Our friend Scott grew up in Monona, gazing across the lake at a quaint lakeside property with a yard so sloping it required switchbacks to descend. In 2008, he called us to say the property was for sale and encouraged us to buy it. A quick look at the listing suggested that it would be a good match for us: located on the isthmus near Williamson Street, walkable to all of our favorite restaurants and grocers, and harboring an old, reasonably sized house with lots of character.
We lived in the neighborhood affectionately known as Dyke Heights, only a mile east of the house, so it was easy to saunter over to check it out. What we saw from the exterior was a fairytale stucco and stone Tudor, decorated with original personality but longing for a gentle facelift. We called a realtor to arrange for a showing. Of course Scott came along to nudge and cajole—just in case.
When we walked inside we were immediately hooked. From the front door, the open floor plan welcomed us. A slight turn to the left awarded us with an awe-inspiring view of Lake Monona. We were instantly drawn to the lake-facing sunroom, a space running the width of the house and surrounded on three sides by windows. It was bursting with sunshine and radiating energy as the sun played with waves, casting twinkles on the ceiling, the walls, and us. With much resistance we pulled away from this spectacular setting and investigated the rest of the house. True to its age, it was chock-full of character with beautiful hardwood floors, built-ins, and a tiled fireplace. Also true to its age, it was pleading for some restoration—but would it be cosmetic or structural?
A house with history
We left the showing feeling exuberant but cautious. We wanted to be good stewards of the house but we worried that the needed repairs might turn this jewel into a money pit. We also knew that moving from our cozy house just east of the Yahara River to this lakeside property would be a stretch financially. In the end, we took the leap. Buying the house and bringing it back to life meant that we would not have the funds to support political candidates and advocacy groups at the levels that we had in the past. Part of our compromise was that we committed to hosting fundraisers in our new home to continue that financial support for a better future.
While we waited to close on the house, we ventured to the State Historical Society to unearth its history. This Tudor-style house was built on speculation by John C. Collins and designed by Alvan E. Small, an architect who studied under Louis Sullivan and eventually designed several Prairie-style houses in Madison. The original blueprints were on the kitchen counter during our showing and we made sure to obtain them as part of the sale. The house was built from 1923 to 1925 and first occupied by Dr. Claire Vingam and his wife Esther. Bill and Connie Thompson bought the home from the Vingams in 1978, and we became just the third owners of this more-than-90-year-old house when we purchased it in September 2008.
Putting in the work
Between the two of us we had owned three old houses before, so we knew we had a lifetime of projects ahead of us. We understood that the first year in our “new” old house should be dedicated to keeping water out and repairing any past water damage. Our first project that winter was to replace the lakeside wall of picture windows in the sunroom. They had likely been installed in the 1970s and offered an unobstructed view of the lake, but the frames were rotting, seals were broken, they did not open to welcome the lake breezes, and they were decidedly not true to the period of the home.
Due to the downturn of the economy, in the spring and summer of 2009, we were fortunate to find many skilled tradespeople who were immediately available to aid in the restoration and who even allowed us to help out. We replaced several more windows along with large amounts of rotten exterior wood trim; had the chimney re-flashed, capped, and tuck-pointed; and repaired and painted the stucco. Our friend Scott, who has a background in landscape architecture, drew up plans for a yard filled with ornamental grasses and flowering shrubs. We eagerly implemented the design, beginning with the removal of trees and shrubs that had grown too close to the foundation and obscured the house. That summer found us hustling home from work and laboring on the house until dark when we would gobble down supper, fall into bed, and start the process over the next day. The excitement of the new place gave us boundless energy.
We have also had lots of fun bringing our own color palette and design sense (with help from Connie at Iconi Interiors) to the home, refinishing the oak and maple floors, and redoing the kitchen (which still had the original 1920s cabinets!) to add functionality while preserving the style. Throughout the process, with any changes we made, we were cautious to maintain the integrity of the architect’s intent.
Carrying on a progressive tradition
The property sits on a corner south of Spaight Street, and one of our neighbors is a city “pocket” park that offers public access to the lake. Our street happens to be a frequent mis-turn for folks attempting to bike around the lake. So, although we are officially on a dead-end street, we in fact get a great deal of non-vehicle traffic. In our first year here, as we were gardening or working on the house, bikers and walkers would stop and engage us in conversation. Numerous people told us they had been inside “Connie and Bill’s” house years ago for events. We heard recurring tales of progressive local candidate fundraisers in the house, a theme that we were delighted to hear.
Additional intel from neighbor and historian Dick Wagner informed us that Connie Thompson had been instrumental in developing the near east side into the home of progressive candidates and causes. She not only opened her doors for candidate fundraisers but also held salons with like-minded neighbors to strategize on candidates who should be “encouraged” to run for various offices. Dick, one of those early and ground-breaking progressive politicians, lovingly called the group the east side mafia. With this news we were doubly gratified by our earlier decision to use the home to support our favorite politicians and non-profits.
Over the past eight years we have been fortunate to (literally) fill the house with supporters of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, and gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, as well as Fair Wisconsin, Lambda Legal, and others.
Speaking of parties, with the preservation work completed (for now), this past year we turned our ordinary old basement into a party room. We put in additional living space, a bar, refrigerators for kegs of home brew, and sliding glass doors for more great views and easy access to the lake and outdoor patio.
In reflecting on our decision to buy this house we have no regrets. She was definitely a beauty worth saving, and we have done our best to be good stewards in maintaining her history. In return she has allowed us to be good stewards for future generations by providing a space to offer support to those candidates and causes committed to a better world for all.