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The story behind The Boat House

There are many myths looming over Milwaukee's boathouse, 3138 N. Cambridge Ave., which is currently for sale. Some say it once crested the waters of Lake Michigan; others believe it was built in a shipyard with every intention of going afloat but never did. According to "Boat House" owner, Dr. William Kortsch, none of these tales are true.

With the help of a few skilled laborers, Edmund B. Gustdorf, a traveling salesman, built The Boat House on the Cambridge Street lot in the 1920s. (Kortsch claims it was 1927, whereas the city's property assessment says 1926 and "The Heritage Guidebook" prints 1924.) Gustdorf's father was a Finnish Merchant Marine, which Kortsch believes was Gustdorf's motivation for building the nautical abode.

"It may have been just a fancy, but I think he had the sea in him (like his father)," says Kortsch, whose own grandfather poured the cement for the basement.

The Boat House points toward the Milwaukee River and is modeled after a 1910 gasoline motor launch. It is 72 feet long and 18 feet wide (at its broadest point), with a 16-foot beam. It also sports seafaring embellishments like round windows and a lighthouse made of wood blocks. Originally The Boat House was surrounded by a fence cut with a wave-pattern top and was wood-sided instead of aluminum.

The 500-square foot boat house has a multi-leveled layout including a main floor with a salon, dining area, kitchen and two staircases leading below. One of the staircases is in the bow (front of the boat) and leads to the bedroom, bathroom and storage room. The other flight is in the middle of the boat and leads to what would be the engine room, but instead is a large area with a fireplace. There is also a furnace, laundry area and full bathroom on this level. Hardwood floors and maps on the walls make the interior feel even more "boaty."

Kortsch, a dentist who practices on the East Side, lived across the street from The Boat House for many years, and finally purchased it in 1985. At the time, the house was in such disrepair that Kortsch was afraid it would be torn down, so he and his wife bought the boat house to preserve the work of his grandfather and the unique quality it brings to the neighborhood.

Dr. Kortsch and his wife recently moved to Fox Point, but are still very committed to The Boat House. This summer they plan to have extensive exterior restoration work completed, including painting and roof work.

Because the house is completely scaled to the size of a real yacht, the doors are too narrow for full-sized furniture. The rooms cannot even accommodate a double bed, and has built-in twin bunks instead. Does this ever present a problem for current tenant, bachelor Paul Finger?

"Nah," he jokes. "The only drawback is having to breathe through a snorkel, and sometimes I'm pelted by seahorses, but otherwise it's great ... I'm serenaded by mermaids ... the singing clams are beautiful."

Finger says 14 or 15 people stop by every week to ask him about The Boat House. Although he doesn't encourage people to visit unannounced, he shares their curiosity and is currently compiling an archive of information about his odd digs. He hopes to someday buy The Boat House from Kortsch.

"Although I think of myself as more of a taxi person or a jet plane kind of guy, I love living in a boat," says Finger. "I'm always singing a sea shanty here."

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