In this episode, Stacy welcomes Architect Keith Stachowiak from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Three years ago, Keith and his wife Elisa bought a former funeral home to convert into their primary residence. Keith's story is the first of two spooky, fun October...
In this episode, Stacy welcomes Architect Keith Stachowiak from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Three years ago, Keith and his wife Elisa bought a former funeral home to convert into their primary residence. Keith's story is the first of two spooky, fun October shows.
Also, during listener Q&A, Stacy admits her greatest fears about buying Blake Hill House.
True Tales From Old Houses is supported by The Window Course from Scott Sidler of The Craftsman Blog and the Plunjr App.
The Window Course is a step-by-step do-it-yourself program that will teach you everything you need to restore historic wood windows successfully. There are various price points to fit your needs and budget. The information is comprehensive and taught with Scott’s signature approachable style. For 10% off, visit The Window Course and use the coupon code truetales.
Plunjr's mission is to solve 100% of plumbing problems that don’t require an onsite plumber. Download the free Plunjr app today. Tap "talk to a plumber now," and you'll be connected to a licensed plumber in your area who will help you troubleshoot and solve your plumbing problem with a face-to-face video chat. Many issues are resolved with only one call. Use our secret word flapper, and that first call will only cost $10. PS: Tell them I sent you!
Warning: Death of a child mentioned in the obituary below.
Thank you for listening to True Tales From Old Houses.
Until next time,
Transcripts are generated by AI.
Stacy Grinsfelder 0:00
On today's episode during listener Q&A, I admit my greatest fear about buying Blake Hill House. And later the spooky fun October episodes kick off with my guest Keith. Keith and his wife Elisa are converting a funeral home into their primary residence. But first,
Stacy Grinsfelder 0:20
I am Stacy Grinsfelder from Blake Hill House, and I am the host of True Tales From Old Houses.
Stacy Grinsfelder 0:33
Hello everyone, Thankfully, it has been a quiet couple of weeks around here. All of the issues from the big lightning strike have been resolved, and we’re back to business as usual. If you missed it, my house, Blake Hill House got struck by lightning a few weeks ago, and I talked about it in the last episode. Everything is fine, but it certainly was a memorable experience.
Stacy Grinsfelder 0:33
In other news, it is fall chore season, at least in my part of the country. I did something new this year. I rented an aerial lift, or you may know it as a cherry picker. I don’t have a heavy-duty truck or anything, but I do have a trailer hitch on the back of my SUV, and I can pull the lift home with that. I made a decision this year that standing at the top of a 25-foot ladder to clean the gutters and inspect the envelope of our house just isn’t the best decision for me anymore. I actually love heights. That is not my concern. The major issue is that I simply cannot move a ladder that tall by myself. I am physically incapable. It takes three people to lift it and move it, and it always feels somewhat precarious. As we are putting it up, the ladder barely misses crashing into a window or someone almost gets a hand smashed, or we can’t get the ladder leaning at a safe angle. Once we finally get it up, if I’m cleaning the gutters, I can only reach three or four feet in each direction before it’s time to come down and move the ladder again. The whole process is so inefficient and time-consuming, and quite frankly. It’s not safe. So, even though it’s an additional expense, I’ve decided to put this aerial lift rental into our yearly budget. Right now, we have clogged gutters, woodpecker holes to fill. I want to inspect the fascia for rot, maybe wash some windows. Since it’s the first time we’ve ever used one, I know I’ve planned way too much to ever accomplish in one weekend, but we’ll see. I wanted to mention it in case you are also feeling like a tall ladder may not be working for you either. I’ll let you know how it goes on the blog. There will be an article about it on the Blake Hill House blog on Wednesday. If you want to get notifications of new articles in you email, you are always welcome to subscribe to the blog at BlakeHillHouse.com. There’s a place to put your name and email right in the sidebar.
Stacy Grinsfelder 0:34
Now, to repeat the housekeeping announcement I made in the last episode, the Blake Hill House blog is my personal scrapbook/journal, whatever you want to call it, and it includes all of my DIY updates, projects, and tutorials. Everything about this podcast, show notes, coupon codes, transcripts, all of that --It is available at TrueTalesFromOldHouses.com. Both websites are linked in case you end up at one site instead of the other. Finally, do I sound different? I recently upgraded my studio equipment, which feels very exciting and long overdue. I normally record the show in segments, and then I put each episode together. Since some of the segments have already been recorded with my previous setup, I wanted to mention that there will be some sound differences during the next few episodes. Then, it should be smooth sailing from then on. It is always my goal to keep improving the show for you. So, thanks for hanging in there with me. Let’s get into the rest of today's episode.
Stacy Grinsfelder 4:05
I'm going solo for today's Q&A. A question was asked directly to me and it really sent me down memory lane. The question was, what was your biggest fear when you bought Blake Hill House? I think like many people at the most basic level, my greatest fear was that something bad would happen to Blake Hill House on our watch, and I don't think I've ever talked about it before. Maybe I have. I don't really remember, but our house does have some historical significance in the area. The original owner of our house was John C. Bryant who along with his brother and brother-in-law founded the Bryant and Stratton Business College in 1854 in Buffalo, New York. Bryant and Stratton actually still exists today, and there is quite a lot of Bryant and Stratton history that resonates with me, including their focus on apprenticeships. Blake Hill House was once part of a larger summer estate and Mr. Bryant actually built our house for his daughter. However, she got married and left New York with her husband as women did back then. When they married their husband they took off with him. As far as we can tell, she never lived in this house, and it was sold to the next owner who was a banker, also of significance in our village. I took the responsibility of owning a little piece of history seriously, and perhaps a bit too seriously, now that I've had some time to get used to the idea. Even so, I did not want to be the owners who let it crumble into ruins, and of course, that hasn't happened, and it's not going to happen. And it's not going to happen to your house either, but I also had a different and honestly more appropriate worry. Andy and I are a great match, but I would definitely say that I am much more risk-averse than he is. Buying this house was a huge leap of faith for me. We've been trying to sell our house in California for over a year in a buyer's market. Remember buyers markets? Sadly, we've sold two houses and both times it was a buyers market, which is really tough timing. So once we closed we knew we had to carry two mortgages indefinitely, and during the time that we held those two mortgages, we would also be completely financially strapped. I was very stressed out about that. Mostly, I was terrified that we would be forced to neglect some important maintenance and then the house would actually start falling down as I mentioned before. Then, since we had no money to fix it, we would begin the downhill slide toward financial ruin, I admit that I went a little dark, and I want to add that catastrophizing is not the healthiest way to start a new adventure. And that is exactly what this should be and what it has been-- an adventure. Anyway, by the grace of all things good in the universe, we only had to carry those two mortgages for about four months. Someone bought our cute little house in California, and we were able to use the proceeds from that sale to replace the roof here, and we had a modest cushion left over too. We were extra careful for about three years to build up a reserve for high-ticket items like a new furnace or a drainage line to the sewer. Turns out in the first couple of weeks, I learned from one of my neighbors that they had to redo their sewer line, and it costs a small fortune. Knowing that Blake Hill House had a clay pipe full of tree roots only added to my worries. I priced a new furnace and the sewer line just in case, and then we had a separate fund for the chimney rebuild, and I have talked about that on the blog too. I guess I could offer that as a tip to all of you too. Go ahead and price out expensive maintenance so that you don't get blindsided. Try to be proactive, so you won't be forced to be reactive. Actually, you know what, just consider that my entire life philosophy and apply it liberally across the board. I'll repeat, be proactive, so you won't be forced to be reactive.
Stacy Grinsfelder 7:40
After a few years, I realized that while deferred maintenance is the killer of old houses and old buildings, it is a very slow way for them to die. And let me be really clear, I'm not suggesting that you're safe to ignore what's broken or falling apart around your house, especially the exterior or as we call it, the envelope. What I mean is that as long as you keep a vigilant eye on the issues and triage those biggies into your overall maintenance and rehab plan, it's unlikely that your house will fall over without notice. If you suffer from excessive worry, like I did, during Episode Number 50, Bill from Enon Hall and I actually talked about managing anxiety and old house ownership, and if you haven't listened to that episode yet, I will link it in the show notes.
Stacy Grinsfelder 8:22
Seven years into owning this house. Not very many things get to me now. I mean, my house was struck by lightning for goodness sakes. We're still here. Everything is okay. You've probably heard the Yiddish proverb, "We plan God laughs." It's so true, and we're all just doing our best here to love these houses and make them beautiful. Keep up the good work. If you've got an old house or DIY question for this segment, please submit it via the contact form at TrueTalesFromOldHouses.com, and we'll answer it on a future episode.
Stacy Grinsfelder 9:02
Now it's your turn. The question this season is, What is your favorite thing about living in an old house? Or, What's the most challenging thing about living in an old house? And here are some of your answers. Leslie loves that her house is unlike others. It has its own unique history, story and craftsmanship, and Lauren's favorite thing is just getting to look at her house every day. Elizabeth's challenge really spoke to my soul. She said, "If you install something level, it's going to look crooked because literally nothing else is level." And that is so true, Elizabeth. I have never eyeballed so many picture frames and curtain rods in my life. And finally Alyssa cracked me up with her answer to the question. Her favorite thing is looking forward to haunting her own house one day. October is the perfect timing for this answer. So perhaps we can all work on our future hunting plans this month. I want to hear your answers all season so please visit the True Tales From Old Houses website. On the bottom right-hand side, you will see a microphone icon. Click on that microphone, and you can leave your answer as a voicemail. Please answer in a complete sentence or you can also submit your answer via the contact form. So again, this season's question is, "What is your favorite thing about living in an old house? Or, What is the most challenging thing about living in an old house? And thank you Leslie, Lauren, Elizabeth, and Alyssa for taking the time to answer the question.
Stacy Grinsfelder 10:34
I want to take a couple of minutes to tell you that True Tales From Old Houses is supported by The Window Course from Scott Sidler of the Craftsman Blog. The Window Course is a step-by-step, Do-It-Yourself program that will teach you everything you need to know to successfully restore your wood windows. It's self-paced, so you can go as fast or slow as you need to, and there are several price points to fit your needs and budget. The cooler weather doesn't have to slow down your window restoration progress. Out of necessity, I work on windows in my workshop all year round. And even if you've decided to hold off until spring, now is the perfect time to take the course and learn the process. Make a plan, gather supplies, and you can hit the ground running when the weather turns warm. Again, if you sign up for the lifetime access package or training package, then you'll also get a free infrared paint remover which is a $130 value. The Window Course is offered with a money back guarantee, and now it comes with an infrared paint remover too. That's like getting $130 right back in your pocket. I've still got a coupon code for you too. Scott is offering True Tales From Old Houses listeners a special discount. For 10% off, visit TheWindowCourse.com and use the coupon code truetales.
Stacy Grinsfelder 11:46
True Tales From Old Houses is also supported by the Plunjr App, whose mission is to solve 100% of plumbing problems that don't require an onsite plumber. The Plunjr App is free to download. Open the app on your phone or tablet, click talk to a plumber now, and you'll be connected with a licensed plumber in your area who will help you troubleshoot and solve your plumbing problem with a face to face video chat. Now I've used the Plunjr App twice, and I tell everyone about it. You know I'm pretty fearless when it comes to DIY, but plumbing feels high stakes. When something goes wrong in your plumbing, It's always such a disaster, and having instant access to a plumber makes all the difference. A pro at Plunjr helped me install a kitchen faucet and garbage disposal as well as a toilet in the upstairs bathroom. Plunjr can even ship all the parts you need right to your front door. Plunjr truly is plumbing for the people. And here's what you need to know: Download the free plunger app at Plunjr.com/download, and I'll put that in the show notes to. Tap talk to a plumber now to solve your problem, and there's a True Tales From Old Houses secret word and that word is FLAPPER. Mention the word flapper, and get your first call for only $10. So what are you waiting for? Use the secret word flapper to save, and be sure to tell them that I sent you.
Stacy Grinsfelder 13:26
My guest today is Keith Stachowiak. Earlier this year, Keith's friend sent me an email and he said you have to talk to Keith. He is converting an old funeral home into his primary residence, and I was instantly intrigued. October feels like the perfect month to share the story with all of you.
Keith Stachowiak 13:45
My name is Keith Stachowiak. I'm an architect. I specialize in historic preservation. My wife and I own a former funeral home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Stacy Grinsfelder 13:53
Thank you for being here for our spooky Halloween episode, Keith. It's really not that spooky, but what is more quintessentially Halloween than a potentially haunted funeral home? Right?
Keith Stachowiak 14:04
Stacy Grinsfelder 14:05
And this is going to be fun. I've been looking forward to this conversation ever since I knew that you lived in a converted funeral home. I thought everybody is gonna love this one, but I would like to give the listeners some context. So let's start with a little bit of the history of your house. How you found it, and I'm--we'll get to the follow-up question after that. Let's start there.
Keith Stachowiak 14:25
Yeah, absolutely. So our home was built in 1929. It was the original home of the Eugene Schramka rooms were what they call it. And then Schramka funeral services. It's in a neighborhood that we absolutely love. We live in River West. It's a neighborhood that's just north of downtown Milwaukee--one that we have strong roots in. Both my mother and my wife's father both grew up in the neighborhood. They actually both attended funeral services here as children, which was interesting to find out as we were purchasing the home, and just for some context, we didn't actually set out to buy a funeral home. We lived down the street. We were looking for a place to expand to potentially start business at some point, and this just kind of popped up as an opportunity, and, you know, my wife and I aren't superstitious. We weren't, you know, creeped out by the fact that it was a funeral home, and we've, since then, we've kind of leaned into it-- pretty far actually, as maybe you'll find out today. But yeah, it's It was built in 1929. It's had three owners in 92 years, and we just can't be more excited to be here.
Stacy Grinsfelder 15:24
Well, we will definitely get into just how far you've leaned in. And my question, of course, was going to be, were you ever interested in a non-traditional building to reimagine? Or was this-- just fell into your lap, and this is where you went?
Keith Stachowiak 15:37
Yeah, absolutely. So you know, like I said, I'm an architect always looking for unusual spaces. We actually looked at a firehouse before this, which was just outside of our price range, and would have needed a lot more work than this, and so this, this was just a good opportunity, I'd say.
Stacy Grinsfelder 15:52
Great. Now, this firehouse question. I'm torn between asking you now and asking you later, but because you are an architect, how did you see that? I'm just curious how you look at spaces as an architect. Do you see into the future of what you want it to be? Or are you... I don't even understand how the architect's brain works. How does that go?
Keith Stachowiak 16:13
Sure. Well, my, my wife and I are still figuring out what we want to do with this space long-term, because it's close to 5000 square feet. We live upstairs right now. Downstairs is just a, it's a wide-open space. I mean, it's hosted, you know, events for many, many years and could be reinvented in a lot of different ways. I would say that you know, the majority of the decisions that we've made with the house have been more towards restoring it in a lot of ways. Obviously, there are decisions we can make that that we can't make to completely restore something or bring it back to what it was originally, but, you know, for the large visitation room or chapel space in the, in the center of the room, it kind of speaks for itself. It does its own thing. I mean, it's just a wide-open, gorgeous room that could be used for a lot of things. You know, my wife and I actually got married. I should have started at this. My wife and I actually got married down the street and had our wedding reception here. This was just pre COVID, a few months before COVID, and we had 135 people for a sit-down dinner in our space, and then, you know, we went upstairs to sleep at night. And it was, it's kind of crazy, you know, people don't really get married in their homes, but also people don't have homes that can accommodate that type of event.
Stacy Grinsfelder 17:23
Right, True. True, and I think it's notable to mention that you had done some renovations together as a couple before you got married and now you have more left. So this speaks well, this bodes well for your marriage,
Keith Stachowiak 17:36
Yep. We're still together. We couldn't be happier either.
Stacy Grinsfelder 17:41
No, that's great. It can be trying, but it's good.
Keith Stachowiak 17:44
Stacy Grinsfelder 17:46
Alright, well, there were so many intact features in your house and it seems like you've done a lot of research. I would love to hear more about the lighting. I feel like lighting, and sometimes these old houses, they'll have one or two old lights or you know, mixed Mine is a complete mix and match. I'm just curious about the lighting. Tell us more.
Keith Stachowiak 18:06
Yeah, totally. We, I mean, one of the things that sold us in the home was was all of those-- were all those intact features, and the biggest one was probably lighting. Most of our fixtures we found were made locally here in Milwaukee by the Moe Bridges Corporation. It was a lighting manufacturer that was started in the 1920s and actually is still technically around today. It's it goes by the name of Besa Lighting, but all the fixtures in our home, which counts up to about fifty. They're all cast-iron fixtures that are polychrome paints. Most of them are candelabra sconce fixtures along all the walls. Just--I mean you can kind of imagine that in a funeral home you know just the big kind of like glowing candlelight from all the walls. So one of the first things we did when we moved in was first replace all of them with LED fixtures I know there might be--er LED bulbs. I know there might be a lot of lighting purists out there that wouldn't have done exactly that, but it is replaceable. But that allowed us to put them on dimmers so we can actually set the mood inside of the room instead of having it you know, fully lit with 60-watt bulbs. But yeah, we've-- and we so we've researched a lot of fixtures. There are some other custom ones. There were a few that we've been missing and actually have recently sourced from other people unfortunately wanting to get rid of their original 1920s porch lights, but It has benefited us in the fact that ours have been missing for many years.
Stacy Grinsfelder 19:21
Well, don't get me started on the lighting purists. I didn't even know that was a thing until I started this job, and then I went oh, okay, but that's okay. I'm a shades of gray person, rarely a black and white person when it comes to decisions with our homes, but yeah, you actually calculated the cost savings I think. Didn't you, of these new bulbs?
Keith Stachowiak 19:42
Yeah. It was you know, everything was the 60-watt bulb, in the entire house and they were like something like 70 or 80 different bulbs, and I counted at the time that the payback was just a couple of months in savings if you were to actually run the lights as your normal house lighting. So yeah, that was the first thing to go.
Stacy Grinsfelder 20:00
Well, I feel like your second full-time job would have been going around and replacing burnt-out light bulbs if you hadn't made that change right away. So I support you; I support you. The doorbell was another er the doorbell system or the or the notification system for the family was another fun find that I'd love to hear you explain how that worked.
Keith Stachowiak 20:20
Yeah, absolutely. So like I said, the house is it's 5000 square feet, and the undertaker originally raised three kids upstairs. They eventually took on the business, and so it was kind of funny. We were, we were in the embalming room, shortly after we moved in, and there was a little typewritten note that was buried behind one of the cabinets, and it's just said the names of the three children and then mom and dad, and then it had a key. It was-- it kind of explained, you know, one ring for leaving, two rings for coming home, and then there are other short little blips or whatever, and it was kind of like Morse code-ish. The idea is that they had, they had bells upstairs, one of them the embalming room, one in the basement, and as you were coming or going, you could just, you know, ring your code so that everyone else in the house would know that you're coming or going. It's kind of like the equivalent of just like texting, "Hey, I'm leaving now." but obviously, it didn't exist in the in the 20s.
Stacy Grinsfelder 21:12
A little less intrusive than that group text that you didn't ask for. Right?
Keith Stachowiak 21:16
Right, right. Yeah, so the bell ringing system is one of our one of the things that my to-do list eventually to get going back again, I'm not sure that we would actually use it in the same format, but it would be interesting just to find the wiring that is all still there just to find the end connections and get it working again.
Stacy Grinsfelder 21:31
That's a lot of fun. Well, you said embalming room, and I, I'm thinking should we gloss over that now and get back to it, or should we, you know? I think we will actually. I have another question, but for those of you listening, the embalming room exists there. We'll get back to it. What do I want to know is what original features excited you and Elisa the most when you came in? I mean, obviously this house, you connected with it right away, and I just want to know what that wow thing was that you both looked at each other and said, "This is it."
Keith Stachowiak 22:01
Yeah. I mean, it really was the first visitation space that we stepped into. I mean, we benefited from obviously three owners in 90 years. None of the woodwork was painted. All the plaster work was intact. You know, there are all these things that all these boxes that were checked that just made it the right decision. You know, another thing is that the house is made of solid masonry. It's cinderblock all the way through the attic, which means that it's going to-- it's going to be here longer than a lot of other homes. The other thing is that it has an attached garage. It has a two hearse garage, extra deep, and has a floor drain and has a spigot-- actually has its own separate heater along the entire front that I'll never turn on because it would not be worth it to heat a garage. You can imagine you know, having to clean off hearses in the middle of the winter because you who wants to, you know take their last ride in a dirty hearse?
Stacy Grinsfelder 22:52
Keith Stachowiak 22:52
So so really actually having an attached garage, it's one of the probably, one of only a handful in the neighborhood that have an attached garage because it is fireproof construction. So they're all those little things, and then there are a lot of things that we actually were able to buy with the house too that were original. So we have the original torchiere lamps from the sides of the casket. We have a lot of the original chairs, which were remarkable. They're made in 1928. They're folding chairs that have like this clipping mechanism on them so that the undertaker could easily kick them and set them up and put them back together. So all these little things that kind of led us to, I don't know, reestablish it as a--It'll never be a funeral home again, but it has all the elements that you would need in a funeral home.
Stacy Grinsfelder 23:33
Sure, sure. I actually heard those chairs were built in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Keith Stachowiak 23:38
Stacy Grinsfelder 23:38
Is that correct? That's my husband's hometown.
Keith Stachowiak 23:40
Oh, that's great. Yeah, they are Louis Rastetter & Sons. They're, they're called solid comfort chairs. There are actually--People still own them, and use them as like card table chairs, mostly, but we've actually found that funeral homes of this era actually regularly bought them. In fact, we had eight of them to begin with that were original to our funeral home, and then we found another funeral parlor just this past year that we're connected to socially, that they're closing down their funeral home, and they have the exact same chairs. So we were actually able to buy another 24 of the same exact chairs. So we're really populating the home with original artifacts here.
Stacy Grinsfelder 24:16
Right. You're, it almost sounds like you're a venue at this point--getting closer to a venue. Well, obviously there was what you saw and what you connected with right away, but over time, you've made a lot of interesting new discoveries. I'd like to know more about those and what's your favorite?
Keith Stachowiak 24:34
Oh, geez. You know, we've now restored I think close to 22 windows on the ground floor. They're all leaded glass. We, we-- but one of the favorite things that that we've come across as we're scraping everything that--We took everything down to bare wood, and the handwriting of the millworker that would write Schramka on every single, every single jamb was just incredible. And that's--It hadn't been seen in like, 93 years since they originally painted it, and now you know, scraping off just the paint, but leaving the wood there, revealed that on every single one of them, and it was kind of this process like where's it gonna be on the window? And it's, it's interesting because it's one of those fleeting moments where you see it, and it's this thing of beauty. You know. Nobody has cursive handwriting like that anymore, and then a couple of days later, you just cover it up with primer and paints, and it's just disappeared history again.
Stacy Grinsfelder 25:25
We call it we call cursive code in my house. I still have my, you know, aunts and their grandmothers who write in cursive, and my kids are like, "What are they saying?" I say, "You have to at least try first, you know. If you can't figure out something, I'll tell you, but you have to at least try." So Schramka would-- that was the funeral home name. Is that right?
Keith Stachowiak 25:44
Yes. Yes, exactly. They're still around. They're, they're now a fifth-generation funeral service. They have a couple of locations, but this was their original, and they outgrew it and it had no parking because it's in a dense, old Polish neighborhood. And so you know, it had its last service, I think around 2001. So it's been 20 years without an actual service.
Stacy Grinsfelder 26:06
There's something beautifully family-oriented about the funeral home business. It's so common to hear about second, third, you're talking about the fifth generation. I think it's, it's beautiful,
Keith Stachowiak 26:17
Definitely, and it's something that's kind of, I've learned a lot more about the funeral industry as a result of this. You know, like I said, we didn't seek to buy a funeral home, and I don't know if I would have actually looked into this far. But I mean, it's really interesting to know that people are really dedicated to certain funeral homes, you know. Ours buried most of the first-generation Polish immigrants that built our neighborhood, and then their kids and their grandchildren, and all the generations following them still go to Schramka, even if they have to go, you know, to a suburb thirty miles away, because that's their, that's their place. And it's almost, it's at the point where, even when there's consolidation of a lot of these companies, and, you know--So someone outside of town can own all the funeral homes in a city, but they still keep their names because that name recognition is what brings those same families back.
Stacy Grinsfelder 27:06
And it's interesting, too, that you're talking about all of the funerals that have occurred in the funeral home because you've started a project of collecting obituaries. What sparked that idea, and what are your plans for the collection?
Keith Stachowiak 27:22
Yeah, so the thing that sparked that actually, my wife's great grandfather was buried here in the 60s, kind of died tragically, and we were able to find his obituary, and then found that obviously, that it listed Schramka funeral homes on Burl Ives Street, and after that, you know, I started searching for others. And now that you have services that allow you to, to use that have run text recognition on old newspapers, so all of the Milwaukee Journals and Sentinels from the 1860s on, have all been digitized. And you can basically go search. And so I was able to search our address, and Schramka, and a few other key terms and collected a little shy of 3000, obituaries.
Stacy Grinsfelder 28:05
Keith Stachowiak 28:05
And it was an interesting process, it was something that I took on, just as the pandemic was started, which was a perfect time to just sit at home in front of a computer and do something somewhat productive, but kind of crazy, and so now I have a collection of all of the what-- not all of them, but the majority of the obituaries of people that have had their services here. So you know, my wife and I joke that you know that ghosts haven't exactly come out yet, but if they did, we'd have a, we'd have a full list of suspects.
Stacy Grinsfelder 28:34
Of course, you would, right? Do you feel an emotional pool towards these people? Or is it purely a fact-finding mission--just a collection of names?
Keith Stachowiak 28:46
No, definitely. I mean, we've had, we've had friends that have come forward and, you know, asked us if we have the obituary for their relatives. It's just because this place is so important to within the community, or was so important within the community that, you know, I look around at all of our neighbors' houses and friends that own houses in the neighborhood, and the majority of their, of the occupants of their buildings were buried here. I mean, I find it's more than just a fleeting interest to me. It actually is something that it-- This place has such meaning, and had such meaning to families, and it is so interconnected with the rest of the neighborhood, you know, that there's something very special about that.
Stacy Grinsfelder 29:24
Right. So there have been some notable deaths, I guess, and I just want to say, I guess people who are particularly sensitive to the death of a child related to a crime or otherwise may want to skip the next minute or two because I have questions related to that.
Stacy Grinsfelder 29:40
But there was an unsolved kidnapping and murder of a young girl 11, and she was interred--I mean not interred. I guess she was, her service took place in that funeral home, and I just thought that was so sad. Do you ever?... It is sad. Lots of people would find that very sad, and I'm curious whether you ever get blindsided when looking at these obituaries, by sadness or by, you've stated before, I guess in another interview that a lot of these obituaries are very clear. They're very thorough.
Keith Stachowiak 29:49
Stacy Grinsfelder 30:09
Yeah, descriptive. Thank you for that word, and there, you may find out more than you really wanted to know.
Keith Stachowiak 30:23
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there have been a few moments where I found out that-- this is-- Our space is based on, you know, the joy of gathering in some way, of paying respects to someone, but also, there's so much tragedy behind some of these. There was another and I'll get to the Joyce Roberts thing in just a second, but there was another one that hit me pretty hard when I first started this. And it was because there's, I run past the place where it actually happened. There's a paper plant that's just less than a half-mile away, and there was a time in the 19, the early 1950s, where a child was digging through a bunch of paper stacks at this paper mill, that were recycling all these paper stacks, and he was looking for comic books and a large pile fell on him, and he was crushed to death, and he was buried in our house. At the same time as I was reading that he, that same day. I was running past the exact place that it happened and then running past to the back to our home where you know, where his last rites were held. And there's a reality to that. I mean, that's, there are real things, real people that were affected by this, and what I get out of it at the end of the day is that our home helped people grieve and helped people to comfort each other through loss, and that's why, you know, we've joked like, why don't we just start a funeral home, but we really can't, we're not trained to we're not trained for end of life care, and that type of thing, and there's, I mean, there's a real industry and a real purpose behind it. But you know, I just like the fact that you know, our home has held joy and tragedy at the same time.
Stacy Grinsfelder 31:56
That's lovely. That really is, and I agree with you. My grandmother, she died when she was 102, and I remember we went to her funeral and I just thought, this is a celebration of life. And in many many ways, a funeral is a celebration of life because a lot of these people have lived long long happy lives--not always the case but it's good to reflect on both aspects of that for sure the good and the bad and the happy and the sad.
Keith Stachowiak 32:25
Stacy Grinsfelder 32:26
All right. Well, different topic-- different topic. But in the three years that you've lived, I guess it's about three years right? 2018
Keith Stachowiak 32:35
Stacy Grinsfelder 32:35
Yeah, close to, you and your wife Elisa, you've accomplished a ton of DIY work. You've refinished floors, rewired, painted, plumbing, you name it, and what project are, what types of projects have been your favorite because you've been learning as you're going?
Keith Stachowiak 32:51
Yeah, absolutely. There have been some that have been really really difficult. We've, I built an electrolysis bath to strip all the metal harbor window hardware and everything completely down to bare metal and refinish it, which is a really great way to get rid of lead paint by the way, really safe way to just kind of liquefies off, and it's just wonderful. We built a wet sandblaster to blast probably five or six layers of chipping lead paint off of our porch ironwork. And, you know, we do a lot of these things ourselves, because we're interested, but also because, but the size of that house that we have, we just wouldn't be able to afford or our money just really wouldn't go that far if we were to hire skilled laborers to do it. So we've just kind of taken on a lot of those skills ourselves, and have been careful and deliberate about how we do them and safely, I will say
Keith Stachowiak 33:39
But yeah, they're--my favorite moment was actually over this past summer. We all have the wood were, all the wood trim boards along the outside of the house were chipping badly hadn't been painted in probably 25 years, and the finial on the top of the house was actually missing. So we live it's-- the home, because you can't see a photo of it right now is, it's sort of a modified Tudor style. So there's a really big front gable, and the top of that Gable had a finial or a piece of vertical wood that was missing, and we actually found that it was missing since the 70s because the previous owner actually sketched out for us what it looked like because at the time he went up on a ladder 35 feet in the air and tore the rest of it down because it had rotted so badly. So we were able to actually recreate that out of a trunk of salvaged Douglas fir, old-growth fur and recreate it or recreate it, rebuild it and reinstall it actually on top of the house. So we feel like that the crown of the house is now finally finally intact after all these years. But by way of doing, we actually scraped all the woodwork on the outside of the house by getting it articulating boom lift which was just a wonderful thing this summer. We were able to you know, just ride it around the house instead of building scaffolding or worrying about falling off a ladder, and so I spent, I spent about four weeks completely refinishing the outside of the house on this on this boom lift, which I kind of miss.
Stacy Grinsfelder 35:04
Keith Stachowiak 35:04
I miss the mobility of it.
Stacy Grinsfelder 35:05
I kind of feel like I want one of those. I have so many projects in mind. So hopefully, maybe you would share a couple of pictures for the show notes.
Keith Stachowiak 35:14
Stacy Grinsfelder 35:14
Okay, that's great, and I'll just put them right on the website that go along with the show notes that go along with this episode. So to the embalming room, we go. One of the most intact features is the embalming room, and I know probably the first question, that's probably the first question people ask you. Does it still have an embalming room? Give us some insight into the embalming room, your plans, what you've done, what you thought when you walked in?
Keith Stachowiak 35:38
Yeah, we actually didn't know. We didn't realize that it had an embalming room. So the, it was really funny. The real estate listing for this, you know, showed all the rooms, and it's pretty clear that it was a funeral home, but they didn't play that up as a way of selling the house in any way. And I think that they called, they called it like a garden room or something like that. Yeah, it's, it was really interesting. You know, it's a, it's a room in the back of the house. It's not in the basement. It's actually on the ground floor. It's maybe about 18 feet by 18 feet. It's tiled. The floor is all tile and it has a floor drain. It still has the sink with a backflow, backflow preventer. Some of the original, all the original plumbing in the room, and then some cabinets, but actually, the majority of the equipment was actually missing or had been sold a long time ago, which was really unfortunate, because, I mean, like I said, we're kind of like leaning into the idea of owning a funeral home. And as part of that, you need an intact embalming room. Right?
Stacy Grinsfelder 36:34
Keith Stachowiak 36:34
So we were able to actually source an embalming table actually, right before we had a Halloween party in 2019. Again, pre-COVID, where we had four bands and 150 people and tarot card readers and wet plate photographer, and all these really great things. And the costumes were just really, really wonderful, but we used the embalming room as our bar, and we happened to get the embalming table just in time and it's a hydraulic embalming table that you can jack up to 42 inches. And so we had, you know, our bartender and everything laid out on the embalming table, and we, it kind of creeped out a lot of our friends. So some of them, some of them just either wouldn't enter or just weren't comfortable getting a drink. So we had drinks elsewhere that they could get, but yeah, and ever since then, since that Halloween party we had we were able to source actually a lot of other embalming equipment. So that same funeral company that closed just this past year, we ended up getting a lot of tools and an embalming machine and other contraptions for embalming bodies, and we learned a lot about the process, which is it's just been very interesting to learn as we've been going through it.
Stacy Grinsfelder 37:45
Yeah. Well, so I have a question. follow up question about the process. It seems like maybe the technology of embalming hasn't changed much.
Keith Stachowiak 37:54
Yeah. No, I don't think it really has, in fact, a lot of the equipment that we have right now is still similar to what's in use. I'll say that from the early days of embalming, I think things have changed, you know, we originally it was sort of like a drip process, and then they turned actually into, you know, having pumps, that would control everything. I don't want to get too much into the details, because this might creep a lot of people out.
Stacy Grinsfelder 38:15
I didn't want to either, but I guess what I was noticing was that, you know, when you get these artifacts from a funeral home, you know, you're getting the same, it looks like it could have been there in the 1960s. Or it was
Keith Stachowiak 38:26
Stacy Grinsfelder 38:26
It looks like the exact same thing you would find anywhere. So yeah, I'm sorry, I kind of led us down a path there that maybe neither of us really wanted to go to. I just thought it was interesting that, that all of the tools still look old, even though they may have just been recently used. So it made me think that the technology of the funeral business may not have changed a ton.
Keith Stachowiak 38:47
Yeah, it's kind of, yeah, it's kind of the same. I will say to you that they haven't embalmed bodies in our, in our home, I think since the 19, the late 1960s. You know, a lot of companies would consolidate all their embalmment in one location. That's just a lot more efficient for them. So yeah, not a lot has happened in our embalming room for the past 50 years or so.
Stacy Grinsfelder 39:06
But it's so interesting that it's there. I really like how you've leaned in, I think that's great. I think it's a wonderful use of the space. So were your original plans in the before times to have regular Halloween parties or to have functions like that?
Keith Stachowiak 39:19
Absolutely. It was, it was supposed to be a, it was supposed to be an annual thing. You know, my wife and I are still considering how and in what format we use our ground floor because it is a wide-open floor plate. You know, work from home over the past 18 months has been great because I've had like 2000 square feet for an office downstairs, but eventually we're gonna have to figure out some other ways to get supplemental income from the space. So the idea was to actually host events. We still have to go through occupancy and some other things, but in the meantime, we were just throwing our own parties. So we had a Halloween party. We've had a lot of other things, obviously pre-COVID, and it was supposed to be an annual event where we're looking forward to maybe trying to do something this year, maybe masks maybe smaller groups of people, but still sort of keeping that spirit alive because it is just a perfect house for especially during October,
Stacy Grinsfelder 40:07
Right. Absolutely. So talking about all of this, of course, leads me to wonder or about the idea of ghosts or spirits. I'm wondering if you and Elisa believe in them or if you've had any experiences? You mentioned before that nothing, but I'm curious anything that you just haven't wanted to admit? That's unexplained or unusual in your home?
Keith Stachowiak 40:28
Oh, man. No, I'll say no. Maybe there's one really, really strange thing, and this is out there, and it's not really even a ghost story. I was in the basement cleaning up after painting one day, and we have, all the ceilings in the basement, they're all plastered, and so there's nothing that could have, it could have gotten caught on, and out of nowhere-- I'm just washing in the sink, and a single kernel of unpopped corn fell from somewhere and hit my head and then fell in the sink, and no one else was in the basement. Nothing else was going on. I can't explain it. It's there's nothing ghost-like about it, but I just can't explain where a single kernel of corn would have come from. Yeah, that's the closest thing that we've had. I mean, we've had other people that have had experiences here, even within the past year or so, of friends that have stayed here and had some sort of experience in a room but it's not really our story. So yeah, but we're not superstitious as it is, and you know, even if there are spirits around us, they haven't bothered us quite yet.
Stacy Grinsfelder 41:28
Right, right. Yeah, well, I'm understanding from hearing many many stories from other people, that most of the time experiences are not bad experiences. Almost all of them are just friendly, generally a little bit mysterious at times but that's about as far as they go, at least that's the kind of stories that we tell here. I'm not into scary ghost stories at all. So let's talk about your, just a few minutes about future projects. You've obviously done so much. You're thinking about the first floor as some sort of event space or something in you know, in the future, we're getting in the future, but you have a home to live in upstairs. What are your plans for the home?
Keith Stachowiak 42:13
Oh man, I, our list of things that we want to do is you know, it grows every day and we've been chipping away at it quite a bit actually. One of the biggest things we want to do is we don't have air conditioning, and so we've just been using you know, either stand-alone units or whatever else, and obviously, the home functioned without air conditioning for a very long time, and people were just fine but you know, as far as human comfort goes, it would be nice to actually have something upstairs. So this past winter, and I'm going to take it back up this winter. I'm going to try and put in a system upstairs but first, insulate the attic floor. We have a full attic, full height attic which is wonderful, and it's just it's going to be a lot and all the original floorboards and ordinarily, if you had a company come in and re-insulate your floor they would just tear up the floorboards, and throw them out, and then put down plywood and after putting down the installation and I'm-- I don't know why it would be attached to the attic floorboards, but they're you know their original old-growth Douglas fir, why would I tear them out? So I've been carefully removing the nails on every single board and screwing them back in so that when we're ready to actually insulate and air condition the home we will be able to just take up the floorboards and put them back in. So it's really really tedious but that's one of the projects that I'm kind of looking forward to when the weather gets a little colder this year.
Stacy Grinsfelder 43:27
Yeah, Nice thing about working in an attic is that it stays pretty warm.
Keith Stachowiak 43:30
Yeah, yeah, exactly. It'd be nice to work in the cold weather up there and work up a sweat
Stacy Grinsfelder 43:35
Right and you're also telling the story to the right person because one of the reasons why I haven't followed up on some of the projects that I need to do includes the fact that I don't want to lose the floorboards in my original attic. You're in good company here.
Keith Stachowiak 43:49
Stacy Grinsfelder 43:50
So after installation, you said in a previous interview talked about maybe putting in a kitchen and a bathroom on the first floor.
Keith Stachowiak 43:56
Yeah, totally I mean no matter what we do with the first floor we're going to need to actually have something down there you know. Whether it's an event venue or office or anything else we're gonna need to have a kitchen and a bathroom. We currently don't have a bathroom on the ground floor. At some point in the 1940s, they actually expanded one side of the house that used to have a bathroom to make a second visitation room. I think was 1943, and you know there was just -- business was good in the 40s I'll say, and so they wanted to have back-to-back visitations, and so they took out the office and bathroom on one side and put them down in the basement, but as a result now we just don't have an accessible bathroom. So, you know when my grandma came, we had to lift the wheelchair down the stairs and then back up and that's not ideal long-term.
Stacy Grinsfelder 44:35
Sure. Absolutely. When you get the kitchen and bath downstairs, do you imagine that that will become part of your house? you'll just-- and then the kitchen upstairs will go away? Are you seeing these as sort of two spaces?
Keith Stachowiak 44:48
I think we're seeing this as two spaces. You know they've always functioned as two spaces, you know that the undertaker raised their family upstairs, and they had obviously their business downstairs, and it's it kind of works that way. I mean, our kitchen upstairs is wonderful. It has all the original cabinets, a lot of original features intact. So there's no way that that would exactly go away. I would say that my wife, if we built out a really nice kitchen downstairs, would probably want that one a lot more than the one upstairs. So we'll see how it goes, but yeah, I mean, no matter what we do, we've got to do something with the ground floor that's going to activate it, and I think a kitchen and bathroom are going to kind of ground that.
Stacy Grinsfelder 45:23
Well. This has been really interesting, and I'm wondering how can people find you or follow your project? Are you on social media? How could they-- How can they do this?
Keith Stachowiak 45:32
Yeah, absolutely. My wife and I have been documenting our own document through the process just through both our Instagram handles. We have started a special Instagram called the parlor (@theparlor), which is what we're calling our home, but we don't tend to use that as much. So yeah, my Instagram is @milwaukeith, and my wife is @eeeleesuh. If you find me, you'll probably find her, but yeah, you can follow along there.
Stacy Grinsfelder 45:55
Sure. And is it okay if I put those handles in the show notes?
Keith Stachowiak 45:58
Stacy Grinsfelder 45:59
Okay, great. So if it's hard to find, it'll be right in the show notes for this episode, but thank you for doing this. It's been lovely to meet you, find out more about your home and I'm so intrigued. It's great.
Keith Stachowiak 46:10
Likewise, thanks so much for having me.
Stacy Grinsfelder 46:12
Oh, you're welcome. I will definitely-- I am following you on Instagram, so I will look forward to future projects.
Keith Stachowiak 46:17
Stacy Grinsfelder 46:18
Thank you for listening to True Tales From Old Houses. To continue the conversation, be sure to follow True Tales From Old Houses and Blake Hill House on Facebook and Instagram, and for more information about this spooky episode, including show notes and transcripts visit TrueTalesFromOldHouses.com. Until next time,