How These East Siders Brought Modern Touches to Their Victorian Gothic Home

Bringing an 1895 house into the 21st century requires time and a light touch.

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Perched above Lake Michigan on Milwaukee’s East Side, a High Victorian Gothic home wrapped in limestone and designed by John A. Moller (who also designed the B.M. Goldberg Mansion on East Newberry Boulevard) yearned to translate to modern living.

Dubbed the Jackson Kemper House and, more informally, “The House on the Hill,” it was built in 1895 for Jackson Bloodgood Kemper, a local lawyer. Kemper was the grandson of the Episcopal Church’s first missionary bishop, also named Jackson Kemper, who established Wisconsin’s first Episcopal diocese and founded Nashotah House, a seminary that still enrolls students today.

Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

According to the North Point South Historic District’s application for National Historic Register status in 1979, many homes in the neighborhood, including this one, were inspired by English architecture.

 

 

 
Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

The previous owners hired Deep River Partners, an architectural and interior design firm, to reimagine the second and third floors (including the main bedroom suite). In 2019, when the current owners moved in, they decided to continue and expand the work. This included adding a garage rooftop terrace and mud room, plus updates to the living room and dining room, and a full kitchen makeover.

“We were really trying to be a steward to keep the features of the house intact. There’s so many fun little puzzles that we put together here,” says Nicholas Blavat, an architect with Deep River.

With the house on the National Register of Historic Places, the extensive restoration had to be done carefully. One example: the new terrace above the garage, which required special city approval. “Our whole argument was that they have no yard,” says Blavat. “The city was all on board with that.”

As the kitchen was original to the home, this became an important piece of the puzzle. “We blew out the whole back of the house to create a nice kitchen that’s in the same spirit of what was done for a historic house, but has all the modernizations,” says Blavat. The new floorplan includes a pantry, banquette seating and a butler’s pantry, as well as Sub-Zero appliances hidden beneath panels, and a beverage center. They also added lead-glass transom windows and a popped-up ceiling. An artisan woodworker relocated the door to the dining room and added a second cabinet to flank it, the Gothic millwork and ornate paneling so true to the first that it looks like it’s always been there. “We’re always charged, as architects, to modernize for the living we’re doing now, not back in the day,” Blavat says.

Just as keeping dark, stained-wood features was important upstairs, so was “enhancing a Cream City aesthetic” in the lower level, says Blavat, to build a bridge between old and new. “It was your normal East Side scary basement with spiders,” he says. “We tried to create an old German Milwaukee bar [using] traditional materials.” Low ceilings and uneven flooring, common in older homes, made it a “challenging space,” says Blavat, but now, after adding an adjacent media room and exercise room with a full bath (including preserved Cream City brick arches framing a shower and the bar), it’s a favorite hangout space.

Active in numerous Milwaukee nonprofit organizations, the homeowners said they “wanted a spacious and open floor plan for entertaining and fundraising via intimate dinners or large receptions.” After completing the project, the homeowner says, “The remodeled kitchen and

Emerald-green amchairs jazz up the formal dining room; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

dining room, as well as the creation of the expansive lower-level pub, have been perfect for these activities.”

The pièce de résistance is the rooftop terrace above the garage, a true “labor of love,” says Blavat. Hanging Gardens – whose clients include The Journeyman Hotel’s rooftop lounge – transformed it into a green roof. A decorative roof railing extends to the kitchen, from which the space can be accessed, for deeper symmetry.

“We love the rooftop terrace for casual coffee in the morning or a cool-down conversation in the evening,” says one of the homeowners. “It’s our own special treehouse.”

More Photos

Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography
The lower-level bar honors the homeowner’s passion for sampling (and serving) craft beer; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography
A new mudroom solves the “no back-hall identity” problem, says Blavat; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography
The round table “is a great place to read the morning newspapers or keep each other company while dinner is being made,” says one of the homeowners; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.