The Wilmarth School is a stately brownstone building located in the heart of Ashland, Wisconsin. The building served as an operational elementary school for nearly one hundred years and today functions as the home and creative studio for Luci Daum and her business adventures. Over its storied history the building has gone through many changes and renovations creating the utterly unique destination you will find today. Who built this weathered testament to the history of Ashland and why is it named the Wilmarth School? How exactly did a simple school building transform into the way it is today, full of mysterious attic towers and impromptu lofts built into the walls? Let’s dive in and explore the storied history of the Wilmarth School.
The Wilmarth School was originally constructed in 1895, though conflicting reports exist dating the original construction date to 1891 and 1892 in different reports. The land it sits on was originally purchased on June 24th, 1888, several years prior to construction beginning. The city of Ashland contracted the German born architect Henry Wildhagen to design and help construct the school. It was the first school Wildhagen had designed, previously specializing in paper mills in both Germany and then in New Hampshire, Michigan and Wisconsin after his move to the states. Upon garnering the contract for the school with the city, Wildhagen fell so in love with the beauty of the area that he moved his wife to Ashland and proceeded to live a long and happy life here. Over the course of those years Wildhagen constructed more than 150 buildings within a fifty mile radius of Ashland making him one of the most prolific and noted architects of Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. The Wilmarth was his first school, however it was not his last. After designing the Wilmarth, Wildhagen proceeded to design three more Ashland schools: the Beaser School (1899), The Ellis School (1900) and finally the Ashland Middle School (1904). In addition to the schools, Wildhagen designed a number of other notable buildings in the area including the Hayward, Washburn and Bayfield Carnegie libraries and the Ashland County Courthouse. Wildhagen eventually passed away in 1920, however many of his works his work has not been forgotten. A vast array of his architectural work still stands and many of those reside on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Wilmarth which was added to the registry in 1980 in a common filing, along with the other three schools, dedicated to recognizing and praising the thematic and significant design work of all four of the Wildhagen Ashland schools.
Fun Fact! During the construction of the Wilmarth 1891 – 1895, one neighbor was purported to have stolen foundational blocks from the site to be used to build his own home several blocks away.
The story was recounted generations later by a descendant of the original borrower, whose home still stands today. It must have been some great stone to keep both these buildings standing 127 years later!
The Wilmarth School was named after Lewis C. Wilmarth, a notorious abolitionist who rode with John Brown in the Kansas anti-slavery battle. Originally born in Rhode Island in 1833, Wilmarth was a prestigious realtor and banker, responsible for designing large parts of Topeka, Kansas. When tensions in what became known as Bloody Kansas became too high, Wilmarth divested himself of his commercial holdings in Kansas and moved north to Ashland and the Chequamegon Bay. Once in Ashland, Wilmarth founded a center for the city of Ashland by designing and building the five largest commercial city blocks in downtown Ashland, several of which are still standing today. Wilmarth was so confident in the construction of his property that he refused to insure any of his buildings for fire; he never lost a dime due to it. As a central and formative figure in Ashland’s history, Wilmarth sat on the school board, served as a city councilman, county supervisor and as the city’s fourth mayor from 1890-1891. When the city named the Wilmarth School after him in 1895, Wilmarth was so flattered by the gesture that he started his own custom of bringing overflowing bouquets of apple blossoms to the staff of the school each year when they were in season in the hopes that when they opened their classroom doors they would be greeted by the sweet smell of the blossoms. At the age of 74, after a lifetime of achievements and success, Lewis C. Wilmarth passed away, the year was 1907.
Over the following 84 years the Wilmarth School continued to operate as a functional and full elementary school for the youth of Ashland. As the population of the city expanded and retracted over the course of the 20th century, other area schools were built and then abandoned as the class sizes shrank. In 1955 an additions class rooms and a gymnasium were added. In 1991 the school was officially closed and the city of Ashland was faced with the decision of what to do with this historic building. That is when the visionary Luci Daum entered the scene.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Wilmarth School: A History, being a further accounting of the Wilmarth School as it transitioned from school to a studio!