The Oldest House in Wisconsin Still Stands Strong After 246 Years

Royalbroil, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Telea Dodge

Updated: November 9, 2023

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History is an important part of our human experience. We use it to know where we come from and where we might be going. We observe human behavior, witness the rise and fall of humanity, and celebrate our heritage. In the United States, descendants of European settlers celebrate their origins by the historic buildings and places that have existed since their ancestors first arrived in North America. Today, we’ll be exploring the oldest house in Wisconsin, which is older than the state itself. In fact, this historic house was likely built the same year that the United States became a country. We’re going to dig into the history – and some of the uses – of this house.

Tank Cottage dates back to approximately 1776, making it the oldest house still standing in Wisconsin.

Oldest House in Wisconsin

Tank Cottage is the oldest standing house in Wisconsin. There are varying reports on when it was actually built, but we know it’s at least 219 years old. Some reports date it back to 1776 – the same year the United States became a country. The Wisconsin Historical Society has two separate reports on its age – one of them claiming it was built in 1776 and the other estimating that it was erected in 1785. Other sources date it to as late as 1803. Even if it was built in 1803, that would make Tank Cottage 219 years old. At its most, the historic home is nearly 247 years old.

Tank Cottage is also called “The Roi-Porlier-Tank Cottage”. Let’s take a closer look at its history.

A photo of Tank Cottage captured in 2014.

History of the Tank Cottage

Let’s assume that the cottage was built in 1776. We chose this as the original date based on a recorded personal testimony by the original builder. The house was originally built by French-Canadian voyageur and fur trader Joseph Roi, who came to Wisconsin in the 1700s. Unfortunately, we don’t have much information about Joseph Roi outside of his work on this house. We do know he was the first of seven settlers in Green Bay, which is impressive enough! He built his house along the Fox River in what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin.

He lived in the cottage for several years after its completion and then sold it to Jacques Porlier, a judge and fur trader. We believe he spent the rest of his life living in Tank Cottage. He passed away in 1839 after living an incredibly rich and storied life. In 1850, the cottage’s namesake would purchase the house. A Norwegian man by the name of Niels Otto Tank purchased this cottage and used it to found a Moravian Church Settlement.

Tank Cottage has been updated, renovated, and restored several times, and it has been relocated twice.

Niels Otto Tank

Unlike the fur traders who had previously built and occupied the cottage, Niels was a wealthy missionary. Tank purchased several hundred acres of land, including Tank Cottage, in order to try to build a religious colony for Norwegian immigrants. According to the inventory of the house taken by the National Register of Historic Places, Tank’s religious communal society failed when disputes over leadership arose. He and his wife would continue to live in the house until their deaths. Tank passed away in 1864. His wife survived him by several more years and passed away in 1891 after living a life devoted to continuing the missionary work of herself and her late husband.

About the House

A historic photo of Tank Cottage, taken 1933.

Let’s talk more about the structure itself, which is fascinating for its construction and for its long history. The National Register of Historic Places believes that Tank House is one of only four or five remaining buildings in the entire country that were built in this style. They list it as a “wattle construction” house, and detail the building of it vividly. The four corners of the house were made of willow trees set into the ground with upright supports made of willow. There is little overall convention to the style of the house, but it has early French-Canadian influences.

Branches, twigs, and boughs were then woven between the four corner posts and supports to fashion a wall. Once this was completed, the walls were plastered with mud and clay, and then covered with horizontal split boards on the inside. This was to provide more solidity and warmth to the structure. Outer siding was added to the building later.

Rooms in the Cottage

The original cottage consisted of a parlor with a fireplace and two small rooms connecting to this parlor. A small library was also attached, with two more small rooms opening off of it. An upstairs floor held another two rooms, one larger than the other. Overall, this was quite a simple cabin for the first several years it stood. The fireplace was attached to a rough stone chimney.

Renovations to the Cottage

When Niels Otto Tank purchased the house in 1850, it wasn’t quite large enough for him and the work he was trying to do. He added a wing to either side of the cottage in a conventional frame style. This is also when the exterior of the house was covered in wooden clapboards for siding.

In 1891, the final resident of the house, George Rice, worked diligently to restore and preserve all aspects of the house. He took care to honor the original construction and the 1850s additions to the cottage. The house would become property of the city of Green Bay soon after.

Where is the Cottage Now?

Historic Fort Howard Guardhouse and Commanding Officer's office at Heritage Hill State Park, Allouez, Wisconsin

Heritage Hill State Park holds over 20 historic buildings, including Tank Cottage and the one pictured above – the Historic Fort Howard Guardhouse.

The Tank Cottage still stands, but not in its original location. In 1907, the house faced demolition. New industrial developments in the area threatened the area the cottage stood on. George Rice took a stand and made sure to protect and preserve the house he had so lovingly worked on. He contacted the city of Green Bay and offered the house to them. His condition was that it would be overseen and protected by the South Side Improvement Association and the Green Bay Historical Society. They all agreed and united to protect and relocate the house. In 1908, the house was relocated to Tank Park/Union Park, and necessary improvements and renovations were done to keep it standing.

The cottage now rests in the Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was moved here in 1976 and will remain at this location for the rest of its life. It is filled with many furnishings left behind by the Tank Family and it stands as an important part of early Wisconsin state history. The building was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

Where Is Tank Cottage Located on a Map?

Tank Cottage rests in the heart of Green Bay, Wisconsin, just within walking distance of the Fox River. The Fox River feeds into the massive Lake Michigan to the north. Due south along the western banks of Lake Michigan sits Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin.

Can I Visit Tank Cottage?

A blueprint of Tank Cottage.

You can see Tank Cottage – along with several other historic buildings – when you visit the Heritage Hill State Park. The park has varying hours based on season, but it’s a great place to visit to learn about the history of Wisconsin. The Tank Cottage rests at the lower end of the historic park and faces westward toward the river. It is unclear whether tours of the inside of the house are available, but it is unlikely. Many historic buildings need extra care in order to stay standing. This historic house is most likely only viewable from the outside. You can still see a lot of really cool history from this angle, and Heritage Hill State Park is a great place to learn. Make sure to visit this historic site the next time you’re in Green Bay – you’ll be wowed by the amount of history that is preserved there.


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About the Author

Telea Dodge is an animal enthusiast and nature fiend with a particular interest in teaching a sense of community and compassion through interactions with the world at large. Carrying a passion for wild foraging, animal behaviorism, traveling, and music, Telea spends their free time practicing their hobbies while exploring with their companion dog, Spectre.

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