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This old house

 Elizabeth Jolly-Haslitt, senior marketing specialist at Heritage Hill, talks about the construction of the cottage
Elizabeth Jolly-Haslitt, senior marketing specialist at Heritage Hill, talks about the construction of the cottage. Kris Leonhardt photo

Local landmark is testament to formation of state

By Kris Leonhardt


GREEN BAY – Green Bay is home to one of the oldest — and likely the oldest — residential buildings in the state of Wisconsin.

While some date the building’s construction to the early 1800s, the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey lists initial construction in 1776, naming it the “oldest existing house in Wisconsin.”

The building’s current caretakers at Heritage Hill State Historical Park said that dendrochronology — a scientific technique for dating wooden buildings using trees — shows that the cottage was originally built in 1803.

“One of the oldest residential buildings in Wisconsin, and one of the original buildings of Green Bay to be sure,” said Elizabeth Jolly-Haslitt, senior marketing specialist at Heritage Hill, where the house now resides.

Built by brothers, Joseph and Amable Roi, as early French traders were arriving in the area, of wattle construction — a fabrication technique where willow branches are placed in a vertical position and sealed with mud, stone and rice straw mortar, creating a strong adobe wall.

In 1805, Roi sold the house to Brown County Judge Jacque Porlier, whose family sold it to Otto Tank in 1850.

Tank added a wing on the south for a summer kitchen and one on the north for a prayer room.

“They were Moravian and they were here on Moravian missionary work, or at least Otto was. Before the Moravian Church was built, this was a gathering place for Moravians,” explained Jolly-Haslitt.

“The Tanks were both of wealthy Dutch stock… Caroline was actually his second wife; he was married once before. His first wife died during his other missionary work in Suriname.

Distant view of the cottage across the river in 1889. On the original site on the west side of the Fox River, before its restoration
Distant view of the cottage across the river in 1889. On the original site on the west side of the Fox River, before its restoration. Wisconsin Historical Society photo

“He was a very, very good businessman, so often in conjunction with his missionary work, he would run businesses in the area as well.”

The house originally sat on the west bank of the Fox River in French Lot No. 7, which is now at the foot of Eighth Street in Green Bay.

In 1864, Otto died from complications of chicken pox.

“Otto Tank, one of the most extensive property holders and heaviest capitalists in North Western Wisconsin died at his residence, over the river, in Fort Howard… He had been considered dangerously sick for several weeks. Mr. Tank’s business connections were very extensive, both in this country and Europe…,” a Green Bay Advocate article stated.

After losing her daughter, Caroline lived in the house alone until she passed away in April 1891.

The house was sold to the Eldred Lumber Company and then to the Diamond Match Company, before George Rice began using it as a summer home.

But when a new company looked to purchase the property, talks began on its preservation.

An Oct. 8, 1907, Green Bay Gazette article called for saving the cottage, which was in “fairly good preservation” for its age.

“The Tank cottage, the oldest frame building in the state of Wisconsin, must be torn down or removed from its present site this fall. George H. Rice, its owner, needs the land upon which it stands and the ground in the immediate vicinity for yard purposes for the Green Bay Box & Lumber Company,” the article stated.

But, the South Side Improvement Association was coming to its rescue.

“The South Side Improvement Association has a scheme to have the cottage moved to Union Park and there used for public library and museum purposes. The park has a regular policeman in charge of it and the officer could look after the building without additional trouble…,” the article explained.

Later that month, the Green Bay City Council voted to appropriate up to $350 in funding to have the structure, which was donated to Green Bay by the box and lumber company, moved to Union Park.

There it served the city for a time, before falling into disrepair.

Once again, the Tank Cottage was rescued in 1975, acquired by Heritage Hill and transported down the Fox River on a barge to its new home, where the state continues its preservation.

For information on touring the Tank Cottage, visit https://heritagehillgb.org.

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