Midcentury Renovation in Wisconsin Delights Original Owners

Text from Racinowski Design Studio

Abe Tannenbaum was a prominent architect who designed a number of mid-century era buildings in Wisconsin, including this home, constructed in 1958. His aesthetic was defined by simple, bold geometric forms, use of natural materials, and mastery of natural daylighting.

This particular home was designed as modest builder spec house for a young doctor Walter Shapiro and his wife Judith. Although containing vaulted ceilings and some nicer materials like stone fireplaces and wood ceilings, the home overall lacked large open spaces and architectural detail typical of the mid-century modern style.

After the Shapiro’s moved out in the early 1980’s, the home passed through several owners over the years who made unsympathetic changes, and prior to the current owners, was a rental property with years of deferred maintenance.

In 2014, the home was purchased by architect Justin Racinowski and his wife Elizabeth Martin, a marketing director, with the intention to renovate it to be better than the original, celebrating its mid-century roots and incorporating some new modern elements. Justin is performing much of the work himself to save costs, and brings in friends and colleagues in the construction industry to assist as needed.

The exterior of the house received a new color scheme and landscape design, including a cor-ten steel site wall to help the house further engage with the landscape.

The carport (impractical for Wisconsin winters) was converted into an enclosed garage with a new front wall and cedar garage door. The roof and 8 skylights were replaced, insulation was added, and new custom box gutters were created to blend with the clean roof lines.

Inside, the home was void of most of its mid-century charm. A period-inappropriate kitchen remodel from the 90s featured a Chiquita banana lady type tile mosaic prominently displayed on the front side of a peninsula cabinet. The kitchen was cramped and disconnected from the living room.

Justin removed a dividing wall between the kitchen and living room, then added new black cedar posts to pick up the resulting ceiling loads and serve as a new visual element.

Without the former walls in place, the peninsula was then converted to a fully-freestanding island with a waterfall counter. The remaining kitchen was gutted and a new layout created a more open and functional space.

A new bank of cabinets along the dining room end wall extended the usable kitchen counter and storage space. New materials include flat panel walnut upper cabinet doors, high-gloss grey base cabinets, terrazzo-looking quartz countertops, and a large-scale marble pattern quartz island countertop.

When the carport was converted to a garage, a window in the dining room which was inside the carport had to be removed in order to meet fire code for garages. The existing dining room skylight was then enlarged to make up for this lost light, making one of the darkest rooms in the house now one of the brightest.

In the living room, original features like the overlapping cedar board ceilings (a signature of Tannenbaum) and stone fireplace remain, while a new walnut engineered hardwood floor and a walnut veneer plywood paneled wall with hidden storage were added. The large painting at the back wall was painted by Justin, as well as many of other large pieces around the house.

Additional projects have included upgrading all mechanical systems, and full LED light conversion around the home, with a Lutron smart home automation system.

Justin’s work on the house is ongoing, and future projects will include the bathroom remodels, additional walnut hardwood flooring at the kitchen and dining rooms, a front porch roof extension and steps, and a solar panel roof installation.

In 2017 the home was featured on the Wright and Like Tour which featured 12 homes by Frank Lloyd Wright and his other contemporaries in the Milwaukee area. The Shapiro’s (the original homeowners), now in their 90s, still live in the North Shore area and were invited to see the home on tour. They were delighted to see the home being preserved and were reminiscent about their time in the house.

Photos by Justin Racinowski