With a rich history that includes dozens of Native tribes that once laid claim to the land, as well as French, British and American settlers who later adopted it as their own, Wisconsin offers a wealth of fascinating destinations to explore. In addition to the stunning natural beauty of its rivers and lakes, the state is also known for the agricultural industry that earned it the nickname of “America’s Dairyland.”
Perhaps most importantly to urban explorers, Wisconsin is home to a wide variety of interesting abandoned places, from ill-fated religious institutions and healthcare facilities to doomed family residences. Read on to find out which sites made our list of the 10 best abandoned places in Wisconsin for 2021 and beyond.
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The Best Abandoned Places in Wisconsin
St. Ambrose Church (St. Nazianz)
About an hour south of Green Bay, St. Ambrose Church opened its doors in 1854 when the inhabitants of a tiny village in Germany followed their priest, Father Ambrose Oschwald, across the Atlantic to establish a new settlement in America. The small community shared its property in common and in keeping with Catholic tradition, adhered to a senate-based government.
When Father Oschwald died in 1873, the group gradually disbanded, and the Salvatorian Fathers purchased the property in 1896. The order constructed a beautiful seminary building on the site, gradually adding new buildings to the campus to accommodate expanding enrollment through the 1930s.
However, a sharp decline in the student population led to the seminary’s conversion into John F. Kennedy Preparatory High School in 1968. The high school operated with anemic enrollment until its closure in 1982.
Over the next quarter-century, the dormant property experienced significant gang activity, evidenced by the graffiti and other vandalism splashed across the once-sacred structures. In 2008, United Ministries purchased the campus with plans to establish a Christian summer camp program for vulnerable youth, but fundraising to cover the cost of renovations and operating expenses has been slow.
The group runs a thrift store in the old gymnasium, with proceeds from sales earmarked for the eventual refurbishing of the crumbling buildings. Meanwhile, visitors can see the time-worn historic buildings and visit the hillside tomb that holds Father Oschwald’s remains, and it is one of the most accessible abandoned places in Wisconsin.
Muirdale Sanatorium (Wauwatosa)
As the cause of one in every 10 American deaths at the turn of the 20th century, tuberculosis was a formidable foe for physicians at the time. Despite battling the disease for hundreds of years, doctors and scientists were still stymied when it came to developing effective treatments for the “white plague,” as it was sometimes known.
Most patients were sent to sanatoriums where they were treated with sunshine and fresh air and perhaps most importantly, isolated from the larger community to slow the spread of the highly contagious illness.
As one such treatment center, Muirdale Sanatorium opened in 1915 in Wauwatosa, with room for 700 patients in the main three-story hospital and auxiliary cottages for children and adults healthy enough to walk on their own. The medical center treated more than 10,000 patients in its first 20 years, but its population steadily declined after antibiotics and even chemotherapy were incorporated into the standard treatment regimen in the 1950s.
In 1970, Muirdale Sanatorium was converted into a care facility for seniors with mental illness, while the hospital administration building became the Milwaukee County Nursing Home. Most of the cottages and other small buildings on the property were torn down.
The senior care facilities shut down in the late 1970s, and those buildings were also slated for demolition in 1992 until historical preservation groups rallied to save them. The main hospital building is now the “Technology Innovation Center” in the Milwaukee County Research Park, a regional business incubator. While this isn’t the typical urbex abandoned places in Wisconsin option, it still holds a rich history and is worth a visit.
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Heritage House Inn (Kenosha)
Though the existing building dates back roughly 100 years, this property in downtown Kenosha has a storied past that extends deep into the 19th century.
The site was originally the location of the Pettit Malting Company, established in 1857 and widely considered the oldest malt house in the state. When production exceeded the building’s capacity of 50,000 bushels per year, the first plant was demolished and replaced with a new, larger plant with a 300,000-bushel capacity.
When the company again doubled production by 1888, the facility added a third story, with the first floor dedicated to malting, the second to steeping and the top floor to storage. Sadly, the building was destroyed by a huge fire that began on St. Patrick’s Day 1914 and raged out of control for several days, and the company never rebuilt.
In 1916, the Kenosha Elks Club acquired the property and began construction of a plush new clubhouse featuring a hotel, swimming pool, multiple dining rooms. For the next 70 years, the Elks hosted dozens of VIP guests at the facility, including government dignitaries, renowned restauranteurs and famous entertainers, including Mel Torme.
Financial difficulties led the club to sell the property in 1990, and it was renovated and reopened as the Heritage House Inn. Heritage House saw its greatest use as a banquet hall, most notably hosting then-House Speaker Denny Hastert at a fundraiser for local Republicans (we don’t talk about him no mo’).
After changing hands multiple times over the years, the Heritage House Inn closed and the property was abandoned in the mid-2000s. A small fire in 2011 damaged several of the dining rooms as well as the second-floor ballroom.
The vacant, dilapidated building was rescued in 2017 and underwent massive renovations to reopen as the Stella Hotel and Ballroom, downtown Kenosha’s only full-service hotel. Investors took great pains to maintain the historic look and feel of the building, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Preserved features of the original structure include reconditioned wood and terrazzo flooring, wooden support beams and exposed brick. While this is another “former” abandoned places in Wisconsin option, we still recommend a visit.
Lost City Forest (Madison)
As you wander through the peaceful woods along the southwest corner of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, you might hear the trill of a swallow, the rustle of the breeze through the trees or even the occasional rumble of a car on the nearby Beltline. Surrounded by solitude, you might imagine that this serene swath of land is known as the “Lost City Forest” because of the tranquil escape it provides from the frenetic energy of the state’s capital city.
In fact, the Lost City Forest is named for the doomed housing development planned for these marshy acres in the early 20th century. Madison’s rapid growth in the 1920s sent developers scrambling to build new housing developments quickly enough to meet demand, which occasionally meant they didn’t take the time to complete their due diligence before putting shovels in the ground.
Such was the case with the land now known as the Lost City Forest, which the Lake Forest Land Company had identified as the site of a tony new neighborhood on the south shores of Lake Wingra. With roads and sidewalks mapped out and concrete foundations being poured, the developers discovered that the waterlogged ground simply wasn’t stable enough to support residential housing. The foundations began to sink into the earth, and when the arrival of the Great Depression sent the developer into bankruptcy, plans to build on the site were permanently scrapped.
The arboretum offers free admission and once-yearly history tours to discuss the fate of the Lost City, typically on a weekend in October. The rest of the year, visitors are free to wander the property and envision the homes that might have been built on this bucolic patch of land. This is an incredible example of one of the best abandoned places in Wisconsin.
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Pabst Mansion (Milwaukee)
This striking 19th-century mansion was built in 1892 by Captain Frederick Pabst. He lived there with his family for nearly 20 years, during which the home hosted dozens of opulent parties, a wedding and eventually, the funerals of both Captain Pabst and his wife.
The Flemish Renaissance Revival-style residence featured 66 rooms and 14 fireplaces, with an elaborate study for Captain Pabst. The interior décor blended the Neo-Rococo and Neo-Renaissance styles, and the Pabsts filled it with priceless works of art worthy of display in a museum.
The Pabsts’ descendants sold the home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1908, and it was used as a residence for five archbishops, as well as multiple nuns and priests, until the church sold the property in 1975 with hopes that it would be preserved for future generations to enjoy. However, the grand home was slated for demolition and replacement with a parking garage until it was rescued by Wisconsin Heritages, Inc. in 1978. The group began a decades-long process of restoring and preserving the iconic mansion, and it remains open to the public for tours.
Shorewood Ghost Train (Shorewood)
In the early 20th century, the Oak Leaf Trail Bridge provided an essential piece of infrastructure for the Twin Cities 400, a Chicago and North Western Railway route connecting Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. At the time, it was touted as the fastest passenger train in the world, covering the 400-mile route in around 400 minutes. The route was eliminated in 1963, and the City of Shorewood eventually incorporated the bridge into the Oak Leaf Trail, a 125-mile trail system that crisscrosses Milwaukee County.
In 2016, the bridge became the site of an ongoing public art installation to honor the long-defunct rail route. Conceived by artist and engineer Marty Peck, the Shorewood Ghost Train is a multi-sensory experience that replicates the sight, sound and feel of a train crossing the bridge twice each day.
A unique speaker system mimics the sound of the train’s horn as it screams across the bridge, generating enough volume to rattle the structure’s foundation. Disembodied lights flash through the darkness as the “train” passes by; once the train is gone, the “headlights” are replaced by a series of brightly-colored light patterns.
The Shorewood Ghost Train runs at 7 and 7:15 p.m. during the winter months and at 9 and 9:15 during daylight saving time. In December, a Holiday Express train takes its place at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays as well as Christmas Day. This is an incredible example of one of the best abandoned places in Wisconsin.
Nike Missile Control Site (Waukesha)
With the Cold War little more than a distant memory for most Americans, it would probably surprise people to learn how many relics of the nuclear era are hiding in plain sight in our cities and towns.
One such remnant exists in the form of a 30-foot-tall seafoam green metal tower anchored to a concrete pad in Waukesha. The Hillcrest Park tower is all that’s left of the M74 Nike Missile Base, one of eight similar sites that operated in the Milwaukee region between the 1950s and 1970s. Before it was decommissioned, the base contained radar equipment and various weapons designed to help protect the city in case of an enemy attack.
The tower has been empty since the waning days of the Cold War in the 1980s, and years of harsh weather and vandalism have taken their toll on the abandoned facility. The crumbling cement still supports the tower, which is now splashed with graffiti despite the signs warning potential trespassers who may be considering climbing the structure. This is the urbex dream for the state, and is one of the most incredible abandoned places in Wisconsin.
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Bathtub Spring (Soldiers Grove)
Author note: This image above is not Bathtub Spring. I was unable to find an image of the spring at a high enough resolution to post.
Motorists rumbling down one rural road in the Star Valley might be startled to see a decrepit porcelain bathtub sitting along the shoulder. Despite its mildew-covered exterior, the water flowing into the tub is clean and cold, sourced from a nearby spring that once belonged to the dairy at Swiggum Farm.
The Swiggums relied on the spring to chill their milk and provide drinking water to the family, since the property didn’t have a proper running water source until the mid-20th century. The spring was well-known throughout the community, and drivers would frequently stop to fill jugs with the refreshing water as they passed by.
After the family sold the farm, someone—no one is quite sure who—connected a pipe to the bubbling hillside spring and fed it into an old-fashioned claw-footed tub they placed next to the road. The tub eventually disappeared into the soft, marshy ground, but was soon replaced.
A pair of tin cups hang from a chain to allow passersby to take a drink, and the water reportedly offers a sweet, slightly mineral taste. Despite admonitions from the local government that the water may not be safe to drink, the tub receives a remarkable number of regular visitors. This is an incredible example of one of the best abandoned places in Wisconsin.
Alexian Brothers Novitiate (Gresham)
Originally constructed as a private residence, this stately manor home harbors a complex history. The home was built for wealthy New York widow Jennie Peters, whose late husband had been an executive with the National Biscuit Company (now known as snack-food juggernaut Nabisco).
The 35-room Georgian mansion featured large windows, a two-story stone portico and a balcony on the second floor that offered stunning views of Freeborn Falls on the Red River. In 1948, after the passing of her daughter, Mrs. Peters returned to New York and donated the home to the Alexian Brothers order for use as a novitiate.
The first novices moved onto the 232-acre property in 1951, and the home was soon expanded to add dormitories, a chapel and other facilities. The order acquired additional land for a farm in 1955, allowing the group living on the site to become self-sufficient.
After the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council in 1968, the Alexian Brothers began the process of relocating to Chicago, with the last inhabitants leaving the property in 1972. For the next several years, the novitiate tried unsuccessfully to sell the property, until a deal seemed to be reached in 1974 to sell it at a nominal cost to a Native American group in Green Bay for use as an alcoholic treatment facility.
That plan was abruptly halted on January 1, 1975 by the violent seizure of the property by armed members of the Menominee tribe. They took the on-site caretaker and his family hostage and demanded that the land be returned to the Menominee Reservation based on their interpretation of a federal law requiring it to be relinquished to the tribe if it was no longer being used for religious purposes.
The standoff stretched on for weeks, with local law enforcement cutting off power to the building in an attempt to force a ceasefire, resulting in major damage to the residence when the water pipes froze and burst. The National Guard was soon brought in to accelerate a resolution, but the Menominees held their ground, drawing support from American Indian Movement leaders and even famed actor Marlon Brando.
The standoff finally ended on February 2, when the Alexian Brothers—fearing the potential of further violence on the property—agreed to sell it to the Menominee Reservation for a dollar. The 39 invading tribe members were arrested, but remarkably, no one was killed or seriously injured during the month-long conflict.
Ironically, the Menominee Reservation was unable to maintain the sprawling property and dropped their claim to the property within months of receiving it. Later that year, a major fire caused significant damage to the residence, and the land was divided into smaller parcels, with 56 acres donated to the town of Richmond for use as park land.
The Alexian Brothers’ additions to the mansion were torn down in 2004, leaving only the original structure relatively intact. It has been abandoned since then, and despite changing ownership multiple times, has not benefitted from any repairs, renovations or other preservation efforts.
Solvay Coke and Gas Company (Milwaukee)
Prior to the technological innovations that sent natural gas pipelines burrowing underground across state lines, areas without naturally-occurring reserves of the gas had to come up with other methods for generating it. In 1906, the Milwaukee Solvay Coke and Gas Company established a plant on the city’s south side, providing power to thousands of residents until its closure and abandonment in 1983.
Despite its location in a highly desirable area of the city, the cost of required environmental remediation on the site have prevented it from becoming anything other than a decrepit former power plant. Toxic mold containing arsenic, lead, asbestos and other hazardous materials has overtaken the buildings, and these substances have infiltrated the soil surrounding the plant.
The presence of environmental hazards hasn’t deterred vandals and urban explorers from making their mark on the space, as bright sprays of graffiti cover most of the buildings’ surfaces. The windows are a mix of dusty glass and jagged, gaping holes where light streams into the plant. The floors are piled with rubble—a motley mix of glass shards, concrete chunks, ceiling tiles and drywall—and dotted with clues about the plant’s original use, including hard hats, tools, chemical containers and even paperwork dating back decades.
Ladders and horizontal walkways crisscross the chaotic scene, and cube-shaped cubbies line the walls. The only components of the plant that have weathered the effects of time are the twin brick smokestacks still reaching into the sky at one of the best abandoned places in Wisconsin.
Our Final Thoughts on Abandoned Places in Wisconsin
Those who are into urban exploration in the Wisconsin state area, and wanting to explore abandoned places in Wisconsin, should get comfortable with Wisconsin trespassing laws. Luckily, in the state of Wisconsin, the laws are easy to understand and are pretty cut and dry.
For these cases, you should familiarize yourself with x. For more about obtaining permission to explore abandoned places in Wisconsin, check out our guide Explore Abandoned Buildings: How To Get Permission.