From her window, she saw Port grow

One of the last original Milwaukee St. residents, Joan Rooney recently made the tough decision to sell a house that gave her a front-row seat from which to watch the city change

NOT ONLY DID Joan Rooney spend virtually her whole life in Port Washington, the 91-year-old lived in the Milwaukee Street house her parents built in 1930 for most of that time. Rooney, who recently sold the house and moved to NewCastle Place in Mequon, had a bird’s eye view of the city as it grew around her. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

It wouldn’t be wrong to call Joan Rooney the grande dame of Milwaukee Street.

The 91-year-old woman, who recently moved to NewCastle Place in Mequon, lived almost all of her life in the stately house at 739 N. Milwaukee St. that her parents built when she was just 3.

To say Rooney has seen the neighborhood — and the city — through her years would be an understatement.

After all, when she moved into the house, neither the We Energies power plant nor St. Alphonsus Hospital, which is today the home of Harbor Campus senior living, had been built.

The house, which is in the middle of the city’s north side, was then the northern limit of the community.

“We were very much on the edge of town,” Rooney said. “There was a field behind us with a farmhouse. We played in that field all the time.”

To the north, there was an apple orchard owned by Ben Klein, whose stepdaughter Gwyn married author John Steinbeck, Rooney said.

“He had a big barn where he kept horses — imagine,” she said.

Klein used to shoot off $100 in fireworks every Fourth of July, Rooney said.

“We used to go to his field and watch them,” she said. “This was the Depression, so it was a big deal.”

Wisconsin Street was developed up to about Whitefish Road, Rooney said.

“It was pretty much farmland after that,” she said.

It was after World War II that “things started to boom” and the city expanded significantly.

She recalled the crowds of people who came to Port to celebrate the city’s centennial and the opening of the We Energies power plant in 1935.

“They claimed 100,000 people went through the city,” she said. “Everybody came to see the power plant. It was really something.”

The Mediterranean-style house her parents Matthew and Ida Sturm had built was designed by John Nimesgeren, who was the architect for many of the handsome homes in the neighborhood.

The house has a tile roof, and “He (Nimesgeren) told my dad Matt, ‘One hundred years after you’re gone, this house is going to stand like it is today,’” Rooney recalls. “My dad died 50 years ago, and it’s still standing strong.”

The Sturms raised their four daughters — Joan, Mary, Juliann and Ruth — in the house.

“It was a lot of fun,” Rooney said. “There were a lot of kids around.”

Mr. Sturm ran the Lighthouse Restaurant in downtown — it sat where the Pebble House is today — helped by his family.

“It was a short-order place, open day and night,” Rooney said. “My dad started it. It was a cute building, and my dad had a very big business.

“My folks worked hard. They were there seven days a week. My mother used to make the soups.”

After her father retired, he had the Sturm Apartments on Montgomery Street built. They were one of only a few apartment buildings in the city, Rooney said, recalling the others were the Chair Factory Apartments downtown and the Bostwick Apartments on Grand Avenue.

They were built in 1941, she said, recalling that her father got the last bathroom fixtures for the apartments from the factory before it was closed to support World War II.

It was in the house on Milwaukee Street that Rooney discovered her passion and vocation — music.

Her father was musical, as was his family, and he passed this on to his children, Rooney said. But it was only when her oldest sister Mary began dating a violin teacher that she began taking lessons.

“Whenever he’d come over, he would give me a lesson,” Rooney said, recalling she used a violin her mother had found in the attic.

“I struggled,” she said. “But you get to like it as you go along.”

After graduating from Port high, she moved to Milwaukee for a few years, working for an account executive at Merrill Lynch, before returning to her Port home, Rooney said, but she kept playing the violin. 

“Music is what I did,” she said. “I always had a job.”

She played for a number of groups, including the Catholic Symphony and Music Under the Stars, and performed at Karl Ratzsch’s Restaurant in Milwaukee one night a week.

“That was a lot of fun,” she said.

In 1966, she married John “Pat” Rooney, who was the Ozaukee County clerk of courts. The couple lived on Port Washington’s west side for a couple years, then Rooney bought her family’s house.

“I liked the house,” she said. “He (Pat) liked it too.”

Her parents had converted the home to a duplex years earlier, so her mother continued to live there.

Pat’s two oldest children, Ellen and Maureen, were college-age, but they raised his son Jack at the house.

Her husband died in 1976, Rooney said, about the time the Suzuki method of teaching music became popular.

“I thought this was just wonderful,” she said. “It opened everything up for strings.”

She dedicated herself to the method and became well-known for teaching it in the area, first in Milwaukee, then in Mequon and later in her home.

“I thought this was something I could make a living with,” she said. “It really blossomed. Forty to 45 students a week came to my house to learn violin.” 

Rooney still gives violin lessons, although she recently gave up playing due to an injury. Now, she’s taken up the mandolin.

Deciding to give up her home was a difficult decision, but the right one, Rooney said,  noting it had become a lot of work to keep up the house.

“I cried all the way out of Port Washington,” she said. “But you have to move on.”

She was almost the last original family from the neighborhood to leave. 

“I thought I’d be the last one, but I’m not,” Rooney said, noting her childhood friend Lorraine Kultgen Biever still lives on Milwaukee Street — not in her childhood home but in her grandmother’s house.

And the city, she said, is “still the same Port Washington at heart. Everything just moves at a faster pace now.”


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login