Named one of the 50 most beautiful in America, a mansion in Wisconsin gets the plaster renovation work it's been longing for the past 20 years.

With a historical structure once proclaimed one of the 50 most beautiful mansions in America, one cannot take any chances when the time comes to restore it. For the Kohler Mansion, the former estate of Wisconsin Gov. Walter J. Kohler and a historic landmark in the village of Kohler, Wis., the restoration was a central part of the plan to create a luxurious private resort, Riverbend, scheduled for opening in the summer.

Built in the 1920s for Walter Kohler, a son of the founder of Kohler Co., the English Tudor-style mansion overlooking the Sheboygan River had passed on to Kohler's heirs until being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In 1986, Kohler Co. purchased Riverbend, but it sat empty for years after that, until the major restoration effort was launched in March 2000.

As is to be expected of a grand home from that era, many types of plasterwork were involved.

True to its origin

The hallmark of the restoration was fidelity to original designs, materials and colors. That was no small task for an estate of 51,042 square feet, including the original mansion of 28,274 square feet, and a new 10,555-square-foot addition based on the original plans of architect Richard Philipp, of Brust & Philipp, of Milwaukee, plus other buildings.

As is to be expected of a grand home from that era, many types of plasterwork were involved. For plaster contractor Cottrell Plastering, of Appleton, Wis., the biggest challenge was matching the existing plaster dating from the 1920s. There was also a great deal of detailed cornice work.

Owner Randy Cottrell, a fourth-generation plasterer, says the job provided the veteran members of his crew a chance to use their training in two- and three-coat work, opportunities that haven't come up much in recent years.

"There were so many different textures, it was a treat," he says. "It also gave us a chance to show younger craftworkers the classics."

Plasterer Ken Jolin agrees. "It was a pleasure to perform some of the ornamental, dentil and other methods, since so much of today's work is simply thinset."

There was some patching involved, although most of the interior plasterwork was torn out by general contractor Hamann Construction, of Manitowoc, Wis., and replaced. High moisture content had forced much of the finished coat to delaminate from what was believed to have been a thin original basecoat.

For the intricate plaster ceiling components coming away from the lath, Orlandini Studios, of Milwaukee, created a mechanical system to slowly lift restored or cast components in place. Cottrell plasterers then applied their finish coat right up to the edge of the cast pieces.

"I estimate that we saved more than 80 percent of the original ceiling components," Orlandini foreman Tyler Bergstrom says, "creating shop versions only when necessary. We also created a custom tracery ceiling for the new addition."

The hallmark of the restoration was fidelity to original designs, materials and colors.

Photos by David Orndorf.

Eighty years of stucco

For the outside restoration, Cottrell devised a way to match the 80-year-old stucco on an ambitious assortment of dormers, odd-shaped gables, arches and turrets. The final coat of a sand pebble finish EIFS was sprayed with a light coat of Dryvit Stone Mist to create a weathered look.

"It worked out well," says Cottrell, who praised Hamann's dedication to quality, and a general sense of teamwork.

"The overall effect," says interior designer Cheryl Rowley, of Beverly Hills, Calif., "is a sense of place and timelessness, as if one were a guest of the owner arriving for a week in the country."

For the mansion's original owner, the craftworkers' labor of love could not have been more fitting. Walter Kohler held unconventional views on the responsibility of management to labor, and envisioned the planned community of Kohler as a way of embodying his philosophy that "the laborer is not only worthy of his hire, but of the good and the beautiful in his surroundings."