1910 Bay View home housed six generations and a Civil War veteran

Angela Peterson
Bob and Gail Torerpe smooch on the front porch of their home on Wentworth Ave. on Wednesday. The couple's home has housed six generations of Gail's family and turns 100 this year. The Toerpes are throwing a birthday party this weekend for the house.
Published on: 6/12/2010

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like this white clapboard home to Gail Toerpe.

Her grandparents and great-grandparents lived together here at 3034 S. Wentworth Ave., two blocks from Lake Michigan. Then her parents raised Gail and three siblings here. Now 75, Gail has returned with her husband, Bob, and they hope to live out their years right here.

"This is our Tara," she says.

The house does not impress with its stats - story-and-a-half, three bedrooms, 1,277 square feet, squeezed into a 30-foot-by-120-foot lot on a quiet street. Driving by, you wouldn't notice it.

It's the people who matter, the generations who enjoyed the comforting embrace of its small rooms and predictable creaks of the hardwood floors. They're the true guests of honor this weekend at a two-day party to mark the 100th birthday of the Bay View house.

"Stop by for a visit to our history," says the rolled-up invitation that the Toerpes rubber-banded to their neighbors' doorknobs.

Bob, 77, is retired from the insurance business. In contrast to his wife's link to one house, he grew up in Chicago and lived in 14 different apartments by the time he was 14. Gail has owned the Washington Island Observer newspaper for 19 years, but it's now for sale.

The couple turned their home into something of a museum for the open house, with tintype photos laid out on the dining room table and ancestors' framed marriage licenses on display. Hanging on the kitchen walls are a family tree, a Milwaukee map from the early 20th century, and a photo that Gail pointed out when I visited last week.

"This picture was taken New Year's Eve 1948. It was taken right here," she said, pointing across the kitchen. A clock in the photo says 12:08 a.m., signaling how long it took to assemble and pose 13 people, including Gail at age 13, after the toasting and kissing died down.

Gail's grandparents, Henry and Isabel Larson, are in the photo. They bought the house in 1914, four years after it was built, and raised their children there. Henry rode the streetcar to work at Pabst for 50 years. Isabel's parents, Ira and Janie McCall, lived with them. That was common then.

Ira has superstar status in the family because he was a Civil War veteran. The flag that draped his coffin in 1926 is flying on the Toerpes' front porch for the party.

Gail's father and mother, Irv and Lenore Larson, raised four children in the house, plus Grandma and Grandpa Larson lived with them, and everyone shared one bathroom. Gail's brother, Paul, was born in an upstairs bedroom because he arrived quicker than they could get to a hospital.

By the way, Gail's mother's maiden name was, fittingly for this article, House. Her brother was Charlie House, who used to have my columnist gig at the Sentinel and Journal. Another relative operated five sailing vessels on the Great Lakes in the 19th century, and yet another survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As far as Gail knows, no one ever died in the house. There were no fires or other disasters she can remember. One of her daughters, Gabrielle, got married in the living room in the 1990s. The phone number at the house hasn't changed since about 1935. Gail and her kin attended Bay View High School from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Gail and Bob raised their own six children in a huge house on Superior St. For years after Gail's parents died, other family members lived at various times in the Wentworth house, including two of Gail and Bob's daughters and a few grandchildren, Gail's brother and some nieces. If you're doing the math, that's six generations of the family who lived under that roof.

As empty nesters, Gail and Bob didn't need such a big house. Bob wanted to move, and he knew the only other place she'd agree to live is her childhood home. So seven years ago they moved to Wentworth Ave, partly to keep it in the family. They expanded the upper level and moved a staircase.

"They'll probably have to carry me out feet-first," Gail said. "I've told my kids and grandkids if they sell the house after we kick the bucket, I'll come back and haunt 'em."

Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or e-mail at jstingl@journalsentinel.com