A New Era: Architect’s Memoir

“HELLO, Wenzler ARCHitects!” Leslie Schott answered the phone at my dad’s office the same way for over thirty years. She was a great office manager and kept everyone and everything in order. The conversation that followed was always the same too…

“Hey, Leslie! How you doin’?”

“OH, Hi!! “I’m FINE, how are YOU?” She had a way of really punching her syllables.

“I’m good. Is Dad there?”

“Oh, sure! He’s here. Just a minute, I’ll get him for you.”

Dad always took our calls. He never let on that he was busy—you’d think it would have occurred to me to ask, but it didn’t. There was something about Dad’s office that made me want to work in an office. It was friendly and exciting. I’m sure it had something to do with his secretaries because I started playing office in our attic on the farm before I turned ten.

Wenzler Architects moved from Wilson Drive to Brookfield in the early 1960s when Dad’s secretary, Doris Flugstaf, saw a For Rent sign above a law office on Brookfield Drive on her way home from work one day. Dad had been making the commute from the farm to Milwaukee for years and she was looking out for him. Doris’s husband had died, leaving her with two daughters to raise when Dad hired her part-time. She had a big impact on the office.

While Dad was on his fellowship in Europe, Doris and John Wallerius, a friend from school, kept his office running. Doris also fell in love during that time with an F.W. Dodge Corp. representative named Sam Severson. Sam would stop by the office to get the latest news on Dad’s work. Learning that he would be best man for Doris and Sam’s wedding didn’t make Dad feel any better when he found out that Doris would be leaving the firm not long after they moved into the building she had found for him.

Next came Betty, with the red hair and painted eyebrows. She wasn’t too thrilled that there wasn’t any hot water in the sink under the steps, near the bathroom, next to the law office on the first floor. “Bill, can’t you talk to the landlord about turning on the hot water? I have to go downstairs, out the door of the lawyers’ office, wash my hands in the sink under the steps in cold water and they are so cold I can’t type!”

Dad talked to the landlord, who turned on the hot water and raised his rent. After a while, he moved again to the lower unit of a two family complex several blocks away. It was owned by the same landlord, Fred Gerlach, who was the husband of our third grade teacher at Brookfield Elementary.

The office moved one more time.

“The firm continued to grow,” Dad said. “We were hired by the Kohl family, represented by Bill Orenstein, to design the Northridge Lakes housing on 76th and Brown Deer. One Sunday morning after church, Dolores and I were shopping around for an office space downtown and came across the unfinished second floor in the Steinmeyer building on 3rd and Highland, above Usinger’s. I talked to the Landlord and struck a deal. Early on in the Northridge Lakes planning, Bill Orenstein took me to San Francisco to meet with the landscape architect. I was very impressed with the exposed architecture which the architect had sandblasted and cleaned up and made into a striking office. After we returned, that thought stayed in my head and the Steinmeyer building was a perfect opportunity to create a loft space in Milwaukee. I struck a deal of $1.00 a square foot a year with the landlord.

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“Our office staff and friends came and tore out the two spaces and stripped them down to their structure. I remember Gerry McKinney helped. We had a huge pile of lumber right at the window overlooking Highland Avenue, ready to load into a dumpster. I vividly remember Gerry, who you may remember played fullback for the University of Wisconsin, tackling the pile of lumber. He grabbed a long 4 x 4 out of the pile to throw into the dumpster but didn’t know that the window was closed. It flew right through that window and we were off and running with the renovations.

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“Ed, who was in his early teens, and I did all the sandblasting. It took us a few months and we moved in in the early 60s. When the family moved back to the city in 1970, we finally ended the long commute from home, to our church on 4th and Meineke, and our office.

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“Dolores liked the loft concept and wanted it for our home. After we had bought Shepard we were all down after church looking it over, trying to figure out what to do with it. It was Dolores’ idea to tear down the walls and ceilings and make it into a loft space like the office. We bought it on January 1, 1970 and moved in on April 1, which was important because after that we would have had to pay tuition to the Milwaukee schools. We got the occupancy permit even though the building inspector didn’t think it was finished because everything was exposed.

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Dad ordered pizza from Lisa’s on Oakland this night and we celebrated the new fireplace.

“The outside of the house was four inch cedar siding that had been painted green. Everything was loose so we scraped it off and stained it. All of the original homes of this period, 1890s, were built out of four inch lapped cedar siding. My standard approach to design was to make the exterior and interior out of the same materials. We pulled off the interior plaster, put in new wiring, insulated the stud space and put on 1 x 4 inch lapped siding. The significance of this to me was that, as with an individual, what’s on the outside should reflect what is on the inside.

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“On the third floor we put insulation and drywall over the attic space. We had to do that because if we exposed the structure, there wouldn’t have been any insulation!”

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*****

When Wenzler Architects and Associates closed in 2011, an era ended for our family. But the smell of the inks and paper, cedar walls and exposed wood, the track lights and Leslie’s voice will stay forever with me. The architects at their drafting boards, busy designing and creating beautiful spaces for the rest of us to enjoy was the excitement in the air—to name a few: Mike Johnson, Dave Brandt and Jim McClintock. Then later, Neil Kruger, Brian Spencer, Keith Anderson…and eventually, three generations of Wenzler architects working alongside each other—Dad, my brother Ed and my nephew Chris.

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I guess it’s no wonder that when Mom and Dad decided to downsize and leave the house on Shepard I cried for three days. I had never owned a house. It hadn’t been important to me but when Todd looked into my heartbroken eyes and told me we could buy it, I knew that had changed. A new era had begun.

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Lunch at Dad’s

I called him this morning and his phone was turned off. I’ve told him a dozen times he doesn’t have to turn it off when it’s charging but he doesn’t listen. It makes me crazy when I can’t get through to him. He didn’t answer his landline either so I was heading for my shoes—he never leaves the house before 9:00 a.m. I called his neighbor to see if he’d mind checking on him as I was one half making the bed and brushing my teeth, and one half telling myself I was overreacting.

“No problem,” Terry said. “I have a key.”

The phone rang as I was grabbing for my coat. It was Terry. “Debbie, his car is gone.”

“Oh….(Car accident on the way home last night? I ponder.) “….maybe he had an appointment this morning….thanks for checking Terry, I really appreciate it.” I texted dad, Call me.

“Dad! ” I say twenty minutes later into my phone.

“Hi, sweetheart, I had an appointment with the foot doctor this morning, then I stopped at the grocery store.”

“……..” Gosh, thank goodness, phew. “Wow, well you were busy! Charlie and I wanted to take you out to lunch but we can come there if that’s easier.”

“Great, I have lots of food to eat up.” He hates having extra food in the house as much as having extra money. We hang up and the phone rings again before I can put it down. “Debbie, can you stop and pick up two buns? I have Sloppy Joes but only one bun.”

Charlie and I walk in with a bag of buns just as Dad is lifting a cookie sheet with three pottery bowls of soup out of the oven. Keeping the soup warm?

“I called Kay (his cook) to tell her I was having guests for lunch and asked her how to turn my icemaker back on. She was the one who turned it off. She didn’t remember and told me to serve cold water.”

Charlie opens the freezer door and pushes a button. “You gotta hit the ‘on’ button, Grandpa.”

The table was set at the little bistro table in the kitchen with a third chair pulled in from the dining room. “Look at my dining room table and you’ll see why we’re eating in the kitchen.”

I know why but look anyway—one half taxes, the other half stacks of donation requests which make me crazy. “Doing your taxes? “I ask ignoring the requests for money. ‘All these good causes, how can I say no?’ Always his answer.

Have a seat,” he says. “If I was organized like you, Charlie, everything would be ready.”

“We’re ten minutes early, Dad.” I watch him lift one hot bowl at a time with hot pads off the cookie sheet then precariously place each one unto a placemat.

“What else do we need..?”

“Butter, pickles?” I ask.

“Oh, right, butter and pickles. How’s the soup?”

“Cold,” I say giving it a taste.

“I was worried about that.”

We microwave the soup for exactly three minutes and after lunch divide a chocolate chip cookie three ways.

“Thanks for coming by.” He says giving my son a big hug. “It was so good to see you, Charlie. Give my love to Lauren. We have to get her up here.”

I look at the two of them and know I have just had a priceless lunch.

My dad and son

My Dad and Son

Charlie and I open the door to leave and see a seven inch stack of mail with a rubber band around it at our feet.

“That’s a lot of mail, Grandpa……you won’t get bored.”

“That’s right,” Dad says with a chuckle as he walks away. “I won’t get bored.”