Milwaukee can be a magnet for those who crave the best of both worlds.
Milwaukee can be a magnet for those who crave the best of both worlds. Appreciating the pastoral serenity of the country and the hustle-bustle buzz of the city need not be mutually exclusive. Although discussions about the political polarization of southeastern Wisconsin often pit suburbs against city or rural against urban, the benefits of both ways of life make the debate almost irrelevant. In fact, many homeowners who have chosen a countrified lifestyle have also found strong and vital connections to all that the city has to offer.
The Oliverson-Guthrie Residence
Prairie Home Companions
It was just a shell when Larry Oliverson found it. A rustic log cabin in an old alfalfa field on almost 5 1/2 acres. But as an artist, he could see the potential.
“Not having the home finished wasn’t a problem,” says Oliverson, a photographer who got his master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as an engineer for Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brewing Co. before pursuing his art career.
Because his profession is somewhat seasonal (he exhibits at major outdoor art festivals around the country and internationally), he used the offseason to work on the house. Slowly, it began to resemble a home. Interior walls went up, pine floors replaced the subfloor, and a wood-burning stove on a hearth of Kentucky flagstone kept the space toasty-warm on the chilliest Wisconsin days. Oliverson even made a few tweaks to the initial layout, turning the former family room into his studio.
But it wasn’t the house that attracted Oliverson to the location some 30 years ago. It was the solitude. Situated on a dead-end road near Sullivan, “on a busy day, I would see one other person and the mailman drive by,” he says.
In fact, Oliverson says if he and wife, Donna Guthrie, started over on this property, they would build an entirely different home.
“I was attracted to the log initially, but never wanted the country log look,” Oliverson explains. “If we were to start brand-new, we’d build an extremely, over-the-top contemporary space.”
But for now, the couple is content with letting their extensive archived art collection – which ranges from semi-traditional to very contemporary, and includes works from notable artists such as the late Alberto Korda, National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, and Wisconsin surrealist painter Fred Stonehouse – keep the cabin from feeling too little-house-on-the-prairie.
The home’s structural elements – walls crafted from pine logs and hand-sculpted plaster, traditional pine floorboards of varying lengths and widths, and wrought-iron door hardware – match the traditional cabin motif.
“But then we vary it from there,” Oliverson says.
Like the sleek track lighting that illuminates the artwork on the walls, including a few of Oliverson’s own prints. Or the handcrafted dining room table Oliverson and Guthrie designed themselves and had a sculptor friend fabricate. Its simple lines, minimalistic style and industrial-inspired, rusted appearance helps modernize the space, without looking out of place. “The mottled brown/black look, we felt, went well with the house,” Oliverson adds.
At just about 2,400 square feet, the four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath, two-story home isn’t too much to manage, which suits Oliverson and Guthrie just fine, because they like to travel. And the location, equidistant from Milwaukee and Madison, is ideal.
Initially, Oliverson could enjoy all he loved about his alma mater’s hometown, while carrying out his many roles within the Milwaukee art scene. Over the years, he’s served on the board of trustees and the exhibition committee of the Milwaukee Art Museum. He also served as president of the Friends of Art and as co-chair for the Lakefront Festival of Art.
“I thought I was going to go equally to Milwaukee and Madison, but it seems we visit Milwaukee more,” Oliverson says.
Although Guthrie still identifies as an “East Sider,” she admits it would be hard to move from their prairie life. “I had no idea I would come to cherish this lifestyle so much.”
She has planted roots here in a very tangible sense. The once-vacant landscape now features mature evergreens, a cluster of woods and, her pride and joy, native prairie grasses that were hand-picked by Guthrie.
“The landscaping was pretty bald at first,” she recalls. “Larry had made a trade for a whole lot of little evergreens from a landscaper who wanted to buy his van.”
Guthrie was dating Oliverson at the time, and on weekends, she’d come out to the property to mulch the newly planted trees.
“From that basic mulching, I went into full-scale landscaping. I started going to classes and reading books and became this compulsive gardener,” says Guthrie, who is now a master gardener.
Today, the landscape displays a canvas of textures, colors and abstract designs, easily viewed from the home’s many windows, and a 700-square-foot deck that includes a pergola and walkway to an elevated gazebo.
“Coming out here used to seem so far,” Guthrie says. “But as I got comfortable with it, I found tremendous refuge in this place.”
But even paradise has drawbacks. “The biggest challenge is time,” Oliverson says. “We have to plan our visits to Milwaukee to avoid rush hour.”
“Not being there also means it takes more effort to keep up to date with what’s going on in the city,” Guthrie adds.
Still, the interstate is less than five minutes away, another attractive feature of the property’s location.
“I probably wouldn’t be quite as thrilled about being out here if we didn’t have such easy access to the expressway,” Guthrie says. “And particularly Milwaukee.”
The Revolinski Residence
Keys to the City
Debra Lampe-Revolinski grew up surrounded by farms and open pastures. “It was a nice, rural upbringing, including selling sweet corn at the local roadside stand and baling hay,” she recalls.
Yet, even at an early age, she felt the pull of city life.
“I think it was just the beauty of the buildings and the skyline at night that fascinated me,” she says. “There were also so many cultural opportunities and access to so much more information. It just drew me in.”
Her husband, Bill Revolinski, didn’t share the same affection, at least not to the same degree. He enjoyed trying new restaurants or seeing a concert on occasion, but whenever Lampe-Revolinski broached the topic of buying a place in the city, “he would say, ‘Not me. You’d never get me down here,’” she recalls. “He’s a bit of an outdoorsman.”
So she was pleasantly surprised when, in 2005, he showed interest in seeing a new Downtown condominium development in Milwaukee’s historic Wisconsin Tower at Sixth Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. Cautiously optimistic, Lampe-Revolinski brought the checkbook.
As the vintage elevator doors opened, the couple was directed into an open space void of everything except support beams and paint lines on the dusty concrete floor of the 75-year-old former commercial building.
“It was exciting to walk around this empty space and hear the vision from the developer,” Lampe-Revolinski says.
That was the afternoon her lifelong dream of living in the city came true. “We put the money down the same day,” she says.
Back home in Muskego, the couple kept the 2,600-square-foot traditional two-story they built 18 years earlier. Before building the house on the double lot just across the road from Wind Lake, they had lived in the original lake cottage for nine years. Its small size – barely 900 square feet – helped them acclimate when they bought the 600-square-foot city condo.
The Revolinskis chose to keep the decor of their Downtown digs true to the building’s original art deco style by incorporating furniture and accessories reminiscent of the period. An original doorknob stamped with concentric circles and a glass elevator sign – both salvaged during the building’s renovations – are proudly displayed, along with sleek wooden furniture, a Romanesque stool, and an assortment of retro transportation and architectural posters. Rich colors complemented by geometric shapes and chrome accents add a vintage-mod vibe to the urban escape.
“I call our place Downtown a glorified hotel room,” Lampe-Revolinski says. “But to us, it isn’t a hardship. We were used to living in a very small space before we built the house. And since we’re only part-time residents, it works for us.”
As part-time residents, the couple says they haven’t had to make too many compromises. Bill still has plenty of opportunity to return to the country to hunt and fish, and Deb now has access to as much of the city as she wants.
Initially, when Bill, an electrician with Pieper Electric, had several Downtown projects, the couple spent three or four nights a week at the condo. Now, it’s once a week, more frequently during the summer when the outdoor festival season is in full swing.
Lampe-Revolinski, a senior continuous improvement specialist at Harley-Davidson, believes the condo’s proximity to work and her volunteer commitments have inspired her to become more engaged in the community.
“Our building is located two blocks from the Milwaukee Public Museum,” she says. “So I’ve taken advantage of that by volunteering in numerous roles. Occasionally, I work the information booth or assist with various museum events.”
She’s also been involved with the Milwaukee Ballet (she volunteered as a dresser, ensuring the dancers made their costume changes in time), the Milwaukee Chapter for Project Management Institute, the Westown Association, and the Milwaukee Downtown Neighbors Association. Most recently, In Tandem Theatre, located three blocks from the condo, invited Lampe-Revolinski to join its board. She also helped develop the theater’s gallery space, promoting exhibits by local artists.
Living in the city inspires her to exercise more, too. “We walk everywhere,” she says. “Typically, we can get back to the condo just as fast by walking as if we had driven our car and waited in the parking lot. In the country, there isn’t as much incentive to walk.”
Country living has its own perks. “This is where I reconnect with my family and roots,” Lampe-Revolinski says. “Over the years, I’ve collected bits and pieces of heirlooms from grandparents and aunts and uncles. I often think, ‘What would I do with these pieces if we didn’t have the house?’”
The family room features pine walls made from the trees that stood on the property before the couple built the house. Outdoors, the rural landscape provides a meditative quality.
“When we’re at the house, we can open the windows, feel the cool breezes, listen to the birds. At the condo, our bedroom is at the center of the unit, so there are no windows,” she says.
A neighbor at the condo once told Lampe-Revolinski the thing she missed most about her home was hearing the rain beat against the roof. “You lose touch with those simple little sounds and pleasures Mother Nature provides,” she says.
Lately, Bill has been entertaining the idea of becoming a true city dweller – at least someday. “He mentioned recently he may want to move into a condo closer to the lake when we get closer to retirement,” Lampe-Revolinski says. “When I asked why, he said he wants a view of Lake Michigan, the park system and the art museum.”
She laughs at the thought. “In his mind, that’s the ultimate view of the city, a sign he’s reached a point where he can truly enjoy all it has to offer.”
The Gear Residence
A Home with a History
A tour of Ken and Cindy Gear’s Waterville home is like taking a treasure hunt into the past. Every room of the 4,600-square-foot, custom-built home contains clues to another time, some antique or reclaimed object – many from Milwaukee – woven into the home’s grand, yet comfortable, style.
The Gears designed it that way, partly to incorporate their love for repurposed items, and partly to represent the city they still call home.
Cindy, born and raised on Milwaukee’s South Side, has city roots that run deep. Her great-uncle owned the now-closed Holiday House, a premiere supper club that attracted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Don Rickles. Cindy and Ken met at Wisconsin First Bank, where Ken worked for 33 1/2 years and Cindy 23 years before she launched her own interior design firm. The couple’s first home was a textbook Milwaukee bungalow on 15th and Oklahoma.
“I could live there again in a nanosecond,” says Cindy.
There was a time when the couple considered getting a condo Downtown, but “we had the dream a lot of people have of owning an ‘up-north’ place,” Ken says. The more the couple thought about where they’d relocate, however, the less they liked the idea of straying too far from Milwaukee.
“We have family with up-north places, and it always seems a little bit of a pain to get to,” Ken says. So the couple narrowed their search to within an hour’s drive of Milwaukee. After an exhaustive search, they finally found the right place – a 4-acre wooded lot on Waterville Millpond. The land belonged to a farmer and his wife for more than 60 years, and came with an old farmhouse and a barn that dated back to 1850s.
“It had been my dream to have a place that had a barn,” Ken says, “so this became our ‘up north.’”
Over the next five years, while staying in the original farmhouse, the Gears planned their home away from home. Then, in 2008, they made one slight change; it would become their only home.
“We got some teasing that we retired, our daughter left for college, and we built a bigger place,” Ken says. “But it coincided perfectly with our daughter’s move to college,” Cindy adds. “The day she left for college, we began the building process.”
To strike a balance between the solace of their rural retreat and their intent to stay in rhythm with the pulse of the city, the Gears take a mini-getaway every few months to one of Milwaukee’s Downtown hotels.
“Milwaukee has so many great hotels now,” Ken says. “And it’s great because we can go Downtown for an event, stay at the Pfister for a night or two, and it’s still less than what it would have cost us to upkeep a condo. We can splurge, and still come out ahead.”
The couple also appreciates the city’s budget-friendly activities, from lunch at Glorioso’s to window shopping in the Third Ward to exploring Open Door Milwaukee. “And we never tire of driving along Lake Drive and checking out all the beautiful homes,” Cindy says.
The distance is also close enough for them to get involved in causes that are important to them.
“We retired two years ago, but now we work for free full time,” Ken jokes about their role as team leaders for Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity’s deconstruction services. The Gears work with donors, talk to subcontractors, recruit teams of volunteer workers, and coordinate the deconstruction of Milwaukee homes and buildings. The reusable materials salvaged from these locations then go to the Habitat ReStore. In 2014, their efforts helped bring in $250,000 in product for the ReStore.
“Milwaukee is a great city,” Cindy says. “We recognize the challenge faced in Milwaukee’s disadvantaged areas and feel blessed we can give back.”
Their involvement with Habitat’s deconstruction services is a natural fit, blending their passion for the community with their love of repurposed architectural items. Their country home reflects those same values. Working with Moore Builders, the Gears designed a dwelling that blends the grandness of a Lake View Drive manor, the comfort of a northern escape, and plenty of history.
Halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, the original homestead once served as the Green Tavern and a stagecoach inn. Some of the history from those buildings was incorporated into the new build.
On the lower level, the Gears repurposed the original home’s hardwood floors. The farmhouse’s front closet door is now the lower level bathroom closet door, and the original back door is the exercise room door. On the patio, four columns from the farmhouse’s front porch and wood from the barn create an arbor.
“But this,” Cindy says, walking into a spacious room off the kitchen, “this is the most important thing we did.” As the eyes dance from the exposed beams and ceiling, to the walls and the floors, you make the connection. All the weathered wood – the walls, floors, beams and joists – was salvaged from the barn Ken had admired, and was painstakingly cleaned and refinished to construct an entertainment room that – with the flat-screen TV, pool table, and a custom bar reclaimed from an 1810 Chicago townhouse – could rival many sports bars in the area.
The home also gives a tip of the hat to the Cream City, with plenty of relics, starting with a brass lion head that greets visitors from its stone column post in the front drive. Commissioned in 1860 and salvaged during a renovation of Milwaukee’s Iron Block Building, the lion head once graced the building’s front facade.
But the couple’s favorite piece? “It’s right here,” Cindy says, walking over to two hand-carved wooden pillars separating the entryway from the living room. If there is one piece that sets the tone of the Gear residence and brings Milwaukee a little closer to home, this is it.
“That was hand-created in 1842 and once in a Lake Drive home,” she says. “To me, when you walk through those pillars, you get the feel of this house.” A house that blends old and new, past and present, and – despite its Lake Country location – keeps Milwaukee close to its heart.
The Rolfson Residence
Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
For some people, living outside Milwaukee may discourage experiencing everything the city has to offer. But that isn’t the case for Lori Rolfson. In fact, she says living 40 minutes and two counties away only inspires her to become more involved.
“You can’t fully enjoy what Milwaukee offers without giving back,” says Rolfson, who commutes to the We Energies’ Downtown headquarters daily as the company’s director of employee and labor relations. “The city isn’t that far away in terms of fun and activities, but also in terms of opportunities to make a difference.”
Rolfson, who lives with her husband, Larry, in East Troy, hasn’t had trouble finding ways to do both. She previously sat on the board for United Way of Waukesha County, which recently merged into United Way of Greater Waukesha and Milwaukee County.
Through her church, she drops off meals, clothing and personal care items to the Inner Beauty Center, an organization tackling Milwaukee’s human trafficking issues by offering a safe location and care for sexually exploited women.
Rolfson also coordinates career-planning events for College Possible-Milwaukee, a nonprofit that helps low-income and minority students achieve college admission.
“I was drawn to learn more about the organization because of its focus on providing college education opportunities to students who may be the first generation of their families to consider college,” says Rolfson, who, along with her brother, was part of the first generation in her family to go to college.
Initially, she thought she might tutor students. Then she realized her position at We Energies gave her another way to make a difference. With support from the company’s Women’s Development Network, she coordinated a networking and job-shadowing event for 20 College Possible-Milwaukee students. Employee volunteers facilitated workshops and participated in discussions about college and career plans.
All of these experiences helped Rolfson realize her ability to make a lasting impact in the community didn’t have to rely on her proximity to the city. “So I finally came to the decision that I just needed to live where I wanted to live,” she says.
In 2005, Rolfson and Larry broke ground on a three-bedroom, single-story ranch on 5 acres in East Troy. They designed the 2,300-square-foot floor plan themselves, relying on years of research gleaned from home shows, architectural magazines, and hours of conversations with builders.
Much of the plan focused on one room, a combination kitchen/great room with plenty of open space for family and friends to gather.
“We wanted people to feel like they could just come in, not worry about taking their boots off, and just relax,” she says.
The great room is the first room to greet guests as they walk through the front door. Lofted ceilings, wood beams, warm colors, rustic-chic decor and an eye-catching fireplace (the wooden mantel is a beam from the barn that once sat on the property) create a sophisticated lodge-like atmosphere that brings the phrase “home sweet home” to life.
Perched on a hill, the house offers panoramic views of the treetops and marsh area below, giving guests the impression of being in a tree house. “We loved making this house our own,” Rolfson says.
But the main reason they love their home? The best of the city is still easily within reach. “We still have all the fun and excitement of the city,” Rolfson says.
When it’s time to return home, the surroundings offer peace and relaxation. Lake Beulah is a mile down the road. If the weather is right, the Rolfsons enjoy an afternoon on their pontoon boat, or spend an evening listening to the soothing symphony of spring peepers and bullfrogs under a canopy of stars.
“Everything we want,” Rolfson says, “is right there when we want it.”
Write to freelancer Sara Rae Lancaster at firstname.lastname@example.org.