2,536 sq. ft.
2 lots - 12,000 sq. ft
How do you write about a house that is over 100 years old and has had only two owners and sheltered only two families? Cement, wood, plaster, pipes, wires make up its skeleton, but they no more define a house than bones, muscles, arteries define who a person is. So, while I do not know all the stories held in the walls of this house and yard, I share some that have delighted our family.
In 1971, my husband bought this house sight unseen. It came on the market, a relative saw it, and knowing that my husband was leaving the military and returning to Madison, the relative said “Jump on it” and “Jump” he did. And, he never regretted that move.
Sometime in the early 1990’s, the doorbell rang and standing at the door were two women. The older introduced herself saying that she was the daughter-in-law of Mr. and Mrs. Kelso. She and her daughter were visiting Madison and decided to drive past the house. When she saw it, she wanted to tell the owners (us) that we have been good stewards of the property, a property that her in-laws had been so proud of. We asked her if she would like to come in. We had a wonderful visit with her sharing some of the history—Mr. Kelso had been an electrical engineer professor at the University of Wisconsin and part-time inventor. My husband quickly pursued this line in that motors and tubes were found in the basement when he bought the house. The daughter-in-law explained that he invented the central vacuuming system and had installed part of it in the house. In later years, Hoover bought the rights to his invention. Mrs. Kelso was a flower gardener, thus explaining why they purchased the adjacent lot. In addition to gardening, she was an avid button collector—clothing, political, and any button that was different and original, hundreds and hundreds of buttons. When Mrs. Kelso passed, her button collection sold for $5,000, or worth about $32,500 in today’s money. Our visit ended with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of those who bought and built this phenomenal property.
Many beautiful houses can be found on the near west side of Madison, but it is the unique side yard that sets this house apart from all others. And, it is this side yard that holds so many stories. As you drove in the driveway, you may have noticed a red rock that is located in the mulched crescent. That, actually, came from the yard of the neighbor to the east. Mr. and Mrs. Willie Voss built that house and lived there throughout their days. Every morning, Willie picked up the rock in front of his house, carried it to the backyard, and carefully put it on the ground. Every evening, he went to the backyard, picked up the same rock, carried it to the front yard, and carefully put it on the ground, repeating the ritual day after day. When Willie died, my husband asked his family if he could have the rock in remembrance and the family agreed. So now, like Willie, the rock found its resting place.
Our boys attended Blessed Sacrament School (an excellent school, I might add) and, like every family, schedules revolve around school life. My husband worked nights so he would come home at about 7:00 a.m., get the boys out the door, and then sleep. Awaking at about 2:00, he would greet the boys as they came home, but it wasn’t just our three sons, it was always an entourage of their friends as well. They all knew an adult was here, pizza was in the freezer, water/pop in the fridge, and chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Eventually, my husband would say, “Come on, guys, let’s go outside and play!! And, play, they did!! You see the side yard is perfect—if the choice is football, the path to the dog pen and the city sidewalk become the goal lines; if the choice is baseball, the center of the path is home plate, the black walnut tree is first base, the sidewalk is second, and the triangle cement piece of the driveway is third; and if the choice is basketball, the crack line served as the free throw line. If the teams were uneven, Rex, our big Labrador retriever, would be let out of the pen and he would play whatever position he wanted to!!
It wasn’t all play, though, many an afternoon my husband would tell the group, “Sorry, guys, but my boys have chores to do. You are welcome to stay, but if you do, you have to work.” The amazing thing is they stayed and they worked—raking, shoveling, sweeping, pulling weeds!! Several years ago, we were at a wedding and one of these young men, now a grown adult, came over to my husband and said, “I need to apologize to you.” To which my husband inquired, “Why?” The young man said that he hated it when they would be working (mind you, it was their choice to stay) and if they weren’t doing it correctly, my husband would say, “No, no, no, if you are going to do something, do it right,” but now, the young man said, he finds my husband’s voice in his head whenever he starts to rush through a task. He said, “You are the only person who made me re-do something. Thank you.”
Our boys also attended Edgewood High School. Again, the proximity to the school made this house the landing spot as they awaited athletic practices, worked on class projects, and just chilled out. Many times after evening school events they walked back to this house for a sleepover in the basement rec room. I would come down in the morning to get them up for breakfast and it would be a sea of boys sprawled out in sleeping bags on the floor.
The side yard with the stately black walnut tree has the starring role for two of the famous family stories. As the boys got older, they took on more advanced chores, including lawn mowing. Imagine the surprise as we looked out the window one Fall afternoon to see our oldest son mowing the lawn wearing his football helmet. We went outside to ask him what was going on—he quickly replied that he was sick and tired of the walnuts hitting him on the head while mowing and the helmet was the only thing protecting him. He cut quite the visual image that still is emblazoned in our memory.
The black walnut tree has one of the most beautiful canopies I have ever seen!! It is the last tree to leaf in the spring and first to drop leaves in the fall. The dark green leaves against a bright blue summer sky creates a sight to behold. The summer before we got married my mother told my sisters that she was coming to Madison “to see exactly what was going on.” Now, my mother was the wisest woman I have ever known and equally generous; however, she had the ability to throw a verbal dart that could pierce steel. Anyway, it was one of those perfect summer days—my mom who was knitting away, dad, soon to be husband, and I sat under the tree, enjoying the shade provided, while watching the two dogs (Bruno, a German Shepherd, and Orville, a Benji-like dog) romp and my son Michael and a couple of his friends playing in the kiddie pool. I can’t remember what we were talking about but my mother said something that was a little sharp and with it time seemed to freeze, that is, for all of us except Orville who pranced over to my mom, lifted his leg, peed on her knitting bag, and pranced away!! And, today Orville lives forever in my husband’s memory as his great defender!!
It isn’t just the side yard that is special, the backyard also has its charms. A grape vine spans about 2/3 of the yard, producing grapes each year. About 10 years ago, a friend asked if she could harvest the grapes because she wanted to make wine. So a fair trade was made—she takes the grapes and we get a bottle of wine. True to her word, she brought a bottle, a gallon jug!! One of our sons and several of his friends were here for the weekend and I relayed the story at breakfast. They all decided that they wanted to taste the wine because after all it is just grape juice and grape juice is a perfectly acceptable breakfast drink, so we all toasted and drank out of juice glasses. Well, it didn’t take too long to realize that this was a pretty potent wine because all of us were feeling just a little fuzzy. As a true friend, we relayed the need to adjust the recipe just a tad!!
The big remodel year was 1988-89 when we went from a four bedroom house, with 1 full bath and a half-bath to a three bedroom house, with 2 full baths and a half-bath house. It was a mess!! The only rooms that had any sense of normality were the kitchen and dinette. We explained to the boys that we would not have any Christmas tree or decorations that year because of the upheaval, but that Santa would still come because he knew this was our house. Everything was fine and understood until lunch on Christmas Eve when one of the boys (can’t remember which one) burst out crying and sobbing because we didn’t have a tree and Santa wouldn’t know where to put the presents. Nothing comforted or consoled so there we were mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve looking for a tree. Success was achieved when we found a two-foot, Charley Brown tree, propped it up in the kitchen, quickly decorated it with a string of lights and a few ornaments, and it was back to peace on earth or at least peace on Rowley Avenue.
The remodel also presented additional challenges. Most of the radiators had covers; however, some did not so the search to find a company that could do so took some time. Remember, this was all pre-internet so not as simple as googling. Eventually, we found one that would custom-make the covers, resulting in all radiators covered and adding a more finished touch. Double-hung windows were removed and replaced with casement. In doing so, the beautiful oak window trim was carefully removed, tagged, and indexed so that every piece would go back to its original place. At the time this house was built, the trend was to have the first floor “fancy” with the oak hardwood floors and oak woodwork and trim with the second floor being somewhat more utilitarian with maple flooring and painted maple woodwork. To achieve a more consistent look throughout the house, we had the dark oak woodwork and trim installed upstairs to match the downstairs. Our youngest son, then four, watched all the workmen intently and proudly announced one day that he was going to be a “measureman” when he grew up. Everywhere he went he carried a tape measure, pulling it out, checking dimensions of whatever was in his path, calling the number, snapping it back. He quickly learned, though, that not all shared his enthusiasm when my sister, bent over as she took something from the oven, heard the opening sound of the tape measure as he began to measure her backside.
In 1997, we undertook remodeling the kitchen and dinette. Design for kitchen and dinette was done by Jack Hernan of Kitchen Mart, who spent a couple of evenings interviewing us regarding what we liked and disliked about the existing kitchen. With a plan presented and agreed upon, we moved forward. Let me tell you, it is hard to live without a kitchen when you have three boys; however, grilling and take-out became a staple way of eating dinner. Before this remodel, the floor was covered with what was called linoleum and, again to create consistency, we decided that we would go with laying solid oak floors so all would flow on first floor. Underneath several layers of linoleum, we found a type of sub-flooring and when that was pulled up—jackpot, solid oak floors!! The oak floor in the kitchen had to be replaced, but the floor in the dinette just needed refinishing and it was good to go. If you look very closely at that floor, you will see clusters of two spots where the subflooring was nailed to the wood, a testament to its longevity and endurance.
Over the years, this house hosted its share of holidays, birthdays, and events. We entertained several German and Japanese education delegations. The German delegations came in Fall so it was the Wisconsin version of Octoberfest, capped with pumpkin carving contests on the back screened porch. The Japanese delegations came in Spring so it was a Wisconsin picnic, highlighting grilled steak. My favorite party was March, 2019, when we held a family get-together, celebrating our son’s return from military service in Iraq and welcoming our daughter-in-law and her two children to Wisconsin and our family. We had 27 people here for a sit-down dinner—10 around the dining room table, 7 at the dinette table, 4 at a card table in the living room, and 6 at an 8-foot table in the foyer. The pocket doors were all open so conversation flowed at the tables and among the tables. Such joy! Such a wonderful house that can adapt to changing needs!
One last thing—the elephant in the room—or should I say, the breakfront in the dining room. This is a phenomenal furniture piece that can hold an abundance of dishes, linens, silverware, candles. Originally this piece was between the kitchen and dinette. Like many pieces of that era, it served as breakfront for the dining area and cabinets for the kitchen. One side was finely crafted wood and the other painted white enamel. Doors on both sides opened so you could wash the dishes and put dishes away on the kitchen side and open the door on the dining side to set the table. Drawers operated in a similar fashion in that pulls were on both sides so it could be slid either way. If you open the glass door on either the far right or left side and look to the back of the cabinet, you can see how the white enamel was covered with either paint or stain.
Three elements make this property special—the structure itself, the side yard, and the people who inhabit it and create their own stories. We now turn the stewardship to another family. And, who knows, maybe 20-some years from now, you will hear the doorbell ring and be greeted by a man with his son who says “We were just visiting Madison and I decided to show my son the house that I grew up in. The Kelsos and my parents would be so pleased that you have been such good stewards of the property.”
- Patrick & Susan