The Anti-McMansion: The OS House in Racine, Wisconsin

In a striking lakefront residence, Johnsen Schmaling deftly blends modernism, sustainability, and modesty.

For many preservationists, the prospect of a boldly contemporary house in the middle of a historic district is the stuff of nightmares. But not in Racine, Wisconsin, an old manufacturing city south of Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, where Frank Lloyd Wright built his famous S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Building, in 1936, and a handful of other structures. There, in a vintage neighborhood close to downtown, a new, stunningly modernist dwelling has been attracting gawkers and winning mostly raves.

It might be because the 1,900-square-foot house, designed by Milwaukee’s Johnsen Schmaling Architects, has been inserted so delicately into its lakefront perch, which was an empty lot on an out-of-the-way street. The bluff-top newcomer honors existing set-backs, and the scale and proportions are in sync with surrounding homes, including a Tudor Revival on one side and a midcentury ranch house on the other. Most important, it is inviting to behold, with a largely transparent lower story, patios above, and Crayola colors—red, orange, yellow, and chartreuse—playfully framing the second-story windows. When one of the architects, Brian Johnsen, stopped by recently, an ice-cream truck was tootling by. The ice-cream man shouted out, “Oh, man, this is sooo cool!”

The house has also won kudos—and a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council—for its sustainable features, which are so seamlessly integrated as to be virtually invisible. These include geothermal heating and cooling; photovoltaic roof laminates; a solar water heater; bamboo floors and other renewable materials; high-efficiency windows that flood the house with natural light; rain barrels and a rain garden; subtly layered fiber-cement panels that create a rain screen and an insulated air cavity; and permeable pavers.

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“We didn’t want to create something that screamed ‘green,’” says Sebastian Schmaling. “We wanted to work within a tectonic language that achieved green results without calling attention to itself.” Adds Johnsen: “So often you see structures where the green features just get tacked on without adding to the quality of the architecture.”

Although the house is rigorously geometric—a box cantilevered over a box—its Miesian sobriety is softened by judicious splashes of color (a nod to Victorian-era Painted Ladies in the area), a mix of natural and industrial materials, and a blurring of inside and outside spaces, all hallmarks of the young architects. The four-person firm shuns both the replication of traditional architecture and what it considers “modernism’s preoccupation with self-referential objects.”

It was Johnsen Schmaling’s blend of inventiveness and discipline that attracted the clients for this project, Robert Osborne, 45, a financial-software developer, and his wife, Vera Scekic, 43, an artist and Racine native. Osborne and Scekic, who relocated from Evanston, Illinois, with their ten-year-old twin daughters, also appreciated that the talented architects chose to put down roots in working-class Milwaukee. “We could see parallels with ourselves,” Scekic says. “We wanted to show that this house represents a way of going forward—being green and contemporary in an old industrial city.”

The green features boosted construction costs to about $365 per square foot. But the expenditure is expected to pay itself back over time in lower operating costs, and state and federal tax credits offset nearly 40 percent of the $100,000 spent on renewable energy systems. “That made it at least doable,” Osborne says. Local officials are grateful for the investment. Brian O’Connell, the director of city development, says that in a community with 14.5 percent unemployment, any project of this caliber is a vote of confidence in Racine’s future. “And it’s a great house. It’s innovative yet unobtrusive,” he says.

Not everyone in Racine has been so enthusiastic, at least initially. The house is located within a local, state, and national historic district, and though there were no regulatory bars to its construction, some preservationists thought there ought to be, lest the integrity of the neighborhood be compromised. But Eric Marcus, the alderman for the area, who also chairs the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, says that an effort to impose tighter oversight was “overwhelmingly opposed.”

“I could understand the concern of people in historic homes, looking out across the street at a very modern house,” he says. “But this is a really beautiful house, and it didn’t involve tearing anything down.” Besides, he notes, the historic district encompasses every style from mid-19th-century Italianate and French Second Empire to Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, and Prairie School (Wright’s 1905 Thomas P. Hardy House): “Don’t we want that kind of eclectic character in this neighborhood? It’s part of our heritage.” Osborne and Scekic are helping to write the next chapter. “In fifty years,” she says, “our home will be historic.”

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