This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier.
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This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse share a bedroom but enjoy their own space inside the modern property on the city’s Lower East Side

Sat, Dec 23, 2023 7:00amGrey Clock 5 min

Jason Kuwayama hardly ever goes to the front section of the new house he built in downtown Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. That is where his girlfriend, Leah Busse, plays “Call of Duty” in her designated game room—a space filled with her collectibles and art.

Instead, Kuwayama, an attorney, enters through the back of the house and spends most of his time in the main living area, an open, light-filled space with no clutter.

The two sections of the house are separated by a long hallway and an outdoor courtyard.

It is a similar scenario upstairs, in the primary suite: The two share a bedroom, but Kuwayama’s pristine bathroom is down a long hallway, and separated by the laundry room, from Busse’s, which is usually filled with clothes.

This arrangement suits them both well.

“My style is reductionist. I am a bit fastidious,” says Kuwayama, 43, who spent around $1.9 million building the house over 3½ years, finishing in 2021.

“I am a mess monster,” says Busse, 38, who works for a home-building company. “Jason wanted me to have my own space that he didn’t have to see.”

The separation between the front of the house and the back was part of a larger scheme for the house, designed by Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling of Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects to help create privacy in a demographically dense location.

Kuwayama bought the long, narrow—24-foot-wide—infill lot for $35,000 from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. It sits tightly between two other houses and the setback is right up to the edge of the sidewalk, a requirement of the city aimed at preserving the neighbourhood’s character. Most of the other homes on the street are traditional, two-level structures with pitched roofs built as affordable housing a century ago—and most have the drapes drawn on their front windows to block prying eyes.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse outside their home.

To allow the same privacy as those drapes but still let in light, Johnsen Schmaling came up with an exterior facade that acts as an abstract curtain, with slanted fins made from a hybrid of wood and aluminium. The tightly spaced vertical louvers are installed at gradually rotating angles with various degrees of openness, in part to imitate the movement of curtains and to respond to whether there’s glass or solid wall behind it.

“It creates a sense of mystery,” says Brian Johnsen, whose firm dubbed it Curtain House. The fins also act as a sun-shading device to protect the home from overheating in the summer.

A courtyard, bracketed between the front two-story section and the back two-story section, acts both as a buffer and a source of light, since it is open to the sky. Light comes into the house through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that line the hallway along one side and the rooms (the kitchen one side, Busse’s game room on the other) on each end.

The main living area is open from the courtyard to the big windows and balcony that look over the river in back, also allowing in flood of light. The kitchen has a white island with an induction range and cabinets without hardware that open with a push, adding to the streamlined effect. The pantry is in back of the kitchen, also behind hardware-less doors.

The staircase, which leads both downstairs to the garage entry and a mud room and a cigar room and upstairs to the primary bedroom, has transparent glass panels supporting the tread on the ascending part, making the main floor feel wider and allowing a view of the river. The furniture is modern and sparse: a sea green Room & Board sofa, a glass Noguchi coffee table and a Barcelona chair.

Outside, the terrace is covered in fine grained rock and has a stairway with three platforms that leads down to the river. It has a pastoral feel, with trees and bushes fringing the property.

Kuwayama’s urban, modern, minimalist, open-plan, colour-free aesthetic is partly a revolt against his childhood home, a French chateau-style house in the Brookfield suburb of Milwaukee. His mother liked wallpaper and carpeting. His father leaned toward teak and Midcentury Modern art. The result was a compromise, with lots of small, separate rooms and bathrooms with their own colour (one avocado green, one brown and one pink).

Busse’s taste veers more toward traditional: an old manor with big wood banisters filled with knickknacks, she says. But she says she wasn’t interested in the design of the house because it was Kuwayama’s project from the start. Working for a home builder, she didn’t want to think about house plans when she was at home—and she wanted to move to a house with a big yard in the suburbs, she says.

Living in inner Milwaukee was also a form of rebellion for Kuwayama. He says when he was a teenager, growing up in the suburbs, it was implicit that he wasn’t to go downtown. After studying undergrad at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., he attended Marquette University Law School, right in downtown Milwaukee, and stayed there after he graduated, eventually buying a condo along the north side of the river, about a half mile from his new house.

The couple met in 2014 on $2 taco night at a local restaurant called BelAir Cantina, when Kuwayama and his friend bought drinks and food for Busse and her friend. Busse promised to meet him at the same place the following week, but never showed. A few weeks later, she saw him at a Starbucks. (Locals call the city “Smallwaukee” because running into people you know is so common). Kuwayama retaliatorily ignored her, but she tracked him down and asked him out.

Busse, along with her dog and cat, moved into Kuwayama’s 1,150-square-foot condo in 2016. They liked living together but the space was too small, says Kuwayama. “You could never get away from anybody. You couldn’t separate at all,” he says. He saw the lot for sale and negotiated the price down from $140,000 to $35,000, in part because the land was so difficult to build on, he says. Kuwayama says the city was supportive of his project, allowing variances, because it wants the neighbourhood to remain single family homes.

Milwaukee has been going through a process of urban revitalisation for decades. Once a centre of manufacturing, attracting immigrants from across the world, Milwaukee’s population hit a peak of 741,324 in 1960, making it the 11th-largest city in the country and a centre of brewing beer. The city was immortalised in the TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” about roommates who worked at a brewery there.

Like many Midwestern cities, Milwaukee was hit hard by the recession in the 1970s and 1980s, while at the same time many of the more affluent residents moved to the suburbs. Over a 30 year period, from 1970 to 2000, due to the relocation of industry and competition from emerging markets overseas, manufacturing employment plummeted by more than 77,000 jobs, and accounting for nearly 95% of all job loss in Milwaukee since 2000, according to the City of Milwaukee. The latest census puts the city’s population at 577,000.

In the 1990s, the city implemented its Riverwalk initiative, a 3-mile pedestrian path that goes along the Milwaukee River, connecting downtown to the Third Ward. The city estimates property values around the path have grown by $1.5 billion since 1993 and moves are under way to expand it.

Architecturally, the city hasn’t evolved as quickly. Polish Flat and German Duplex structures—two-family homes with one unit stacked on top of the other—still dominate the street where Kuwayama built his house. Homes in the area have been increasing in value, up around 25% over the past year as of October 2023, according to Redfin. A few blocks away, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,160-square-foot, 19th century house that was remodelled sold for $254,000 in September 2023, while a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,662-square-foot unit in a newly renovated condo building with a courtyard sold for $612,000 in July 2023.

Kuwayama says the reaction from people walking by his house (captured on security cameras) is mixed: Some love it, others are put off by the fins on the facade. One guy routinely takes dates through their back deck to their platforms overlooking the river. But he doesn’t mind. “I’m committed to the city of Milwaukee,” says Kuwayama. “Being accessible to the community is part of that.”


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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It’s a slam dunk as a covetable $2m KDR site complete with basketball court hits the market in the Hills District

The ball is in the buyer’s court with this knockdown/rebuild opportunity

Tue, Apr 18, 2023 2 min

Glenhaven in Sydney’s Hills District is one of those areas that locals tend to keep to themselves. Leafy with large blocks on offer, the suburb takes its name from its valley location, with the northern end originally known as the Glen and the southern end called the Haven. 

En route from Parramatta to the Hunter, Glenhaven has become an ideal place for growing families in search of a little more space, or even room to house several generations under one roof.

The challenge is finding properties that tick all the right boxes.

As demand for trades and supply chain issues continue to ease, now could be the right time for a knockdown/rebuild project for would-be buyers looking to create their dream home.

Fairmont Homes specialises in knockdown/rebuild projects in Sydney. General manager at Fairmont Homes, Daniel Logue, said there are key features to look for when choosing a knockdown/rebuild site.

“The key items we look for are the site falling to the street, not to the rear, to help with stormwater drainage as well as access to the site,” he said. “Neighbouring property front setbacks are also important. In some older areas, the older houses are set closer to the street, meaning your new home will have to be set to suit.

“Value for money and the return on the end sale price of the home is another issue.”

If possible, he said designing a home that meets the criteria of the Complying Development legislation will speed up approvals considerably.

While suitable knockdown/rebuild sites can be hard to find in Glenhaven, there are still hidden opportunities if you know where to look.

One block at 158 Gilbert Road, Glenhaven is ideally suited for rejuvenation. With almost 850sqm to play with, it slopes down to the street and sits between neighbouring properties that have already been stylishly updated.



An existing basketball court at the rear could provide the perfect teen backdrop to a family home, or it could make way for a larger house with landscaped gardens and pool. Alternatively, it could be the perfect position for a cabana or granny flat to serve as in-law accommodation or a source of secondary income.

With recent sales of completed homes in nearby streets reaching well above $5 million, it’s a great opportunity to make a slam dunk of a buy into one of Sydney’s best kept secrets.

Address: 158 Gilbert Road, Glenhaven
Price guide: $1.8 million
Inspection: By appointment only



This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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