Rethinking Shared Space

Wauwatosa homeowners turn a 1960s duplex into a modern marvel.


The reading nook was inspired by memories of a favorite spot in homeowner Tom Czisny’s uncle’s 1950s home. “When I look around, there’s all of these little pieces of your life that you’ve kind of stitched together and all of the things you’ve loved over time. It’s the beauty of creating what was in your mind’s eye.”

When Tom Czisny and Thom Bauldry decided to combine their lives — and their belongings — into a single home, they had multiple options to choose from.

Czisny had turned a secluded Grafton home he built himself into a showplace via home-renovation and woodworking skills passed down from his dad, but he was ready to embrace the vibrancy of city life. Bauldry, meanwhile, lived in an art-filled Wauwatosa bungalow and co-owned a host of well-kept rental duplexes nearby.

Surprising even themselves, the pair chose one of the latter, a non-descript 1960s Cape Cod that Czisny cheerfully admits was the “ugly duckling” of the lot. What it did offer was invaluable: The potential to start fresh and create something together in a tree-lined, tight-knit Washington Heights neighborhood that both were eager to call home.

“My old house was arts-and-crafts and his bungalow was too, so this was our chance to do something more modern,” says Czisny, sitting in the couple’s sleek, light-filled main living room with a reading area and floating cabinetry made by Czisny, and presided over by a gas fireplace insert from American Heritage Fireplace, dramatically dressed with concrete tile from San Diego’s BDG Design Group. “Because it was just an ugly duckling, we didn’t have to feel bad about anything. We kept what was worth keeping, and that was the hardwood floors and the tile floors in the bathrooms. The rest went. Down to the studs.”

And so began a four-year project that evolved the duplex’s tiny rooms and oddly placed closets into an open-concept, single-family home and melded the pair’s own elbow grease and eye for design, carpenters and contractors from three counties, and a blend of local and online retailers.

First steps entailed work both outside and in. Czisny and Bauldry received a variance to remove the home’s small, covered stoop and front sidewalk and create a house-spanning front porch they use often to dine al fresco, host friends and neighbors and allow beloved dachshund, Twister, to lounge outdoors. The pair installed James HardieShingle siding from Zuern Building Products, accented with aluminum trim from Muskego’s United Aluminum. Plumbing and electrical systems were updated by 3 Phase Power and Brew City Plumbing, both of Milwaukee, while New Berlin’s Dakota Drywall, Insulation and Painting handled refurbished walls.

 A pendant light from Luminosity on Buffalo Street brightens the kitchen’s breakfast nook, while overhead cabinets feature backlighting in changeable colors.
Floating cabinets and clean lines create a backdrop for the couple’s art pieces. The framed watercolor on the left wall is by the late Cedarburg artist Doris White. The colorful, oversized “Climax to a Mahler Symphony” is by Madison artist and musician Darl Ridgely. The vintage pendant light is an eBay find.

To modernize the windows and doors, Matt Schmit of the Schmit Company reconfigured the entire home’s window placements to optimize natural light, installing energy efficient Marvin windows throughout. Indoors, Czisny and Bauldry worked with a structural engineer to bring the home’s load-bearing wall out several feet, removing a cramped entry way and dining room and expanding the kitchen to include a sunny dining nook and added storage.

“This is commercial-grade linoleum,” says Czisny, of the kitchen’s deep-slate flooring from Milwaukee’s ProSource. “I wanted something that was clean and modern, but I didn’t want tile. This is solid all the way through, and it’s commercial grade, so there’s no waxing and no cleaning. It’s durable, it’s easy to keep clean, and I really like the look of it.”

In keeping with their tasteful, unfussy design sensibility, the pair selected a variety of simple, functional kitchen cabinet and drawer fronts at Ikea. But when the time came to install them, they realized they needed more than what they the had purchased. The particular style and finish were no longer available, so Czisny found an online source called Semihandmade that caters to just such predicaments, custom-making cabinet and drawer fronts to match discontinued Ikea products. “You can get anything from exotic woods to really simple, and all different kinds of door designs,” Czisny explains. “They attach the same way that Ikea drawer fronts do. But the beauty of it is, you work with him — the type of wood, the stain he was using, the varnish he was using, down to how fine of a grit of sandpaper he was sanding to.”

That collaboration also allowed Czisny to handcraft matching backless shelving to showcase art and create an open feel from the kitchen into the dining and living area, a calming space created by absorbing a small bedroom and accented with bright pops of color via pieces by local artists Doris White, Francesco Spicuzza, Darl Ridgley and others.

“The palette is a warm gray,” Czisny explains. “I’m a gigantic fan of ‘This Old House, and back in 2005, they did their first modern home, which was incredible. They called it Warm Modern, and that was a big inspiration for a lot of this stuff. It had a lot of stone and wood, not this cold and white and sterile thing. It was modern and simple in the way it looked, but had a lot of really nice, warm elements.”

Along the updated load-bearing wall, Czisny created what he calls the “spine of the house,” comprised of bookcases and both open and closed shelving that extends to the upper floor and allows the couple to display even more art pieces collected from their travels, treasure hunts and local makers the pair admire. On the main floor, it leads back to the first-floor bathroom, Czisny’s office and a cozy guest bedroom, the latter two the result of rethinking an additional bedroom and alcove space. “The wallpaper was imported from Germany,” says Bauldry of the bedroom’s geometric focal point. “It’s a wallpaper site called Wallpaper From the ’70s. The stuff that I originally was looking at was a little bit more ‘Mad Men,’ 1950s Hollywood. We went to order it and it was gone, but we saw that wallpaper pattern that we liked better.”

Upstairs, the living room “was an 800-square-foot little area. Very dismal,” says Czisny. Before we did anything else, we ripped up the carpet and exposed the hardwood floor. That was like night and day alone.” Skylights were added and exposed ceiling beams turned into funtional design objects. “There was a home in Dwell magazine, and the beams were actually steel girders that came through,” Czisny says. “Because [the ceiling] is so low, I thought, well, what if we did that in the hallway? That was the start of marrying it all together. We only kept every third one, then moved the beams around to make sure they were all perfectly level. We love the lines that you get.” To complete the space, the couple bumped a south wall out  to create room for full-depth cabinets and shelving, and added hidden pocket doors to afford privacy and soundproofing. Finally, Bauldry and Czisny repurposed one small bedroom into Bauldry’s art-filled office and turned the upstairs kitchen  into a spacious master bedroom and bath.

The result is a warm and modern home that incorporates each man’s past, passions and experiences, while reflecting their shared present and future.

“To me, it’s more interesting to be living in neighborhoods and homes that have history,” says Czisny. “I’m a sucker for nostalgia and history and period pieces, so as we were creating this new thing from scratch, there’s something exciting about taking old things and either giving them new life or bringing them back to life or back to the glamour and the glory that they once had.” MKE

Above, top: The couple added light, dimension and storage space to the upstairs living area. A lighted branch, rescued from the street as a subtle holiday tree, earned a handcrafted base and a year-round home.
Above, bottom: Simple furniture crafted by Czisny and a neutral palette anchor retro-patterned geometric wallpaper on the wall that houses closets. The photos, taken by a nephew, are, says Bauldry, “part of the ‘Life of a Chair’ series. I don’t know how many are in the series, but you see it playing in the field and in the trees and the tot lot and making bad choices … as chairs sometimes will.”