Story and photos by Melanie Lawder
If you live in Milwaukee, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the structure before.
And if you’ve seen the building once, you’ll likely remember it forever. It’s a structure that makes you stop in your tracks and stare; its peculiar features just beg you to snap a photo when you cross its path.
Tucked neatly onto a street filled with a series of charming middle-class homes, the so-called “Milwaukee boat house” is an especially conspicuous structure on the city’s east side. With its bow, hull, deck and other nautical features, it has all the makings of a maritime vessel ready to leave port, yet it’s anchored firmly to the green grass at 3138 N. Cambridge Ave.
Nearly a century old, the approximately 550-square-foot home is a Milwaukee institution. Built in the 1920s, the boat house has been stopping and stunning unassuming passersby for years. But it’s been decades since the boat house has opened its doors to public use.
Late last spring, Milwaukeeans Nola Hitchcock Cross and Steven Tilton took ownership of the home after its previous proprietor decided to put the property up for sale. Hitchcock Cross, a lawyer, and Tilton, have lived just down the block from the iconic structure for more than three decades. After spending the past several months reinvigorating the home with $40,000 in restorations work, the pair recently opened it up for public use, listing the home on Airbnb in February and making it available for certain special events.
“What we didn’t want was somebody would buy it and live here and nobody could come in — that just seems unfair,” said Hitchcock Cross.
In what is a new chapter for the historic home, the pair is committed to keeping the yacht-like house accessible to the public. It had previously been used as a private home for decades.
“All these years that I lived down the block, nobody has been able to come in unless you happened to be a friend of the tenant,” Hitchcock Cross noted.
Dubbed after the man who spearheaded its construction, the boat house is officially named the Edmund B. Gustorf House, Wisconsin Historical Society records show. Gustorf, a salesman, had purportedly enlisted a Green Bay boatyard to cut pieces for the house, which was later assembled onsite in the 1920s.
The appearance of the boat house has only been nominally altered since then, according to city of Milwaukee records, and the structure’s historic designation assures that its original character and structure will be preserved for the future.
Today, the maritime charm of the landmark property is as axiomatic as ever:
“Every square inch you feel like you’re in a boat,” Hitchcock Cross noted. “You don’t feel like you’re in a house.”
It’s a sentiment that rings true as you tour the vessel and explore the many details sewn throughout.
Outside, a separate lighthouse structure welcomes visitors, life preservers dangle and portholes dot the side of the hull. Inside, decorative nautical knick-knacks are dispersed throughout the house, fishing nets act as ornamentation and maps of Lake Michigan encompass the sparse wall space that is not paneled by wood. Little easter eggs lie throughout the house: eyepatches, a spyglass and captain hats are peppered throughout the house for the entertainment of the kids and the kids-at-heart.
For guests, Hitchcock Cross believes the boat house can provide an experience unparalleled elsewhere. As she puts it, when you sleep at the boat house, “you’re coming for an event, you’re not just staying here.” Priced at approximately $225 per night, the boat house’s price tag is higher than a good chunk of other Milwaukee listings on Airbnb. It’s an intentional move by the owners, who want to ensure the listing attracts those guest who truly want to experience the boat house — rather than a fleeting visitor who needs a inexpensive a place to rest their head for the night.
“We don’t want people in here every night,” Hitchcock Cross said. “We want people who love it, love the maritime experience, who have always wanted to come in here…
“It’s a responsibility,” she noted about owning the historic home and the upkeep entailed. “There’s no concept of making money on this thing.”
And for Milwaukeeans, watercraft enthusiasts and other longtime admirers of the structure, this next phase for the boat house means the chance to get an up-close, and rather intimate, look at a celebrated landmark. If you’re a design buff with an itch to inspect the home’s woodwork — or if you just always wondered what it would be like to wake up in a boat-shaped house overlooking the Milwaukee River— you have the occasion to do so.
You now have an opportunity to reside in a piece of Milwaukee history – even if it’s just for a night or two.
“People deserve to come in and experience it — not just see it,” Hitchcock Cross said. “It’s different if you have a tour, than if you actually sleep here and wake up here, and see the sunrise and sunset.”
Book the boat house
Sleeps: Six guests.
Accommodations: Two bedrooms, two baths, galley (kitchen) and mess hall (dining room).
Available for: Weddings, weekend trips, Milwaukee “staycations,” certain special events. Water-related nonprofits can use the space for free, according to Nola Hitchcock Cross.
To book: Click here to find on Airbnb.