Yawkey cozy

(First published in the April 18, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Living-space lessons we can learn from the Yawkey House mansion, built in a time that prized interpersonal contact


Every room of the Yawkey House is ornate and stately, but feels cozy thanks to spaces designed to foster conversation.

There’s a word you can’t help thinking of when walking through the Yawkey House Museum in Wausau: Cozy.

Sure, the mansion’s first floor interior and furniture are impossibly ornate. Yet, it feels like a place where a person could grab a cup of coffee, curl up with a good book and spend the morning reading. Especially on those lovely pillowed window sill couches, a perfect place to have a small, intimate conversation. The whole house seems designed to create conversations. Even the stately dining room is still small enough for the whole table to hear each other and share conversation.

That’s probably why Marathon County historian Gary Gisselman uses the word “livable” when describing the house.

Recently I took a walk through the Yawkey House Museum with Gisselman and historic preservation architect Tharen Gorski. Yawkey House, owned and operated by the Marathon County Historical Society, is essentially just as it was just prior to World War I, after a major remodel that made the house what it is today.

The first floor is just as it was a century ago, Gorski says. The room hadn’t seen much change since the time Cyrus and his family lived in the house. The second floor, where the bedrooms of the Yawkeys and their head of household lived, was once a Barbie museum, and a lot of investigation and work was done to restore the second floor to as close as possible to how the original had looked, Gorski says. Servants and maids lived on the third floor, with separate entrances and staircases to access the house separately from the family.

Don’t take the word “cozy” too far: The Yawkey house was designed to have a stately appearance, and it does. Expensive woods with ornate trimmings are marked with the trademark style of Chicago architect George Maher, who designed the early 20th century house (his work also can be found in the nearby Stewart Inn and the Woodson house across the street, now the headquarters of the Marathon County Historical Society). The house has an elegance and permanence just not seen today.

Gorski explains that houses back then were meant to have a spec life of several hundred years; today’s houses are lucky to have 25. In other words, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Not bad for a house built for $35,000, according to the Yawkey House Museum’s website. That’s a little more than $1 million in today’s dollars.

But despite its stateliness, the Yawkey house is very much a house designed around function, and that function is mainly about facilitating conversation.

There is a ladies parlor, with a sun room attached overlooking a garden created for Leigh Yawkey’s wedding around 1911, Gisselman says. In the ladies parlor, Mrs. Yawkey would have entertained guests on small cloistered chairs and tables, while Cyrus would have brought male guests to his smoking room, either to talk business or smoke cigars, or probably both. Life centered around business, church and family back then, Gorski says. In all rooms, the chairs are aimed at each other, not at a television set.

Even the garage is fascinating. Originally built for horse-drawn carriages, which were stored via a lift on the second story, the garage area towers nearly as tall as the house. It’s easy to see the garage is spacious enough that workers at the house could work on carriages and later cars. It’s a much different feel compared to modern garages, which are made namely for storing cars and stuff.

By today’s McMansion standards, the Yawkey house is both smaller and more livable, but also much more impressive and interesting.

Want to mimic that inviting quality of the Yawkey house? Today most of the social activity of a home centers on the kitchen, Gorski says. Think about how many important decisions happen in the kitchen, or how everyone gravitates there at a party, he says. Inviting someone over for dinner, to sit at your table, was in the time of the Yawkeys as it is today, considered a high honor, Gorski says. There’s a trend toward family game night again, and guess where that is played typically? You guessed it: Kitchen.

So how can you make it more inviting? Having an island in the kitchen allows you to face guests while prepping food.

And adding warm colors (never ever blue) can help create a comforting atmosphere in the area.

If the kitchen has enough room, add additional seating, especially facing each other—like a small breakfast nook.

And a new trend in homes is having more open space concepts, where the kitchen, living room and dining room are all one big open space. Like you will see in the Yawkey house, the more you can point people toward each other and provide spaces that foster conversation, the more you’ll encourage that type of interaction that’s being lost today.