Townsend House Makeover

Family and Friends Learn New Skills Renovating an Old House

Riverwest residents are familiar with home improvement projects. Many of us have faced replacing fuse boxes with circuit breakers and knocking out pantry walls to expand kitchens. But a tiny house at 1725 E. Townsend St. was such as challenge that even in the hot real estate market it was for sale for more than a year. Structurally sound, the rooms were just too small. The staircase to the semi-finished second floor was narrow with a ceiling so low you needed to duck to go up. The second floor had two bedrooms with seven-foot ceilings. The remaining space had no ceiling at all. The house was a candidate for an Extreme House Makeover. But Hollywood wasn’t coming to Riverwest. Enter the Gramling family. You would think that Chris and Lori would have had enough of fixing old houses. Their first was on North 56th. The second, on Shephard Avenue, involved building a third floor and refinishing all the woodwork. After ten years, it was finished, a beautiful home that would accommodate their six adult children and whoever they wanted to bring for the holidays. Why tackle another house project? “It was the kids’ idea,” Lori Gramling explains. Her two sons, Jeremy and Matthew, thought that buying a house, fixing it up, and selling it would be a way to make some money and a fun thing to do as a family. They took the challenge of the Townsend property. Work began on the exterior. Ramona, another sibling, painted the woodwork on the front porch while Lori struggled with floor plans. Opening up the downstairs with double doors between the living and dining rooms relieved the cramped feel of the lower floor. The upstairs ceilings were pulled out to utilize the larger attic space in a modified cathedral ceiling. A second bathroom was added. Mathew and Jeremy put in several months of full time work, bringing in friends Nicolai Gurda, Alex Kettenhofner, Leo Rodriguez, Matt Denzen, Rodrigo Zavala, and Janelle Schweitzer to help. They learned to cut and mount drywall, honed their carpentry skills, and helped the certified electrician and plumbers redo the electrics and add the second floor bathroom. Lori, who is an excellent carpenter, built a central staircase that is the focal point of the first floor. “We were getting the supplies and the store clerk was almost scolding me, saying ‘Don’t you know the staircase is the hardest thing to build in the house?'” Anyone who has ever done home improvement knows how stressful projects can be. How did the family work together as a team? “We all kind of went back and forth with ideas and discussed things as they went,” Chris said. “It was a pleasure working with the kids and seeing them learn different skills. I don’t know that we made much money. It really ended up a labor of love.” Nine months later, the house was ready to show. The family invited friends and the near neighbors they had met for the unveiling. Within a few weeks, offers were coming for a house now ready to become a home. With this project out of the way, you’d think the Gramlings would have had enough. Not quite. The family has purchased Chris’s grandfather’s house on Layton Boulevard and Scott Street on the near southside. Registered as historic, the house was designed by the famous architect Alexander C. Eschweiler, who designed the Wisconsin Electric Building and many other business buildings but very few houses. Damaged by fire, it was scheduled to be razed until neighbors objected. The house went on the market just when Jeremy was looking at properties. The Gramlings are excited about having the property back in the family. Jeremy and Matthew will make it their home and it will have enough space for family gatherings. Lori and Chris decided they like Riverwest so much that once their children are settled, they may downsize and move west of the river.