by Kevin Flaherty

Perhaps it is only fitting that Kellner Greenhouses, an oasis of green amidst an urban neighborhood, sits squarely in the Riverwest neighborhood at 3258 N. Humboldt Blvd. After all, Riverwest is a neighborhood of contrasts: luxury condos co-exist with urban poverty; bungalow and duplex residences abut gritty machine shops and heavy industry; and small retailers like the Riverwest Co-op and Kellner reside blocks from the corporate monoliths they compete with like Jewel-Osco and Wal-Mart. A visit to the Kellner Greenhouses is an uncommon retailing experience. One can wander through the three glassed-in greenhouses in the main building largely unperturbed — once you get past the always-on television set, the two dogs and 10 birds in the entrance room, that is. A wide variety of plants — at least 600 each of perennials and annuals — can be found by wandering on the weathered wooden planks that serve as walkways. Scented Geraniums ranged in price from $2.50 to $8.00; most cacti range in price from $1.75 to $18.00. Music from a simple radio usually is playing: on the day this reporter visited, old Motown music cascaded through the greenhouse; in mid-summer it is not uncommon to hear a Brewers game broadcast. Most customers are do-it-yourself homeowners from nearby Shorewood and the East Side. Kellner Greenhouses, like Harley-Davidson, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The one-man show behind this old-fashioned retailer is Paul Mueller, 64, who has been at the greenhouse for over half its existence. He started working for the August F. Kellner Company when he was just 12 years old. Mueller, a short, shy man whose lifetime working with plants has made him intensely knowledgeable on matters green, has seen many changes in the business he first joined over a half century ago. Mueller joined Kellner when his father ran the operation for Mr. Kellner. The company started out as a decorator for special events and locations such as society weddings, Christmas celebrations, churches, and the Gimbels store downtown for the holidays. The company evolved into a greenhouse wholesaler, but eventually the competition in that business became so fierce that they began selling strictly retail. The Wal-Marts and Home Depots of the world have made plant retailing so competitive that Kellner Greenhouses has had to further evolve into specializing in “exotic” and unusual plants to avoid the intense price pressure on the cheaper, mass-quantity plant varieties like common geraniums. The August F. Kellner Company was administratively dissolved in 1981; Mueller now owns and operates the greenhouse as a sole proprietor. Although descendents of the Kellners own the large white house to the north of the greenhouses, they no longer have an ownership interest in the greenhouse business. And Mueller does not have any ownership interest in the 3,000 square-foot home built in 1900. The two southern greenhouses are packed for the busy Spring and early-Summer season now underway; they are far less full in the winter. When this reporter recalled to Mueller that a winter visit to the greenhouses had felt like the Mitchell Park Domes with its warm, humid air, Mueller light-heartedly groused, “Except they can afford to keep the domes warmer than I can because they get taxpayer money.” Kellner grows most of its own items either from seeds, plugs, or cuttings. “I think Kellners is an interesting and eccentric garden house,” says Stewart Dempsey, owner of Walnut Hill Ltd, a landscape consulting company whose clients include a yard on the 3200 block of Humboldt. The number and variety of water plants at Kellner, including water hyacinths and water lettuce, impressed Dempsey. Still, although he prefers the smaller, independent retailers, he admits he has cherry-picked common varieties at the big-box, chain competitors before. Dempsey believes the only way for small garden centers like Kellner to survive is by specializing and differentiating themselves from their big-box competitors. Kellner Greenhouses is located at 3258 N Humboldt Blvd. Plant prices range from around $2 for basic items to $125 for a large cactus. Although the dogs at the greenhouse are friendly to people, they are turf-protective to other dogs; consequently, visitors are asked not to bring their dogs with them to the greenhouses. The greenhouse is open year-round. Kellner Greenhouses may be reached at (414) 264-6605. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 6 – June 2003

Inside the Kellner Greenhouse