The present site of Portage was a strategic location from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Here explorers, fur traders, and travelers portaged their boats across a marshy floodplain between the Fox River route to the Great Lakes and the Wisconsin River route to the Mississippi River. In the mid-nineteenth century, a canal linked the two rivers, but it was too poorly built to provide reliable navigation for commerce. Not until the arrival of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad (now the Soo Line) in the 1850s did the city of Portage emerge as a prosperous trading center.
Between 1870 and 1910, the town’s most prominent families built elegant brick houses in an area now known as Society Hill. Most are in Italianate and Queen Anne, but sprinkled among the high-style houses are more vernacular dwellings, along with a number of Craftsman bungalows. Among the most notable houses is the Zona Gale–William Breese House (1912; 804 MacFarlane Road), now the Museum at the Portage. Author Zona Gale won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for her play Miss Lulu Bett. Of small towns like Portage, she wrote in Portage, Wisconsin, and Other Essays (1928), “A town may be less a place than a force, less a force than a fragrance.” The year she published that reflection, Gale moved into this red brick house designed by Julius E. Heimerl of Milwaukee for her husband, William Breese, and his first wife, Jessie. The Colonial Revival house has a stately formality, conveyed by a steeply pitched hipped roof with gabled dormers, monumental chimneys, a dentiled cornice, and arched windows trimmed with decorative balconets. Heimerl designed a partly stuccoed north addition as a writing studio. Its interior features Tudor woodwork executed by carpenter Otto Kraemer of Baraboo.
Some houses reveal the evolution of styles. The eclectic design of the Robert and Lucy Cochrane House (228 W. Franklin Street) was built in several stages beginning in 1877. It probably started as an Italianate house with the two-story projecting entrance pavilion, which rises above the bracketed cornice, and with the round window above the pavilion’s narrow second-story windows. In the 1880s, the mansard roof was added to modernize the house in the fashionable Second Empire style. Possibly at the same time, the house also gained bargeboards on its gable ends, their scallop and lancet shapes alluding to Gothic Revival. The Andrew Jackson Turner House (1881 and later alterations; 319 W. Franklin) was home to a Wisconsin newspaperman and politician. Frederick Jackson Turner, his son, became a leading historian of his era after presenting his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at a Chicago meeting of the American Historical Association (1893). Subsequently published in the association’s Annual Report, the essay established a major direction for American historical scholarship for more than a generation. Like the Cochrane House, the Turner House changed over the years. Its Italianate origins are evident in the low-pitched hipped roof and segmental-arched windows, but it assumed a southern-style Colonial Revival appearance with the addition of a classical entrance surround and a full-height Doric portico.
The John and Emily Dalton House (1877; 309 W. Marion Street), built by the owner, a mason, is Italianate. The two-story cream brick residence incorporates a full-height polygonal bay, tall round-arched windows with prominent hoods, foliated keystones, and corbels, large brackets under the deep eaves, and prominent quoins.