When other 19-year-olds were out socializing, Sherry Kelly was buying her first home: a historic Victorian-era fixer-upper in the Concordia neighborhood on Milwaukee’s west side.
As soon as the house was hers, she began restoring it to its former grandeur, doing most of the work herself. She hasn’t stopped since.
She says it’s something she loves to do — and something she believes is important.
“It makes my heart happy to see it getting fixed up and looking like it did when it was first built. I’m highlighting how beautiful the house is. It’s worth all the work because I wouldn’t want this house to waste away. I see so many boarded-up houses that aren’t getting loved, and it makes me sad,” she said.
Kelly, now 26, said she’s always loved old homes.
“I grew up in a Victorian farmhouse in Fennimore. I always loved old houses. After my dad (Jerry Kelly) and I moved to the south side of Milwaukee in 2014, we would take drives to look at old homes. We both loved Victorian homes, and we liked to look at all the different architecture. I love all the natural woodwork, the pocket doors and the charm and character of them. It was a fun pastime,” she said.
On their drives, the Concordia neighborhood was always a favorite.
“I loved looking at all the homes here, especially the ones on State Street,” she said.
She would look at historic homes for sale on Zillow.com, too.
“I saw this one come up for sale. I hadn’t been thinking about buying a house at that time, but that triggered it. I talked to my dad and said I really wanted it — it was so beautiful. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I told him I knew I could do it. I told him that the cost of the mortgage would be the same as rent would cost,” she said.
She had been saving her money, as she planned to rent an apartment. She was going to school for a degree in early childhood education while working at various jobs part-time.
Her father agreed to help her.
“I worked and worked to get my down payment, and then my dad helped me go through the process of applying for a loan and getting approved for it,” she said.
In 2016, the house became hers. She was the owner of the historic Mayor Daniel Webster Hoan house.
“The woodwork was just so charming and appealing to me. And the front of the house has so many bay windows. I adore bay windows. They are so huge, and I can open them and they let in so much light. And there were lilac bushes in front. I just loved them; they’re my favorite flower,” she said.
She said her home, originally a single-family home, was designed by architect H. Rotier and built for Dr. Charles H. Ormond in 1896. Mayor Hoan lived there from 1918 through 1954, and it’s said that many famous people visited the home during those years. She’s found information saying that Charles Lindbergh dined there, John Philip Sousa played a piano in the parlor, and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the house.
She gleaned the information from research at the library, searches online and from information in a binder that included photos she was given when she bought the home.
Although her home was grand for many years, it didn’t stay that way.
It was later used for college housing, then as a rental, and was almost condemned in the 1970s, she said. And many of the home’s original amenities were lost.
“The roof was bad, the interior was bad … The main staircase was destroyed.
“The layout of the house isn’t like when was it first built. It would have had a servant’s staircase; they knocked out and got rid of it.… They also moved some walls. And instead of fixing old plaster walls, they put drywall over them. There’s a bathroom downstairs that was originally a butler’s pantry, and in some areas, the floors and woodwork look like dogs were scratching them.”
Fortunately, some previous owners rescued the house.
A new staircase was installed, and a fireplace in one of the home’s two parlors was restored. Wallpaper — in a wide variety of styles — was also added in every room as well as on some ceilings.
By the time Kelly purchased the house, the wallpaper was dated and the home once again had some wear and tear.
After she received her teaching degree, she decided to switch careers, and she returned to school to work toward a funeral mortuary service degree. She also continued to work part-time while she used every spare minute to work on the house.
She began making repairs to the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home. Her father helped her with various projects, as did her partner, Martin Barnard.
“My dad taught me how to do a lot of repairs. He is a man of many talents. He helped me learn how to paint and repair windows, lay tile and do some electrical work,” she said.
One of the biggest projects has been removing wallpaper and repainting rooms.
“It was put up in the ’80s. It’s lived its life, and it had a lot of wear and tear. It’s even peeling in certain areas. I’ve done all the walls upstairs and I’ve painted them, and I’ve done a good number of the first-floor rooms, too,” she said.
Other projects included repairing windows and gutting a bathroom.
She’s removed some of the windows in her home to repair them herself or have them repaired, then reinstalled them.
She gutted the bathroom, which she found poorly constructed and dated, with the help of her father and partner and some of his friends.
When she’s not working inside, she’s working on the home’s exterior, which she plans to paint in the style of a painted lady.
“The house was painted years ago. Now it’s peeling, and I’m in the process of scraping it. I’m going to paint it myself over the summer or in fall, or I might hire someone. … It’s a tall house. At the peak of the house, it’s 50 feet, so I’ll need a taller ladder and scaffolding.
“I want to do three colors for sure. I’ll do lilac with dark purple and light purple/white trim. I picked that because of the lilac bushes and all the purple/pink flowers I planted. You can see lilac is my favorite color. It will look like a little purple paradise. I’m not afraid of color,” she said.
In addition to making repairs, she has also spent time seeking out period furniture to fill her 2,000-square-foot home.
“My style of decorating is pretty Victorian. I go to estate sales and look at Facebook Marketplace in my free time to find Victorian furniture that is cheap or free. I don’t mind if they are dinged up. That adds character and shows it’s been well used and well loved.
“I have a few Victorian pieces. In the main bedroom I have a French Victorian theme,” she said.
One of her favorite pieces is an organ in her foyer that the previous owners left.
“It’s here because it belongs to the house. The first owner of this house owned the organ. At one point, someone bought it from one of the owners, but then it was given back to the previous owner, and it’s been here ever since.”
She recently talked about the work she’s doing in her home and how much she enjoys doing it.
Her home and gardens, along with about 10 others in the neighborhood, will be open to tour on this year’s Concordia Historic Home tour June 18.
Question: What else did you love about your home when you first saw it?
Answer: All the pocket doors. I love them. I have three pocket doors downstairs, and upstairs there’s a pocket door that has a little glass window in it. Also the beautiful double doors off the foyer. It has stained glass windows in it.
Q. How is your home laid out?
A. The first floor has the kitchen, dining room, foyer, entry hall, woman’s parlor, men’s parlor and a bathroom. I also have a small pantry.
On the second floor there are four bedrooms and a bathroom. One bedroom has a balcony. I think that room was originally smaller because the back staircase went up there. There are also two windows in that room. I think one of the windows isn’t original and that it was added in the ’70s.
Q. How do you use your bedrooms?
A. I use the room with the balcony mainly for storage. Another room is the main bedroom and another one I use as a dressing room, but it can also be used as a spare bedroom. The fourth bedroom is a spare bedroom. They aren’t all nicely decorated and furnished yet. I’m still getting pieces here and there.
Q. Do you have built-in pieces in your dining room?
A. No. I put an antique buffet in there that I bought. I think something was there but was taken out. I think a lot of the original charm to house was gutted when this house was converted for college students.
Q. Can you describe your two parlors?
A. The colors in the parlors should be switched because the men’s parlor, which has pink floral wallpaper, looks like it should be the ladies’ parlor, and the ladies’ parlor, which is done in a dark green, looks like it should be the men’s parlor.
I did a lot of research on this kind of home, and I also saw photos of Mayor Hoan that say he is the men’s parlor and you can see the wood-burning fireplace. Historically, the men’s parlor would be near the dining room, and it would have doors so the men could close them when they were doing business. It would also have the fireplace. The women’s parlors didn’t have doors. It was open because they didn’t have secrets. The previous owners who added that wallpaper didn’t know that.
Q. What colors will you use in those rooms, and how will you decorate them?
A. For the women’s parlor, I’ll use a mauve/dusty rose color, and I want to hang paintings with gold accents in there. I love to collect antique paintings. And maybe a dark green velvet sofa and some little chairs. I’ll also have dark teal and gold accents.
The men’s will be a dark, moody teal-blue color. I’ll use a Benjamin Moore color from their historic collection. I’ll also have a Victorian-era wingback sofa, some chairs, and pictures in gold frames. I have a photo of Mayor Hoan I’ll hang in there, too.
Q. How are you changing the kitchen?
A. I’m in the process of finishing it for the tour. I painted the walls a light teal. It’s a beautiful color. It leans more to the blue side. Also the woodwork, as it was already painted. The existing cabinets are a natural wood, but they need some love. They have a lot of chips. They’ll look better if they are painted. I used a dark green/teal on them.
I’ll also redo the counter top. I’ll either put a new top on or I’ll paint it. I’m doing a cheap fix right now until I can afford to gut the kitchen and redo it. It was probably redone in the ’70s.
Q. Any other projects?
A. I would like to tear down a wall in the kitchen to expose the chimney. Also, when I cut a hole in the drywall to check the chimney, I found a platform that led to the basement. I think I would like to restore that. Now I get into the basement through a door on the staircase, but I think it would be kind of cute if I opened that up again. I would also like to refinish all the floors. I have oak and maple flooring. And I would also like to turn the attic into livable space.
Q. What’s the hardest part of owning an old home?
A. The repairs are more costly because the house needs ongoing work. Every day, something new breaks.
Q. What gardening have you done?
A. I’ve done a lot in the backyard. I tore up all the invasive flowers, and replaced them with native plants. When I garden, Martin helps me with the heavy lifting. I recently planted 25 different perennials back there, and I planted two more lilac bushes. I also got a Victory Garden box put in, and I’m trying to grow my own vegetables.
If you go
What: Historic Concordia Home Tour: Milwaukee in the Gilded Age. A tour of about 10 homes, other buildings and some gardens.
Where: In the west area of the Concordia neighborhood, between North 32nd and 35th streets and Wisconsin Avenue and Highland Boulevard. Tour starts at Potawatomi Wgema Campus’ Wgechda Building, at 33rd and Kilbourn Avenue.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 18; doors open at 9:30 a.m. for ticket sales.
Tickets: Advance tickets $17, available at hcni.org/home-tour. Tickets day of tour are $20.
Other events: 10 a.m. lecture by historian and author John C. Eastberg. Pie and cake social at Wgechda, beer tastings from local breweries, and music.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee woman bought historic Concordia home at age 19