Bold and Beautiful: A Wisconsin Bungalow Makes A Statement

by Tim Counts
From Issue 36

When Keith and Denise Hice bought their Milwaukee bungalow in 1989, they got the feeling the owners didn’t really want to let it go. “They were half-heartedly selling,” says Denise. “They had only lived there a year, and had probably bought it to turn it.”

36feat1The Hices could understand the owners’ reluctance. The home’s architectural exuberance shone through, even though the sellers had painted interior walls white and the exterior stucco a flat gray with red trim.

Once in possession, the Hices learned that Walter G. Truettner, a developer who promoted himself as “The Bungalow Man” in advertisements of the day, had built their home in 1919. Denise says one can still spot Truettner’s houses along Milwaukee’s streets, as many exude the same European fairy-tale quality as theirs. Over the next few years the couple, along with daughter, Stephanie, set about transforming the bungalow into what is now both a cozy home and an Arts and Crafts showplace, inside and out.

Both brought strong artistic sensibilities to the project. Keith’s background in photography evolved into management of an electronic graphic communications firm. By day, Denise is a production planner for a business that designs and manufactures hydraulic power units for heavy machinery. With her quiet demeanor, slight build and close-cropped hair, she may first strike one as the all-business type. The giveaway to her true persona is a daring pair of orange and lavender eyeglass frames. In her off-hours, she’s a whirling dervish of community involvement and historic preservation volunteerism.

The Hices knew the color schemes their home had inherited needed to go. Exploring beneath the exterior paint, they discovered that the original stucco had been tinted yellow throughout, so they chose a similar color for the home’s body. Though they found that the trim had originally been cream, they decided the bungalow’s robust lines needed stronger colors.

Keith selected brown and green, bringing the number of exterior colors to three. This was a somewhat nervy move in itself, as early-20th-century houses traditionally used only two. Denise went a step further and added a few slim strands of deep red to emphasize certain architectural lines. The result won a neighborhood award for renovation.

Inside, boldness rules as well. The rich hue on the living room walls was taken from the color of the nose of the family’s beloved pet cat, Eliot (for T.S. Eliot). After choosing a paint chip that approximated the skin tone of Eliot’s proboscis, his owners made several trips to the paint store, tinkering with the formula until they got a perfect match.

The ceiling also needed a strong treatment to balance the formidable woodwork and oak crown molding made up of nine stock patterns, plus additional trim that forms a frame on the ceiling proper. Denise and Keith commissioned their friend and bungalow book author Paul Duchscherer to create a wallpaper design using Bradbury and Bradbury papers. For the dining room, the Hices chose a 1917 Arts and Crafts wallpaper reproduction that consists of a pendant design in the frieze area and a strong vertical stripe for the walls.

2The enclosed entry/sun porch had the most objectionable paint combination. The pale yellow walls weren’t so bad, but the trim, of which there is plenty in the small room, was lime green.

“I sanded off all that paint, to the point where it was imbedded in my fingers,” laughs Denise. “The keyboard on my computer at work was green.”

Near the ceiling in the breakfast room the owners discovered an original decorative stencil under layers of paint, which they believe may have been created by the first homeowners, as it looks decidedly homespun. Amy Miller, owner of stencil company Trimbelle River Studios, recreated the pattern, which Denise plans to replicate on linen window curtains as well.

The bathroom, too, is mostly original, including porcelain floor tiles in a tight herringbone pattern and four-inch-square white wainscot tiles with pencil-thin green trim bands running just beneath the mud cap. White glass towel bars complete the cool, fresh look.

Keith has added a cheeky conversation piece to the bathroom in the form of a glass-fronted case full of vintage condom packets. They bear brand names like Three Merry Widows, Coed, Polar Bears and Spares (complete with bowling ball and pins illustration). The oldest is from the early 1920s. Some are official Army issues, and one even has a National Recovery Act imprint on the back.

“People think they’re matchbook covers,” Denise says with a grin. The collection began many years ago with a few flea market finds. Denise admits that over the years she’s received a few shocked looks from dealers who ask, “What is it you’re looking for?”

3Bad paint schemes were among several problems that came with the bungalow. There was also a bad roof, a bad furnace and a badly rebuilt front entry, which the Hices replaced with brick and limestone steps designed to match the rest of the exterior. Then there was the modest-size back yard full of concrete and a tangle of 30 trees.

Fortunately, much of the house hadn’t been tampered with. The family likes the all-original kitchen, from the wall-hung sink with spacious double drain boards, to the birch cabinets and the plaster wainscot that’s scored to resemble subway tile. The only thing missing is a Hoosier cabinet, an all-in-one storage/work surface unit that was ubiquitous in early-20th-century kitchens. Judging from floor marks uncovered when a new maple floor was being installed, the Hices believe a Hoosier once sat where the refrigerator now resides.

The house itself is only part of the treat awaiting those invited inside. The Hice home is brimming with furniture, pottery, books and artwork in the Arts and Crafts tradition, all assembled in a way that looks familiar, yet is sprinkled with unique and surprising objects.

Perhaps their favorite furniture piece is a large, handsome Limbert buffet, which Keith bought from a former photography student for around $100 back when neither buyer nor seller knew exactly what they had.

“Keith has a good eye for furniture,” Denise says with pride, “and we both have an eye for art. When it comes to art pottery, though, that’s me,” she says.

4Her extensive collection consists primarily of choice pieces by Rookwood, Roseville and Weller, and there are nice examples by Van Briggle, Fulper, Newcomb and Moorcroft. “We’ve expanded into Niloak, too,” Denise adds. “Keith likes it the best because each piece is hand-thrown.”

Many of the couple’s favorite pottery items came from Denise’s late parents, who were also avid collectors. The most striking gift was a large, handled jardiniere with a tree of life motif. When PBS’s “Antiques Road Show” came to Milwaukee in 1998, Denise carted the jardiniere to the taping, where she was fortunate enough to have it appraised by Arts and Crafts dealer and historian David Rago. Rago confirmed that it was made in 1903 by famed potter Frederick Hurten Rhead, who had just arrived from his native England, bringing with him the “squeezebag” technique of decorating pottery.

5Charming as the Hice bungalow is, Denise’s interests have expanded well beyond its walls, much to the community’s benefit. She is a member of the American Heritage Society, a support group of the Milwaukee Art Museum that promotes the decorative arts, as well as being a docent at the annual Frank Lloyd Wright home tours in Wisconsin and Oak Park, Ill.

Most of her volunteer time, however, is spent as president of the board of directors of Historic Milwaukee, a non-profit education and preservation organization. “It’s my second full-time job,” sighs Denise.

During her tenure with Historic Milwaukee, she has been instrumental in setting up a nonstop string of preservation workshops and conferences, often featuring top-name presenters from around the country. She sounds proudest though, when speaking of the three architectural house tours she’s helped chair: one on Milwaukee bungalows in 1998; one on Milwaukee Prairie Style designer George Mann Niedecken in 2000; and one on “storybook” houses in the fall of 2002.

“My goal is to spotlight Milwaukee,” says Denise. “I love everything about the city. It has a lot to offer, and many people don’t recognize that.”

If Denise has her way, Milwaukee won’t go unrecognized for long.

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