Art museum to move library, archives to historic mansion

Library to reopen in spring 2017

The Jason Downer House at 1201 N. Prospect Ave.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:14 pm

The Milwaukee Art Museum is moving its art library and archives to the historic Jason Downer House at 1201 N. Prospect Ave.

The museum’s library, called the George Peckham Miller Art Research Library, was established in 1916. It includes around 27,000 volumes of national and international museum and gallery publications, artist files, Milwaukee Art Museum publications, monographs on art and artists, catalog raisonnés, auction sales catalogs, and a rare books collection.

The library also includes 60,000 art catalogs, journals and magazines and a comprehensive collection of famed industrial designer Brooks Steven’s concepts and designs.

The library was closed in July to prepare for the move and will open at its new location on North Prospect Avenue in the spring of 2017 under a new name: the Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center.

Milwaukee Art Museum Chief Curator Brady Roberts called the library archives one of the museum’s “best kept secrets.”

“We’ve had a great art history library for many years,” Roberts said. “It’s been really limited in terms of access in the past. It’s in a really difficult part of the museum to access. This will be a much more open situations and a really attractive space for reading rooms.”

The library is currently located inside the museum at 700 N. Art Museum Dr. and is accessible by appointment only. The move to the Downer mansion will more than double its library space and will also include reading rooms, study spaces and a lecture area.

“This will make things much more accessible for art history students and visiting scholars, who will be particularly interested in the archives,” Roberts said. “In the Brooks Stevens archives, for example, we have photographs of all of his work from concepts to products. For anyone studying 20th century industrial design, this will be a destination.”

The Jason Downer House was built in 1874 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located just south of the Prospect Avenue Mansions Historic District, a stretch of several historic mansions between 1363 and 1551 N. Prospect Ave.

Roberts said the mansion is privately owned by an art museum benefactor who is lending the space free of charge. Roberts did not disclose the benefactor’s name.

Assessment records indicate the Downer House is owned by Judge Jason Downer House LLC, a company that shares an address with Wilhelms Unlimited, a real estate firm owned by Milwaukee businesswoman Linda Wilhelms located at 2316 E. Newberry Blvd. Wilhelms could not be reached for comment.

The property’s total assessed value is $1,149,000.

Don Layden, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the move will bring the MAM’s library and archives up to par with art research facilities at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

“This is a wonderful addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the community,” Layden said. “The new location will allow for greater library and archive access, as well as potential partnerships with area schools, colleges and professional organizations. We couldn’t have found a better match, pairing this notable historic building with the museum’s extraordinary historic archives.”

The Jason Downer House was built as a single family home for Jason M. Downer, a Vermont native who moved to the Milwaukee area in 1842 to establish a law practice. Downer served as a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1864 to 1867, and as a circuit judge from 1869 to 1870.

He was one of the original founders of the Milwaukee Sentinel, along with Solomon Juneau, and briefly served as editor of the newspaper in 1845 — a tumultuous year of heated rivalry between the residents of Juneautown east of the Milwaukee River and Kilbourntown west of the river that culminated in the Milwaukee Bridge War. Milwaukee did not officially incorporate as a city until January 31, 1846 when Juneau, Kilbourn and George Walker, the leaders of Juneautown, Kilbourntown and Walker’s Point, set aside their differences and wrote a charter approved by the Wisconsin territorial legislature — two years and four months before Wisconsin gained statehood.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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