Museum's rich history makes it Racine's cultural centerpiece

photos by Wustum Art Association

by karen tancill

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ad Jennie Wustum died first, the property at 2519 Northwestern Ave. would have been known not as the Charles Wustum Museum of Fine Arts but as the Charles Wustum Old People's Home.

That was how Charles Wustum wanted his estate distributed in his will, written Dec. 22, 1910. He died March 21, 1916.

Jennie's will, written 14 years later - on Dec. 8, 1924 - created the institution that this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its opening.

Jennie Wustum outlived husband In proposing an art museum, Jennie Wustum was doing something very innovative, said Wustum Museum Director Bruce Pepich.

"I think the fact that they were not art collectors, it must have taken the community by surprise," Pepich said.

Jennie left no public documents to tell how she came up with the idea for an art museum. In fact, little is known about Jennie. But from what few public accounts there are of her, she comes across as a resourceful, self-sufficient individual.

She also adored her husband, demonstrating that by establishing the museum in his name. And it was the pictures of her husband's parents, George and Marie Wustum, that she said should always hang in the museum.

The house and the 12 acres of land on which the museum sits were part of George and Marie Wustum's holdings.

Charles Wustum died in xxxx Biographies of George Wustum say he was born in Bavaria in 1815 and came to the United States in 1844, settling briefly in Troy, N.Y., before moving to Racine.

George Wustum was in the meat business. Barbara Walter, who has written a history of the Wustums, speculates George Wustum would have had land on Northwestern Avenue to raise cattle to be slaughtered and sold in his market.

Charles Wustum was the youngest of George and Marie Ortner Wustum's five children.

The Wustums weren't the first people to live in the house that became Wustum Museum. The house was built by James Walker and his wife, Lucy Buck Walker.

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James Walker arrived in Racine with Gilbert Knapp, the founder of the city.

Actually the Wustum Museum is two houses - a frame house built in 1844, and a brick Italinate-style house added to the front of that farm house in 1856.

Lucy Buck Walker lived in the brick house only three years. She died in 1859. In 1865, James married Harriet E. Peck. He lived until 1882.

In 1884, Harriet Walker sold some of the farm to George Wustum Sr. and, in 1893, she sold the present Wustum Museum property to George Wustum Jr.

George Wustum Jr. died later in 1893, and Charles bought his brother's share of the family farmland, adding that to the land he was given upon his father's death in 1892.

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At the time of his brother's death, Charles Wustum was living in what is now Billings, Mont., where he was in the lumber business.

The house was rented out until 1904, when Charles wound up his Montana business dealings and moved back to Racine.

The Charles Wustums made some alterations to the house, the most prominent of which was to update it with a big front porch. In that way, the house looked similar to the Queen Anne-style houses, the most popular house building style of the day.

The only interior picture available of the Wustum house shows it decorated in typical Victorian clutter. Above the mantle was an antlered hunting trophy. The mantle itself was filled with statues and pictures.

Alfred Boerner landscape designer The Charles Wustums had no children of their own. They did have an adopted son, Arthur, and a niece, Etta North. After Charles' death in 1916, Jennie and Etta continued to live in the house.

Jennie died in 1938. After turning over the keys to the house in 1939, Etta North moved into the Hotel Racine at Sixth and Main streets.

Jennie's will said the 12 acres of land were to be used for a park. Etta North made that park take shape.

She organized a campaign to develop the grounds and arranged for Alfred E. Boerner to do the landscaping. Only a few years before, Boerner had done the landscaping for the Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners.

The museum still has Boerner's blueprints for the garden. While some of the plantings have been changed out of pragmatic necessity - the gardens initially had many more roses - the basic shape of the Boerner-designed gardens is still there and so are some of the original plantings.

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