Mary Nohl was known as The Witch of Fox Point…but was she a witch? Did she really kill her husband and child and bury them under the stone sculptures in her beach front yard? Why did she surround herself with barbed wire fence and creepy stone heads?
Mary Nohl was born in 1914 to Leo and Emma Nohl. Her father was considered a brilliant lawyer, but he was also a difficult and exacting miser. Neatness was an unquestioned priority in the house, and due to his excessive frugality even food was carefully and painfully rationed…Mary’s parents valued education, music, discipline, and neatness…and Mary seemed to maintain a very rigid schedule of these values throughout her life.
Mary graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938 and taught art for five years. Later, her father helped her open a studio where she painted and made pottery and silver jewelry. The business was not a financial success and it became a source of contention with her parents. Eventually, Mary was forced to close shop and move her supplies to the basement of the Beach street house where she lived with her parents.
While her parents were alive, Mary was not allowed to alter the house, hang her art or place sculptures in the yard-even though she had already amassed a very large body of work. It wasn’t until 1963, with both her parents (and her brother) dead, that Mary began to publicly display her art at the Beach Street house.
For the next 30+ years, Mary Nohl maintained a disciplined and rigorous transformation of her environment. She altered every surface inside and outside the house. She painted walls, ceilings, rugs, furniture, even the telephone. Outside, she built fences, structures, sculptures, stone mosaics and more.
Over the years, the property (and Mary) began to attract attention. High school students would challenge each other to spend time on the spooky property. Vandalism became a nightly affair. Mary started every day by inspecting the property and repairing the damage. According to letters she wrote at the time, she enjoyed the attention to some extent and enjoyed the opportunity to rework some of her art. Eventually the vandalism became too great and she was forced to erect the fence.
Mary was reclusive during much of this period. She never married or had children (let alone-murder them). She kept journals of her life, ledgers of daily exercise, ledgers of money spent, ledgers of work performed. She kept a schedule for reading, for drawing, for practicing the guitar, and never deviated…In order to save money, she would eat food with expired dates, dumpster dive for materials, do all her own housework and repairs…and when she died in 2001…
Mary Nohl donated over $10,000,000 to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation for support of the visual arts. Her art was donated to the Kohler Foundation and her property is now on the National and Wisconsin Register of Historic Places!–WHAT A WITCH!!!
For more about Mary Nohl, I highly recommend : Mary Nohl, Inside & Outside by Barbara Manger and Janine Smith. Because Mary kept a diary for her entire life, it is filled with a great deal of insight and details about her remarkable, but somewhat sad life. The book contains 100s of photos of the sculptures and artwork inside the house. I give it “two thumbs up“…
If you’re ever in the Milwaukee area, it is definitely worth a drive by…perhaps you’ll see her ghost…