Wausau Historic Homes

Carefully preserved 19th-century homes perpetuate historical legacy.

On Thursday, May 10, 2012 - 22:21

Wausau is a city with a story to tell. It’s not a story you hear out loud, though. Rather, you see the city’s history as you stroll down­town, in the shadows of historic homes and businesses that look much as they did in the city’s early days. In the mid-1800s, the land that’s now downtown Wausau belonged to sawmill owner Andrew Warren. The prominent families who purchased his property over the years built the grand 19th-century homes still standing today. In 1984, the National Register of Historic Places designated the neighborhood as the Andrew Warren Historic District. The city’s other national historic district, East Hill, has been on the register since 2004. “We notice that the homeowners in these two areas are very interested in the fact that they own historic homes and very proud of them, so they maintain them very well,” says Mary Forer, director of the Marathon County Historical Museum. “As you’re walking through downtown, a lot of the buildings have been restored, which is very, very neat. There are larger homes, many of which are bed and breakfasts, spread through the outskirts of downtown.”

A wide variety of architectural styles are on display, all true to the town’s historical roots, while also revealing the varying traditions at play. Italianate architecture is plentiful, with its low eaves and large-framed, arched windows. Many others owe their design to the Prairie House tradition. The Cyrus and Alice Yawkey House underwent a $3 million renovation completed in 2008. The Classical Revival structure was restored to the 1915 time period using blueprints from an early 1900s remodeling project. Even the artifacts inside the home, which now serves as a museum, date to the same era. Across the street, the home of the Yawkeys’ only daughter, Leigh Yawkey Woodson, houses the historical society. This home is just beginning the full restoration process. Like many families during Wausau’s early days, the Yawkeys were deeply rooted in the lumber business. Even before its 1850 foundation, the town had already established its viability in the wood milling industry. “The Wisconsin River that flows through Wausau brought white pine from up north,” says Gary Gisselman, librarian at the historical museum. “On the banks of the river, sawmills were built to turn this timber into finished lumber. This business led to the eventual growth of Wausau into the economic center of northern Wisconsin.” The lumber industry brought people from all over the world to Wausau, and their heritage is visible today in both the written history of the city and the architecture. The number of churches, often founded by immigrants, indicates the many cultures and religions that diverged in the logging town. Aside from creating pleasant walking tours and a healthy sense of legacy, history is important because that’s what defines a community, Forer says.

“You drive down the highway now and every community has McDonald’s, Mobil, BP, whatever,” she says. “You don’t have that uniqueness that you used to have in each community. By preserving the history of down­town, you’re actually preserving that part of it and making each community unique.”