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.”

Learning to Fly

My heart pounded as I swerved into the parking space. “Is there a fire?!” I shouted running up to the front window of the fire truck.

“We got a call about condo 108.”

“My dad?!”  I flew up the steps, my mind suddenly racing. Everything’s fine over here, Debbie, Dad had just said an hour earlier. We had been to the doctor that day. He was okay, his doctor had said. His cough had mysteriously vanished for the hour and a half we were in her office—no crackling in his lungs, she had said. It came back as soon as we were in the car but we took a drive to look at our old church. We did too much; he was still weak from his trip to Arizona.

Faith Church on 78th and Hope

Faith Church on 78th and Hope

We had lunch at Solly’s. He shouldn’t  eat butter burgers and fries!

Dad! I heard myself yell.

“She’s got a key.” Someone said from the crew of firemen standing outside his door.  “We can hear him in there and we heard your voicemail on his phone so we knew you were on your way. We were just ready to break his door down.”

Break his door down?! That would not have gone over well with the man who still uses throw rugs so he doesn’t wear out his carpeting. I tried to steady my hand on the key as I turned the knob and opened the door. There he was, lying on his back, across the red runner. He couldn’t get up but his eyes were as bright as the rug. “Hi, sweetheart.”

“Oh, Dad.”  His legs had given out, again. Dehydrated. No need to go to the hospital, he convinced the firemen, since he’d been to the doctor that day. After sitting up and drinking some water, the guys helped me get him to bed. His doctor started him on an antibiotic and I stayed with him for the next ten days.

“I do feel I’ve done a good job taking care of myself up to this point.” Dad told me just a few days later. “I can’t do no mo’.” He said then. “I’m done.”

“Oh come on, Dad. I think I’m going to give you a couple sips of wine tonight. That might help your appetite.”

“Or my attitude.”

“You’re like a cat. You’ve got nine lives.”

“Which one am I on?”

“I don’t know, the fifth or sixth.” I’ve worried at least that many times that Dad wasn’t going to make it. We didn’t think he was going to recover from his heart valve surgery in 2007. His valves were better but his lungs took a beating. He fought his way back. Then they told him if he ever got pneumonia that would be it for him. He got pneumonia and proved them wrong. (Whenever he’s in the hospital, he finds people to share his faith with. That always gets him back on track. He inspires and ticks people off equally.) Mom died not long after that—that hit him really hard. And then he got pneumonia again, and then again. Now he has fluid in his lungs that they can’t do much about but on he goes. I think that puts him on his sixth.

He wasn’t as fortunate as us with his own father who died at sixty-seven. The last time he saw him alive was in 1967.

“When Wenzler Architects was selected by the state to design the Fine Arts Center at Steven’s Point, I thought it might be a good time to learn to fly. That would turn a three-and-a-half hour drive each way into less than an hour.

“By this time in my career, I had developed a pattern for “programming” a new project. For academic projects, I would spend a number of days on the campus, in the classrooms with faculty and students. In addition to this effort to understand the project, there were many meetings with the client.

“I had completed this stretch with Steven’s Point—living in the dorm and staying on campus—and felt I had a very good grasp of the project. I was ready to find a concept for the design. This usually included spending nights alone in the office where I could think and sketch and try out ideas. This particular time, it was a Saturday afternoon when—bang—the Lord had given me the solution. I had the sketch and was sure it was the right one. The complicated part of the project was the theatre, so I called the chair of the theatre department, told him where I was at and asked if I could come up and show it to him. He said, ‘Come up. I can’t wait.’

“My Dad had recently had a stroke and was in the hospital at Milwaukee Lutheran. I stopped there on the way to the airport to show him my sketches. He wasn’t talking anymore by that point but he sure could see and respond. I showed him the sketches and explained the ideas and he smiled his approval.

Steven's Point sketch

“I had arranged to rent a Bonanza at the Waukesha County Airport to fly up and was checked out for night flying but was still only flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules). I got to the airport and took off. I met the chair and committee when I arrived at the University, went over my plans and they were excited.

“I flew back to Waukesha after my meeting and drove home. It was a wonderful day and on the way, I was thinking about my visit with my dad and how grateful I was for our time together. I never got to see him alive again, but I was thankful I got to see him and for all the encouragement he always gave me. That was the last time I saw him alive.”

Steven's Point Exterior

Steven’s Point Center for the Arts

*******

 “I figured it out.” Dad said as he was beginning to get his strength back last week.

“What’s that?’ I asked.

“I’ll give my key to three neighbors. And, I’ll get one of those call things that you can wear on your belt. I saw it advertised in the AARP Magazine. Then I won’t have to move.”

“Okay, Dad, that sounds good to me. You’re ‘flying’ IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) now.”

Steven's Point interior

Steven’s Point Art Center interior