Laura Marshall sits in the dining room of her pristine north side ranch-style home. Hardwood floors and chandeliers grace the house’s welcoming interior; but, less than three years ago, no one could have imagined what it would become.
The space, which Marshall and her husband Greg nicknamed ‘Mold Palace,’ was in disrepair — there was no heat, no plumbing, plants protruded from the gutters and it needed a new roof. “We basically bought a brick shell,” says Marshall. “The house was so bad — the only place it could go was up.”
But, for Marshall, who’s from an unincorporated town called Kieler right on the border of Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, restoration isn’t anything new. “To be a contributor to … [the] restoration of things that are beautiful, whether they be a busted-up home or a broken marriage or the inner workings of a neighborhood that used to be really vibrant and beautiful … to contribute and bring beauty back into those spaces, that’s kind of the center of where my passions lie,” she says.
Marshall says she had “just a real simple upbringing” in a large extended family — her father’s side had 14 — most of whom are still there. Cousins served both as playmates and friends and they lived in a house “surrounded by cornfields and pastures.”
This is where Marshall got her first taste of community — the large family and long-time neighbors. She says they spent a lot of time on the farm where her father grew up, which his brother eventually took over.
“They had pigs, some cows, they had a hay loft, hay swing. I mean, it was pretty much an awesome place for a kid to just wander around and, you know, get dirty and do fun stuff like that,” says Marshall.
Her parents, who have been married for more than 40 years, are still there. “That’s where they feel at home,” says Marshall. “They value stability … and having those kinds of relationships.”
Kieler was home until 7th grade when Marshall moved to Platteville. She went to high school there and, afterwards, came to Milwaukee to attend college at UWM. It was there that she met Greg. They were both English majors but, eventually, he dropped out to pursue a full-time career in music.
Marshall, who is trained as a psychologist, said they talked, early on, about “leaving room for adventure” and being available and open to new things. “We just always liked the idea of trying new things and leaving room for the unexpected,” she says. “Our lives aren’t this thing that will always be constant.”
“I see a lot of beauty in the restoration and the bringing back of wholeness into relationships. That’s where my hope and faith come in because … that’s how the story does end.”
At that point, Greg was in Madison and she was still in Milwaukee. They were operating on the income of one full-time position. “We were certainly limited by finances but I found, just looking online, that there were tons of houses available in Milwaukee that looked nice … and were within our price range.”
At first, the realtor they found wouldn’t take Marshall to see any of the houses she had found. “He kept bringing me to other areas, to homes that I was not, at all, interested in,” she says.
Eventually, though, they found a different realtor, Shar Borg. The first house they looked at didn’t pan out — “It looked way, way better in the pictures,” she says — but, then, Borg took them to see “this blue house” on 46th and Center. Then, Borg invited the couple over for dinner. “Is this urban Mayberry? What is this place?” Marshall recalls she thought to herself.
Borg and her family had been in the neighborhood for seven years. There were some fresh faces and some who had been in the neighborhood forever. “They were just talking about how the community is really intentionally and really vibrant,” said Marshall. “It was a good schpiel but what really sold us was, while we were there, neighbors were just … stopping in.”
So the young couple moved to Milwaukee’s central city, a decision others might have balked at. But, for Marshall, it was a welcome change. “I was currently living in a … more rural, country area and I was starving for relationships and for those spontaneous interactions,” she says.
They initially decided to stay in the house for three to five years; the family ended up living in the home, which was eventually dubbed “Blue on Center,” for six. Marshall says the house was very special to her. “It was a place where I felt like I really became passionate about bringing beauty,” she says.
The experience was something new for Marshall but it was an experience that helped her find a new sense of community, one she hadn’t known before. ‘I can’t say, as a kid, that I felt lonely or anything like that … but we certainly didn’t have neighbors who were dropping in.”
“The way I’m wired, I like the spontaneity of interactions,” Marshall says.
Marshall says her neighbors were “the kind of people who show up,” which creates an environment where people support each other on a constant basis. “I think that’s how we were designed to live — we were designed to live in community.”
“How boring would it be if everyone just did everything the exact same way as me? How would I, at all, grow or be stretched or be informed about another person’s perspective? I wouldn’t.”
It doesn’t take a specific type of person — Marshall doesn’t think of herself as particularly outgoing. “I’m not out in my front yard waving at everyone or anything like that,” she says, adding that all it takes for community to happen is for people to simply make themselves available.
And, the community doesn’t need to be made up of the same type of people, either.
“I have a lot of neighbors that I am different from, that are different from me, and that’s cool. I like that we can discuss who we’re going to elect for our next president or who we’re going to vote for Common Council or how we’re going to raise our kids,” she says. “We might not agree at all … but I like their perspective, I like that I had the opportunity to have that conversation.”
Laura says living in community gives her a feeling of meaning and having roots, something she doesn’t think can be easily replaced. And, the random, spontaneous interactions were plentiful, as well. “I think that is what people are looking for.”
But, it’s even more than that, says Marshall. “We just want to know that we’re significant, we want to know that we’re valued, we want to know that we’re important — I think that’s how humans are designed. We crave belonging.”
“She felt like our daughter”
There are more foster children in Milwaukee County than families that can take them, says Laura. That and the fact that she’s “not terribly fond of being pregnant” entered into the decision for the Marshalls to look into the possibility of adopting. They were licensed within six months; and then the waiting started.
The point of the foster care system is to reunite, so there is no guarantee that a couple will be able to keep the child they’ve been given to care for. Still, it was worth a try.
“They called, I had a piece of junk mail in front of me … and I’m just scribbling notes in the margin,” Marshall says. “She was the ninth baby and all of the other children except for two had already been adopted and the two who were in foster care were already on that track.”
She was 15 days old; They didn’t know much more. “They said, ‘We need to find a home for this baby by 5 — you have to call us back in 30 minutes.’”
Laura called Greg, they talked and made the decision. When they went in that night, the baby was handed over, with little to no fanfare. “It felt weird — almost like a business transaction,” she says.
Twice a week, the child had supervised visits with her birth parents. “She would be picked up by a visitation worker and, her two siblings that were also in foster care, all three of them would go together and then they’d bring her home afterwards,” says Marshall.
What Laura thought would be a relatively short process of six to eight months became much longer. The child’s birth father is Native American so his tribe had to sign off on the deal and a sister of her birth mother, who lived in Arkansas and “easily could have gotten her,” felt that the young girl should stay where she was.
Both of the girl’s birth parents had mental health concerns and issues with drug use, which had caused them to neglect some of their older children; Luckily, the young child was spared. Then, about a year after she had been with the Marshalls, her mother started to improve and there was a chance she might go home with mom.
Ultimately, though, about a year after that, a judge terminated the parents’ rights. “It was over two years before we were able to adopt her.”
That in-between time, waiting and waiting, not knowing what would happen was tough for Laura, too. “It was weird because it was like, ‘If we adopt her, that means that mom failed and that her life is still broken,’” she says. “But, at the same time, if she gets better, she’s gonna take my baby … talk about cognitive dissonance.”
Even at this point, Marshall doesn’t think of herself as an adoptive mom. She just hasn’t been able to identify with any of the groups or books. “I think … I’m just a mom,” she says. “I’m just trying to do the best I can for these kids.”
“I just want to live meaningfully”
By this time, Laura and her husband had three children and there was one more on the way. It was time to start thinking about moving on from the little blue house that had been such a big part of their lives.
Living with meaning and intention is something that’s important to Marshall, both personally and when it comes to her kids. “I want them to just think about what healthy relationships look like and what a flourishing family looks like and what a flourishing community looks like,” she says. “And, I want to create that desire in them (to live meaningfully) that they will recognize it when they see it and that they will go for it.”
It was time for a change of scenery. The home they would eventually move into was just around the corner from where they had been for almost six years. They’d never noticed it before; the place, which had been bought cheap as a foreclosure, had been boarded up for a couple years.
But their realtor, Shar Borg, who had shown them the first house and had grown close with Laura over the years, lived down the block. “Shar knew the owner and, even though it wasn’t for sale, took us through it. And, oh my gosh, this house was crazy,” says Marshall. “It was boarded up, it was really dark in here.”
The house was messy. A piano, cabinets and countertops littered the interior but they had an inspector come through, anyway. “Is the foundation good? That’s what we wanted him to tell us.”
In September 2012, the couple made an offer. They never heard back; so, they kept looking. But in February of the next year they, “basically wrote the same offer and, this time, the seller said ‘yes.’”
“The house didn’t have heat (radiators were taken out) … it didn’t really have plumbing, there were plants growing out of the gutters, it needed a roof. We basically bought a brick shell.”
They closed on dark, rainy day. Then, the doubt set in. “That’s how the blog started, really, was just to show the progress of the house,” says Laura, adding it was really just for friends and family.
She says it took “six or seven” dumpsters full of garbage to clear the basement. They had to remediate the mold. In the end, Marshall wanted to “honor the oldness” of the house. “We didn’t want to gut it,” she says.
They only ended up taking down half of the wall between the kitchen and dining room. “Everything else, we kept,” Laura says. “I love old houses. I love big old built-in things and the molding and even the small rooms — I think it’s nice to have defined spaces versus one giant, vacuous space.”
There was a time, though, between moving out of their old house and into the new one that was trying. The house wasn’t finished on schedule and the family of five had to get a two-bedroom apartment in Sussex. For Greg, it was an hour and a half drive to work. Laura, who was well along at this point, would often make the half-hour drive in normal traffic to work on the home.
“We moved in on a Saturday in August and, then, baby number four was born on Monday,” she says. “So, we brought her home, the house still wasn’t done, we didn’t have a kitchen and there was just sawdust everywhere … that was probably the hardest point, for me.”
But, after six months of living in a “construction zone” and about two years worth of renovations, it all paid off. “I think I always had my eye on the prize,” she says. “This house, this is my fifth baby.”
“Bringers” and “discoverers”
Restoration has always been in Laura’s bones. It started as a child, in games with her sister. Then, there was a car, the first physical project. She thought, “This makes sense. Why wouldn’t I buy something for a reasonable price, fix it up better than it was before?”
Marshall says, “I think that’s just how I’m made.”
She is passionate about “bringing beauty” to whatever she’s in. “People hear about what happens on the city’s northwest side — it’s just lumped in this category of ‘awful’ — but here I am … and I want to tell people about what I’ve discovered here and how amazing it’s been for me and for my family and for this neighborhood and how it’s enriched our lives.”
“I’m not a dreamer, I’m extremely practical. I’m an extremely practical person,” says Laura.
“I know what it is (to live in the central city),” she says. “And, what it is is not what people are seeing on the news. I know that my neighbors are my community and that I am theirs and that we are doing something significant and meaningful together … and that is amazing.”
“I want to flourish, I want my family to flourish, I want my daughters to flourish. And, I think that this gives us a really amazing context for that.”
Marshall is inspired by beauty, which she finds in love and happiness, and she wants to share that with others. “My home is not a fortress that keeps people away; my home is meant for people to enjoy, it’s meant for my neighbors and my family to enjoy.”
“I want people to live whole and meaningful lives — I think that’s what we crave. We crave … significance and … belonging,” adding that she looks for that understanding in the individuals around her.
“People are difficult sometimes; I’m difficult sometimes. But it’s worth it — it’s worth pressing through. And, I’m not gonna sit here and say [it’s] all sunshine and rainbows,” Laura says. “That’s not the way the world is — but we’re all here with intent … so, what’re you gonna do with that?”
“I’m excited about the adventure that we’re on and what it will unfold into,” says Marshall.
She says she wants to help people “re-think either how they live in their community, how they view living in a central city or how they view Milwaukee.”
“I want my family to continue to explore how we can bring beauty into our … neighborhood, our spaces,” says Marshall. “I just want to be a good mom, I want to be a good friend, I want to be awesome today.”
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