Records on Records Archiving the Allis and A.O. Smith Home Histories

The Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums have stored important documents, photos, books and more since they joined Milwaukee County in 1979. The vast collection includes treasured items such as sketches by Sarah Ball Allis and blueprints of the mansions. Some documents had been previously moved off-site for storage. From 1979 to 2012, the War Memorial Complex housed several important documents concerning the Charles & Sarah Allis mansion. Despite the careful collection efforts, the task of archiving this treasure trove of materials languished.

After arduous planning, Executive Director John Sterr, Senior Curator Shana McCaw, and Assistant Curator and Collections Manager Jenille Junco launched the CAVT archiving project in 2017. The archiving project will process and catalog all of Charles Allis' and Villa Terrace's stored files, documents and other historic materials. To spearhead these efforts, Audrey Tarvainen, a then-graduate student at UW-Milwaukee, was brought on in May 2019 to being the project starting with the Allis archive.

Audrey Tarvainan at the Charles Allis

Audrey's love for archiving started early, earning her the title of the family's genealogist. While working her BA in English from UWM, she interned at a Military Base Library and worked in an academic library. Shortly after joining the CAVT archive project, she graduated with her Masters in Library Sciences. Her first days working on the archive, Audrey scoured the buildings to gather any forgotten or overlooked materials. She even ventured down to coal chute at the Allis Mansion and discovered a receipt from 1999.

The next step was creating clear categories for sorting. Together with the CAVT staff, she developed groupings, ranging from House History to Exhibits. Knowing the archiving process would be long and too much for one person to handle, Deanna Moore, also a graduate student at UWM, joined the team in August of 2019. After completing her undergraduate studies in English at UW Whitewater, she moved to Milwaukee to pursue her graduate degree in Library Sciences, where she met Audrey.Her latest archiving project was overseeing the Milwaukee Queer Zine Library, which was founded in 2001.

Audrey Tarvainan and Deanna Moore in the Charles Allis Library

Once all materials were collected and categories established, the two graduate students eagerly started working through boxes of materials. They stumbled upon some interesting finds, like a photograph of a casually dressed Charles Allis holding a sea urchin, probably at Monterey Beach in California.

Both look forward to learning more about Sarah and Charles Allis’ lives. "You would think that since this was their house, we would have more information on them but the truth is, we don't", Audrey shares. "We have a lot of institutional information like their wills, collection material, artwork receipts [...] but not a lot of personal belongings."

Keep up with the archiving project and learn more about the Allis and A.O. Smith homes via our websites:

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum | Charles Allis Art Museum


Photos by CAVT Museums