I’m so into the October 2017 “Save This Old House” property, and it’s not even the house that originally brought me to Milwaukee.* In writing “Save This Old House,” I often try to highlight properties that are owned by local governments. Why? Well, the fact that cities, counties, and the like are willing to keep foreclosed, abandoned, and/or condemned historic properties says a lot about their priorities. They’re preserving the past. Often, they are investing in neighborhoods that have fallen on hard times. And because covenants often restrict these properties to owner-occupants (rather than investors), they’re working to (re)build these communities. Cities that are preservation-oriented also tend to offer tax incentives, low-interest loans, and other financial help (in Milwaukee, you can even get a small grant for landscaping!). If you’re willing to take on the extensive renovation and repair that these houses often need, you can often get a historical home at a low upfront cost—and then be part of a growing community.
I can’t remember exactly what property originally drew me to Milwaukee, but something that I really appreciate about their Historic House program is that the city undertakes historically-appropriate renovations while the properties are under its purview. They usually start with structural elements (often roofing, since that can help save what’s beneath), then go for curb appeal. It’s not every city that will add a historically-accurate porch to a Queen Anne that’s been stripped of detail, trust me.
Anyway! What made me fall for the H.G. Goll house? Its crazy, crazy history. I got a big leg-up from an article by a local journalist, then went pretty deep into old newspapers, as you’ll see in a moment.
The house itself is a circa 1900 brick Tudor Revival, which makes it stand out from its neighbors (mostly painted ladies—and yes, the city of Milwaukee does give the Queen Annes it owns tricolor paint jobs!). It’s a contributing resource to the Concordia Historic District, so it’s included in both the National Register of Historic Places and the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places. The Concordia Historic District is named for Concordia College. Its campus was originally in this neighborhood, but the school moved out of the city (and became Concordia University) in 1983. I’m fast-forwarding in history, but the Goll House also had an ivory tower moment—so to speak—as the home of a now-defunct Marquette University chapter of the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity. Think about it: Restore the Goll house, and you can live in your very own Animal House! (Actually, they called it Da Zoo, which is kind of even better.)
But back to the old school history, if you’ll pardon my pun.** Henry G. Goll, aka H.G. Goll, was a bank clerk with a whole lot of side hustle. Frankly, it’s kind of weird that he had that kind of day job—oh right, except for the whole access-to-cash-for-embezzlement thing.
Goll was an assistant cashier at the First National Bank of Milwaukee. In this ATM age, it’s likely been a while since you even spoke to a teller, but back in the day*** banking was much more convoluted. In most transactions, four people stood between you and your money. Goll would have been person number four, the employee who would actually hand you your money—so he literally had his hand in the till.
Here’s what went down. An unnamed bank employee visited a member of the bank’s board of directors at home one Friday night, noting some “irregularities” in the accounts. It was enough to rouse his suspicion, and it turned out things were irregular enough that Saturday night brought together a meeting of the entire board. Bank president Frank G. Bigelow had embezzled $100,000… well actually, once things got real with the board, Bigelow copped to owing the bank $1,450,000.
A faction of the board had actually considered letting Bigelow and his wife run off to Europe and hushing up the whole thing with their own finances, but the prevailing sentiment was that Bigelow needed to pay (metaphorically, since he’d embezzled the cash to try to pay debts he’d run up). There was probably also plenty of tension due to Bigelow’s status both in the community and in the world of banking. Per the April 25, 1905 edition of the San Francisco Call…
He has been associated with the First National Bank in various capacities for more than fifteen years, and his business connections — trust companies, manufacturing concerns, real estate deals and other similar ventures — number scores, he was honored a year ago by election to the presidency of the American Bankers’ Association and by its members was looked upon as a leader in financial matters.
So this was kind of a “fool me 1,450,000 times, shame on me” type of situation.
Besides having access to the money, where does Goll fit into all this? Well for one, Bigelow pointed the finger at him pretty much immediately, claiming he was an accomplice. (Two bookkeepers were also implicated, but it was decided that they were just acting on orders and not only wouldn’t be charged, but would be witnesses against Bigelow.)
Here’s where it gets even more strange. One, it turns out that one of Bigelow’s many investments was in the National Brake & Electric Company. (Side note: Check out that blog, I love how interested locals are in Milwaukee’s past!) Who else was a major stakeholder in that business? Why it’s bank cashier Henry G. Goll. One way or another, Goll was (in the parlance of today) making bank, because that concern (in the parlance of the day) began in 1901, a year after this manse was likely built. Is it just me, or is it a little surprising that two men with such different positions in the same organization (the First National Bank of Milwaukee, in case you forgot) are also, in a way, peers?
Two, Bigelow went beyond claiming Goll was his accomplice. He testified that Goll acted on his orders, but that he was also doing his own fancy accounting. Per the Chicago Tribune, “Bigelow’s operations could not have continued so long or grown so large but for the manipulation of the bank’s books by Goll, who was in his confidence.”
Possibly the best part of the whole saga: While Bigelow waits at home in his library for U.S. Marshals to show up, bidding his wife a dramatic farewell, Goll just leaves. He sort of zigzags around the Upper Midwest, and per the Trib (4/30/06) it takes ten days before he’s finally arrested in Chicago. The paper explains:
He had put off his eyeglasses and cropped his mustache, and exposure to the sun had tanned his face. In consequence his appearance was so changed he was hardly recognizable.
Seriously?! He got tan, ditched his glasses, and shaved… and now he’s “hardly recognizable”? I guess this explains the Daily Planet‘s extreme difficulty noting the resemblance between Superman and Clark Kent.
Who tipped off Goll? No clue. But by the time Goll goes to trial, Bigelow has already begun a ten-year stint in Leavenworth. Don’t worry, they let him out so he can be the star witness in Goll’s trial—with friends like these, amirite? Bigelow confessed so instantly that he basically just had a sentencing, but Goll’s trial lasted three weeks. The jury deliberated for eight hours, so there probably was debate about whether Goll was the mastermind or just the lackey Bigelow threw under the bus. I’m kind of leaning toward the former, as Goll was able to build this awesome house, while investment-wise Bigelow seemed to keep throwing good money after bad.
Come on… how often do you have a chance to live in a house likely built with ill-gotten funds that also used to be called “Da Zoo”? Right, zero other times. Please, somebody, save this old house!
* “…but Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors.”
** And my cultural appropriation. “Old school” is an expression that’s used fast and loose just about everywhere these days, but still.