Nature April 17, 2019
This 100-Year-Old Italian Villa Has The Most Spectacular Gardens in Wisconsin
A popular path in Milwaukee is to travel along Lincoln Memorial Drive just north of downtown. Whether you drive, walk or bike, it’s a gorgeous stroll right along Lake Michigan. Less than two miles north of the Art Museum you’ll come around a small curve at McKinley beach and when you look up – and up, and up – you’ll see a beautiful, ornate villa sitting atop the bluff, looking down over Lake Michigan. But before you even notice the house, you’ll likely notice the expansive, gorgeous and inviting gardens of Villa Terrace.
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
Built in 1924 by the Smith family (of AO Smith fame), this Villa celebrated its 50th year as a museum in 2017. We know it was the Villa Terrace, when it was built, the Smith family called it Sopra Mare - "above the sea" in Italian. The ornate house that is meant to evoke a trip to Italy sits high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The home had just one set of owners - the original couple that built it. Lloyd and Agnes Smith loved architecture and that led to the creation of this gorgeous home. In 1966, Agnes donated the home and grounds to Milwaukee County.
From the Villa Terrace website, "The Villa’s history as a museum begins in 1966, when the Milwaukee Art Museum accepted Ms. Agnes Smith Curtis' gift of her villa and garden. For seven years, the Art Museum utilized the Smith family home as their decorative arts wing. After that, the Friends of Villa Terrace formed to continue operating the museum on behalf of Milwaukee County, staging hundreds of art openings."
The Villa is actually zoned as county parkland at this point. It's on the National Register of Historic places. The property is sort of considered two entities - the Villa itself and the sprawling back gardens - known as Renaissance Gardens. "Together, they serve the citizens of Milwaukee through the creation and promotion of local, regional and international visual and decorative arts, and a wide range of intergenerational community arts programming that includes theater, music, arts and crafts, creative writing, poetry, and gardening."
There are a number of art collections housed at the Villa, in addition to a constantly changing set of exhibitions. You can wander through the rooms to take in the splendid architecture as well as find works from a turn of the century Wisconsin metal sculptor and more. The gardens may draw you in, but there is so much more to discover at this amazing Wisconsin gem.
The Terrace is a popular place for weddings and other events. The sprawling back gardens make a stunning backdrop for life's biggest events. From whimsical meals under the archway to dramatic weddings in a dramatic setting, you really can't find anywhere else in the state to provide such a unique, continental feel.
But the Villa is open for so much more than that. The gardens officially open the first Saturday in June every year, but the building is open year-round, hosting art exhibits, lectures, screenings and more. In addition, Villa Terrace is one of five arts and cultural museums located along a 1.9-mile lakefront route known as the Milwaukee Museum Mile. Plan a day of leisurely strolling along some of the most beautiful streets in Milwaukee to visit Villa Terrace, Charles Allis Art Museum,North Point Lighthouse, Museum of Wisconsin Art at Saint John’s On The Lake, and Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
There's nothing else like this large, ornate house anywhere in Wisconsin. It's an homage to a different time and it celebrates so much of the Beaux Arts era while incorporating the idea of a 16th century Italian villa. When the house was built, its ground stretched all the way to Lake Michigan and architect David Adler joked that the lake was his Mediterranean. Rose Standish Nichols designed the gardens and the result is a large, impressive space that plays with symmetry and does an amazing job of joining the inside and outside spaces.
This truly is one of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring locations in the whole state. It's both right in the middle of everything and yet someone super serene, relaxing and welcoming. These massive gardens bloom in Spring and stay inviting all summer long.
The gardens and back terrace are also home to a number of events, like Yoga every first Sunday and combined events with other museums along this stretch. On the calendar currently is a night with raptors from the Schlitz Audubon Center. There's just always something cool and interesting happening here and they do a great job of taking advantage of all their awesome and unique space. From the water staircase to the fairy-tale magic of the boschetto, you have to take the time to explore and fall in love with these gardens.
Take the time to explore all there is to find in the impressive Renaissance Gardens. Sure, the sweeping views will catch your eye first, but there's so much here to explore. You'll find a number of sculptures and pieces of art, as well as benches that invite you to sit and stay for awhile. The vine-covered boschetto looks straight out of storybook and the water rushing down the stairs is taken from a 16th century design.
The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum has the most massive, impressive and truly gorgeous gardens in the whole state. You'll love getting to take in the greenery, imagine a different life when you might have afforded a place like this and generally fill full of hope and renewal as you check out the gorgeous plants here.
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is located at 2220 N Terrace Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53202. Find out more about this gorgeous location on
their website or by heading to their Facebook page.
If you love gorgeous gardens, you have to check out these eight spots across Wisconsin that are overflowing with flowers.