especially having come from the affluent Fairfax County in Virginia where everyone is trying to out-do the Joneses, everyone is stressed out, and everyone has these cookie-cutter mansions we call "Mac-Mansions."

I want to present photos of these homes. As a general statement, they too are "cookie cutter" in the sense that their architecture is very similar. But I find something special about them. Each might, perhaps, benefit from a touch of paint on the trim here and there, but if I could vote, I would vote to find a way to preserve these homes as an important part of the city's cultural heritage.

Here is a photo of each, taken on a beautiful spring 2006 day. The photos are followed by our rookie attempt to study and dissect them, highlighting a few architectural and historical things about them. I'm going to show them in the order I took their photos.

502 Lincoln Street

502 and 504 Chicago Street

505 Chicago Street

511 Chicago Street

1203 5th Street

We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what style of home these might be called. That is, we tried to classify them. Right now, we are working with something fairly simple: "gabled brick." We felt duty-bound to classify these homes.

In that quest to get a real firm identification on architectural style for these homes, we ran into a great web site run by the Town of Normal, Illinois. The town is most proud of its
Highland Historic Preservation District, which includes a fully residential block described this way:

"As a living historical and social unit, these two subdivisions are an irreplaceable collection of homes with outstanding historic and architectural value. The homes feature high-quality construction and materials and represent a range of architectural styles, including a 19th century farmhouse, American foursquares built in wood, brick, and stucco, and Craftsman-style bungalows. Most homes in this district were built in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and are therefore approaching one hundred years old. The oldest home in the district was built in 1889 – more than 110 years ago!"

They then present a
slide show of homes in this area, also a middle class neighborhood of hard-working people. We commend this page to your attention ---- it will give you another nice primer on residential architectural styles.

We contacted
Lauren Kerestes, an Associate Planner with the Historical Preservation Commission, and sent her a photo of one of our homes from Wausau. We asked for her comments on its style. This is what she said:

"It's difficult to say, given that the house has had additions and the fact that many houses are not one pure style, but 'the best' from several styles popular at the time. This house is not a foursquare or arts and crafts. The vernacular style is a gable and wing and lends itself to more of a farmhouse look, except finished in brick instead of cheaper, more ordinary wood siding. The pitches of the gables and dormers give it a Greek Revival influence. Not consistent with the Greek Revival influence are the segmental arched windows; however, these arched windows were popular in the eighteenth century and may have experienced a revival when this house was built."

Well, this was useful information ---- very useful as you will soon see --- but we were still committed to getting these homes firmly classified as to architectural style. During our internet research, we ran across a great manual entitled,
"Design in Wisconsin Housing: A Guide to Styles," by D.J. Stith, R.P. Meyer, and J.M. Dean.

Our immediate exhilaration with the title was followed by great disappointment with the content. The style of home of interest to us was not shown. How can this be? Well, we learned a few things from the guide that meshed perfectly with what Lauren Kerestes had told us. The authors must have dealt with rookies like us before, because they start out their introduction this way:

"The first step in acquiring a knowledge of housing styles is to learn to spot identifiable characteristics of building exteriors. This publication is intended for the person who is as fond of viewing the outside of buildings as those who love a scenic view of nature.

"The time-honored American heritage of individual freedom has produced a variety of dwellings in Wisconsin. The majority of these homes are nondescript and do not fall into a specific design classification ... As a 'building watcher,' you will discover interesting houses by starting to really see and developing an awareness of things you haven't noticed before. You will observe line, pattern, texture and materials which form the overall appearance."

We saw this project was quickly overwhelming us, so we went over to the Marathon County Historical Society's library and talked with the librarian. He was able to pin down that these homes were definitely standing in their current locations in 1912, and, as he lived in the neighborhood. he was willing to guess they were built in the late 1800s. That meshed with what one owner told us: his home, he said, was built in 1891. Then the librarian found a terrific book and lent it to us: The book, A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester, is a most helpful source if you really want to get into this "building watching" hobby. The authors here are pretty well in agreement with the previous ones. They say it this way:

"Domestic buildings are of two principal sorts: folk houses and styled homes. Folk houses are those designed without a conscious attempt to mimic current fashion ... Most surviving American houses are not folk houses but are styled; that is, they were built with at least some attempt at being fashionable. As such, they show the influence of shapes, materials, detailing or other features that make up an architectural style that was currently vogue."

Frankly, this put a whole new light on our project, and it ended up being a bit more complex than we had originally anticipated. The task now was to work with the "vernacular" gable wing classification as recommended by Lauren, and just set that aside and start to look at smaller components of the way the homes were built, components that we could see from the outside. As an aside, Virginia & Lee McAlester called our style of home, "gable-front-and-wing family."

Well, let's look at some of the individual components in these homes and see where that gets us. Let's do the "easy" stuff first.

You can tell the homes are made from brick. Whoopee you might say. Fair enough, but this brick has history. It is used here and there throughout the city of Wausau and the county of Marathon. For example, this is an apartment at 525 Bridge Street in Wausau (since destroyed).


Even the newer buildings in town, like the new library, uses a brick like this.

We believe this kind of brick is called "red Ringle brick."

John Ringle, 1848-1923, was a pioneer in this area, a former Wausau mayor (1884-1916), and a man who ran the Ringle Brick Company. The book, A History of Marathon County, published in 1913, said this about John Ringle:

"He held more important positions in public life for a generation or more than any other man in Marathon County."

Ed Wodalski, writing,
"Ringle was built brick by brick" published in the October 18, 1987 Wausau Sunday Herald, referred to the brick as orange. Indeed, there is an orange element to the color, which might have been what attracted our attention in the first place.

Ringle built a sawmill in 1889, a favorite enterprise throughout Wisconsin in those days, but in 1890 discovered a 30-foot thick deposit of clay beneath his existing sawmill. Wodalski then tells us this:

"Beneath the clay was a hard shale, which Ringle pulverized into powder. The natural iron oxide of the shale gave the brick its burnt-orange color."

So, Wodalski was right, though we like the "burnt orange" description a little better.

Soon the lumber mill was producing bricks during the summer months. By 1902, he said to heck with the sawmill, let's make bricks. By that time, they could pump out 20,000 bricks per day. Ringle bricks were used in construction throughout the area, in homes, churches and businesses. You can see them everywhere, now that you know what you're looking at.

Let's move on to another subject, the gables. A gable is that part of a wall that encloses the end of a pitched roof. Here is a simple diagram.


Let's take a look at the home at 505 Chicago Street.


It so happens our photo view demonstrates the gables and the wings very nicely. The red arrows point to two gables, with the arrow on the right pointing to the wing. The roofs are pitched. Some might say this is cross-gabled, meaning one gable crosses the other. Usually, though, that terminology is used when the crossing gable crosses in the middle of the other one, instead of at the end. Wing is a better descriptor.

Lauren Kerestes mentioned the arches over the windows. Let's take a look at those.


We had not shown you this home before (Our photographer didn't do a good job). It is at 503 Park Street. Ignore that one of the three windows was filled in, most likely to make life more comfortable inside. Focus on the arches above the windows, made from brick. The red arrow points out one of them. This is referred to as a Roman (semi-circular) arch. Most of the homes we photographed used this style.

What is interesting here is that the brick is arched, but the window frame is not arched, and therefore the windows are not arched. Notice use of a brick filler. They might have been added after the home had been lived in for some time, less expensive than having to cut arched glass.


This home at 1203 5th Street has the Roman arches, has a window frame that is arched, but the window itself is rectangular. It's harder to notice than the brick filler used on the earlier home.


This home at 505 Chicago has the Roman arches and the windows and their frames are both arched to match.


This home at 502 Lincoln has a different style of arch. In this case, you see bricks arranged differently above the windows. This is referred to as a Jack arch lintel; sometimes they run straight across as is the case here, sometimes they will have a very modest arch, and sometimes they will have a keystone inserted in the middle, a larger concrete piece. The identifier for a Jack arch lintel is that the bricks are running vertically, or almost vertically.

Our research suggests that this style of Jack arch lintel is a "Georgian" style. That simply means derived from the age of England's Kong George III, 1738-1820. If, instead of using bricks, the plan called for a single cement block to be placed across the top, that would be called simply a lintel, or flat lintel.

Note that for all these arches and lintels, every other brick is whole, every other one is cut in half. That allowed the mason to to arch them ion the one case, and add a little leaning design to them in the other case. He got some wiggling room with his bricks!


While talking about windows, there is a "thing" known as a "mullion," which is a slender bar or pier forming a division between panels or units of windows, screens or similar frames. Here you see single mullions, as we believe there are two separate units; i.e., the top window comes down, and the bottom one goes up. The important thing to remember about a mullion is that it separates two or more windows. Now, if we are wrong, and that wood simply divides two pieces of glass, the bar would be called a muntin, which separates small glass panes. We'll stick to our assessment of mullion for now.

A few of the homes have dormers over the wings, while others do not.


The red arrow points to the dormer over the wing at 505 Chicago. This is known as a gabled dormer, because it has a wall enclosing the end of its small, pitched roof. It's tough to see, but if you look closely, you will note that the arches used on the dormer windows were Jack arch lintels while most of the windows in the rest of the home were the Roman arches. The gabled dormer does not have enough room on the outside wall to employ an arch. Note that the right window on the porch is a Roman arch, but the window to its left uses a Jack arch lintel and the arch over the door is back to Roman.


The home at 502-504 Chicago also has a dormer, different in style than the previous one, and sided not with brick but rather shingles. This is known as a shed dormer.

Let's take a look at the chimneys.


The home at 502 Lincoln has two chimneys, indicating two fireplaces inside. Both are ridge chimneys, located on the ridge of the roof, and both have what are known as chimney crowns. These are ornamental treatments made of brick, stone or cast concrete built into the upper part of the chimney to form a "crown." But note each differs from the other, we suspect, due to a requirement for repairs somewhere along the line. The one on the left looks a little newer, employing concrete between the chimney and the crown, while the other used brick. Interestingly, with regard to the chimney on the right, the crown brick is darker. We're not sure what was used at the base of the ridge chimney on the right. It is green in color.


There is a slightly different look to the chimney crown at 502-504 Chicago. A metal top vent has been added to the ornamental crown, probably as the result of repairs or newer technology. It might not look like a ridge chimney from this perspective, but it is.


It looks like this chimney at 511 Chicago has undergone a complete rebuild. There is no ornamental crown, but instead a metal, probably aluminum, vent and the base is a similar metal.


This ridge chimney at 503 Park looks very new, an aluminum base, we think, and some kind of stone, concrete or synthetic blocks, topped by an aluminum vent. We understand people have to do what they have to do, but we must confess at having far greater affection for the efforts to preserve the chimney's old time look.


One of the families that occupied this home must have just gotten fed up with the chimney issue. It looks to us like they just had an attic-type air vent installed.

We'd now like to switch to the foundations, at least what we can see from the outside. If there is a basement, you will normally see some part of the foundation above ground level. That is because the foundation must be level, while the ground is almost never level.


This is the home at 502 Lincoln. You are looking at the left corner of the home. The foundation is made out of rocks. We will zoom in on those, most visible in the front, in a moment. On the side, it appears that some kind of compound was used, perhaps a type of concrete, to cover over the rock foundation and brick. There might have been some leakage, or the rocks in the foundation might have been coming loose. Let's zoom in on the front, though. Oh, before doing that, the wiggly black line you see on the side is not a shadow because the bricks are at different levels; it is a wire.


Next time we'll get closer, but you get the idea. It looks to us like these are uncut stone.


This home at 1203 5th Street has a fairly high foundation wall compared to the others we saw. It looks to us like cut stones were employed, though usually rough cut stones are placed closer together.


This is 503 Park Street. We'll go out on the limb here and suggest that there might not be a basement in this home; the home might be sitting on a concrete slab. The two walls that were in our photo show no evidence of a foundation or basement (e.g., windows, however small).


At 502-504 Chicago, they put some kind of hard facing over the foundation and painted it white, or the facing's natural color when cured is white. What is interesting here are those yellow "things" coming out the side. We've passed the home many times, and always wondered what those were. Our first guess was some kind of insulation or expansion material, but why sticking outside? We'll have to get more on that!


All of the homes we viewed had a porch, some enclosed, some open, such as this one at 502-504 Chicago. This kind of porch is referred to as a partial porch, inset along the wing, in this case, inset right.

Believe it or not, we could continue dissecting the architectural styles in these few seemingly simple homes for much longer, but we had better stop.

We were given good advice which we noted in the introduction to this report. Americans used their new found freedoms to use styles they wanted to use, styles they could afford, and styles that worked well for them. Most American homes have been built with a mix of styles. And, of course, people modified traditional styles to suit their tastes, made improvements to do the same, and had to deal with their homes in an affordable way. If these homes were declared historic, then the owners would probably have to conform to certain standards if they were to modify their homes in order to preserve their historic character.

The great lesson for us that it is not so important for us to work overtime classifying a home, which is what we tried to do as we started this project. What is more important is to "building watch," and try to note various styles employed in the components of the home. It's a lot of fun. If you try to classify the whole thing, you'll get bogged down with exceptions and "ifs."

One final note. We do not know the people living in the homes we have highlighted. We do know that theirs is not the most high brow neighborhood in town --- it is not East Hill, a far more wealthy district. It is, instead, a neighborhood of hard-working Americans in the middle class, and we suspect that each home is occupied by people at different income and education levels.

The point we wish to make is that one could easily drive by and not go "oooh and ahhhh" like they might in more well-to-do neighborhoods. We did that for several months, before stopping to take note, take photos, and study the architecture as a yeoman. As you have seen, there is a lot to see in this neighborhood that is most impressive. We hope these homes are with our city of Wausau for a very long time. These are "century classics" in our book.

By the way, for those of you who know more about these homes than we, or more about architecture than we, please
e-mail me and correct any errors or add comments you find appropriate.

Finally, we took a few photos of the homes in the same general area but of different design. We love them too! Here they are. Perhaps you'll try to dissect them for fun.


An apartment at 525 Bridge Street. Besides the obvious difference, do you see the lintels? What kind? Unfortunately, this building has been destroyed to make room for school grounds.


Another apartment, just around the corner from the first, this one at 1516 6th Street. Style looks much the same as other. Both had roof-line ornaments, or more properly roof-line elaborations, or even more technically, roof-line balustrades. They are both different. What style? Unfortunately, this building has been destroyed to make room for school grounds.


Wow, a single gable two story, no wing, at 1202 Hamilton. She has many characteristics shared by the others, but what about the porch roof? What kind is it? It's not a pitched roof like the main home.

Good hunting.

A historic note from Sharon Trittin Gagliano

Thank you for the wonderful study of homes on the Northeast part of Wausau. This area is affectionately called,"Back of the creek" (pronounced Crick).

This is because there used to be the Jim Moore Creek that ran down De Kalb St. and through what is now the new Franklin School. Those who lived beyond the creek were mostly immigrant families from Pomerania. They were of old Lutheran or Evangelical in their beliefs. There were also a lot of Polish who attended St. Michael's.

Back of the Creek kids were discriminated as being rough and rowdy. It is said that old Judge Marchetti would ask,"where do you live? Back of the Creek? Then add to their fines.

I wonder if as you traveled from 6th St. down Chicago Ave, are there traces of the old street car tracks? Those old street cars were stopped in about 1940. Northside Drugs was the popular hangout for teens on the North side. The best malts in town! Across from it was Pagenkopf's. An old fashioned general store. You could buy anything from produce to yardage in that old store.

The houses on the north end were build to last. My grandmothers house at 715 Wausau Ave was built with 4x4s with walls as thick as a fortress in about 1918. The last time I was in Wausau, it still was a good home for someone. Those old homes reflect the strong people who lived in them. Pristine homes with lovely gardens were their owners pride & joy.

I am concerned that many of these homes have been turned into apartments with no regard to keeping their original integrity.The architectural beauty as been compromised by greedy land lords who care little for the work and love that went into these old homes.

Thanks again for your great article.
Sharon Trittin Gagliano in So. Calif.