Spotlight on a Neighbor

Eileen Hanley

Though a philosopher might argue that nothing truly happens accidentally, Arne and Marie Vedum stumbled upon the Concordia neighborhood late in 1997.  Accident or not, Arne and Marie would agree that it was opportune since Concordia is now their home and their livelihood.

Arne and Marie were house hunting that fall for a duplex or four-plex, not a single-family house, much less a mansion and an apartment building.  Nor were they looking for anything this far north since they both worked in Illinois.  On a whim, they detoured into Concordia one day and saw a single-family house (3303 W. Kilbourn Ave.) for sale.  Curious, they made an appointment to see the house.  It took their breath away -- they’d never seen anything like it.  Not wanting to make an impulsive decision, the next week was spent talking about the house and wondering if it was right for them.  They had some idea about the realities of urban living and acknowledging their apprehensions, they drove through the neighborhood every night after work.  Wanting to get the area’s pulse, they walked around and noticed fresh coats of paint, ladders against houses and well-tended yards.  Arne says it was almost a subliminal vibe that they felt -- admittedly subtle -- but it allayed their concerns.

They made an offer and won the house.  Though their appreciation and love of Concordia began with a house, the connection quickly intensified as they met neighbors and discovered an unexpected closeness and cohesion.  Arne had never experienced anything like it in his childhood hometown of Kenosha whereas Marie felt like she’d come home.  The friends she and Arne were making reminded her of the small town in Mississippi where she grew up, and the feeling that they could call on any of a number of people for anything at any time.

Arne and Marie’s new house was one of the Westside Coop houses so it didn’t need rehabbing.  Instead they were able to immediately begin enjoying their new home and spent their time landscaping, wallpapering and decorating.  Though they were enjoying their home, they didn’t feel they were helping to revitalize the area as they saw other neighbors doing.  Deep down, they really wanted to bring a building back from the brink of extinction.  Armed with the desire, they set about identifying a challenge to claim as their own.

Long having admired the Schuster Mansion (3209 W. Wells St.), they began talking with the owner.  During negotiations, he dealt them a possible deal breaker when he told them that if they wanted the Mansion, they also had to purchase the Wells Apartments – an 18-unit building at 3227 W. Wells.  Arne and Marie took a deep breath and dived in.  In September 2001, they became the owner of the Schuster Mansion, which consisted of several rental units, and the Wells Apartments.

Their first priority was to get the apartment building under control.  Arne evicted two-thirds of the tenants and began dealing with a monster boiler, roaches, fire escapes, etc.  Feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, he networked with other area landlords and credits Lorie Oliver for her mentoring as he developed his own management techniques.

Having now cleaned up most of the units, Arne faces the ongoing challenge of finding and keeping quality tenants.  Many of the large apartment buildings on Wells Street have not been well managed in recent years so when he screens and qualifies a person, they often decide not to rent because of the activity in nearby buildings.  And if a really thorough potential renter calls the police district, they lose that person every time because of what they are told.  Bemoaning that attitude, Arne is doing all he can to change that image by having developed a solid, friendly relationship with the beat cops.  Arne is also hopeful that the recent turnover of ownership and management of 12 buildings on Wells is a harbinger of improvement.  Arne’s hard work and diligence is beginning to pay off with about 65-70% occupancy.  In August 2003, he was able to leave his position at Abbott.

In addition to the apartment building, which they’ve renamed the Admiral Apartments, Arne and Marie have also been working hard on the Schuster Mansion.  The Mansion, designed by Crane & Barkhausen, was built in 1891 by George and Mary Schuster.  After George’s death in 1922, Mary sold the home to developers who converted it to the Redstone Apartments in 1924.  The first year, Arne and Marie retained the tenants and lived in a small unit on the first floor.  As leases expired, they reclaimed the units and studied the 1924 structural changes.  They studied other houses designed by the same architect to determine the norm of what would have been.  Their goal, to bring the Mansion back to the grandeur and glory it once knew, will be accomplished by turning it into a bed and breakfast.  In the past two years, they’ve redone the kitchen, two parlors, and three suites, and they’ve drawn up detailed plans for the balance of the suites.  The Schuster Mansion Bed & Breakfast Suites officially opened in November; it is the fifth B&B in Concordia, which is Milwaukee’s B&B District.

Opening a new business is not the only major change in their lives this year -- Arne and Marie welcomed their first child, Valyrie Leigh, in August.  Starting a family, however, has not changed their positive outlook on Concordia.  It’s important to them that their daughter will grow up in a diverse neighborhood.  And they are happy about the number of young children in the neighborhood today as compared to a few short years ago.  In addition, little Valyrie has lots of loving, surrogate aunts and uncles amongst their Concordia friends and neighbors.

As they reflect on the problems and battles of the last three years, they agree that they probably had a rather vague clue about what they were getting into.  Through it all they’ve maintained their positive attitude by leaning on each other.  And they acknowledge how fortunate they are to be surrounded by supportive friends and neighbors.  Together, Arne and Marie have forged a path to where they now feel they couldn’t be in a better position.  They have a great house that they loved from afar for several years.  As Arne says, “these houses were made for entertaining, and they should be filled with people and laughter.  And it’s reassuring to have reached a point where we’re getting confirmation from others that maybe we really haven’t lost our minds.”  Arne and Marie’s pride and pleasure is evident, and justifiable, as they work to restore beauty and life to a piece of Milwaukee’s history.  Though they “accidentally” found Concordia, Arne and Marie wholeheartedly agree that they’ve ended up exactly where they were meant to be.