By Shelby Deering | Photography by Shanna Wolf
Since the early 20th century, a large building in downtown Lake Geneva, adjacent to the White River, has had a quiet presence. It’s experienced several incarnations over the years, including a
bridal shop, an office, among others. Even though its location on West Main Street is one of the busiest areas in the city, many could not describe it. Once white and nondescript, with loose siding and visible wear and tear, it was an easy, unassuming drive-by.
Today, the building is living out its next act, as an eclectic-chic vacation rental perfectly suited to sizeable groups and families. As you pass by, it’s now next to impossible to miss this modern masterpiece.
Aptly-named The Downtowner, the vacation rental is the brainchild of Tisha Erdman and her husband, Doug, who have a lengthy and impressive history of breathing new life into old buildings.
A LOVE FOR VINTAGE PROPERTIES
Tisha Erdman’s focus has been in retail for nearly two decades. While her husband, a real estate developer, restored and revived parts of his native Fort Atkinson, Tisha put her energy into creating shopping destinations with a vintage, funky vibe — hence the name of her retail venture, I Love Funky’s. Tisha first opened a location in Fort Atkinson that included a restaurant and then opened a second shop in Lake Geneva. Both boutiques were famous for their offbeat, quirky antique pieces.
When business slowed after the recession, the couple decided they needed a change of pace. Over time, they closed the doors on their shops and the restaurant. Ever the go-getters, the two decided to pursue a new career together: creating, designing and overseeing vacation rentals.
Since the couple had always loved Lake Geneva, they decided to purchase a local property that included an adjacent building. Tisha says, “It was just my husband and me. Our kids are grown, and we didn’t know what to do with that garage. That’s when I said, ‘You know, there’s this new thing called Airbnb.’”
They converted the garage into two apartments, but the couple wanted to explore other possibilities. They sold that property with the hopes of discovering properties that better fit their personalities and goals.
That’s when they bought Roses Bed & Breakfast on South Lake Shore Drive. Located only three blocks from downtown, the historic dwelling is now called South Shore House. In 2016, the home was completely renovated and overflows with Tisha’s flair for eye-catching, vintage décor.
The vacation rental bug had clearly bitten Tisha and Doug. Shortly after launching South Shore House, they began searching for a commercial building. Tisha says they spotted a “dilapidated office building” in the downtown business district and couldn’t get over its ideal location. “We thought, ‘Oh my gosh. How great would this be to put something right downtown where nobody has to drive?’ That’s how it started.”
RISING ABOVE CHALLENGES
The Erdmans knew that restoring the downtown building wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Over the winter, the heat had been shut off, which resulted in frozen pipes and flooding. There were partitions and dropped ceilings since it had once been an office building. “It was really a mess,” Tisha says.
Architect Ryan Schultz of Madison’s OpeningDesign admits that it probably would have been easier to tear the building down. But there were parts of the structure that were worth keeping, like the striking ceiling rafters and sturdy iron beams. Tisha says, “We wanted to try to keep some of the history of the building. I think that’s a cool part of the story.”
From the initial design to the last nail, the renovation process took 11⁄2 years. Construction started in May 2017, and the team, which included several local tradesmen, knew they were in for some heavy lifting.
With an objective to maintain the footprint of the 4,000-square-foot structure, Schultz explains that they removed the south, east and north exterior walls and replaced them with heavy timbers. The siding was removed and swapped with a layer of ash siding that created subtle patterning.
Walls were knocked down inside, transforming the interior from a utilitarian office setting to a more open floor plan befitting a vacation rental. One of Tisha’s goals was to have a living room and kitchen on the second floor so guests could enjoy views of the Samuel Donian Wetland Preserve and the White River, which they made a reality.
The team also wanted to create interiors that would lend themselves to Tisha’s style and décor choices. According to Schultz, this was achieved by contrasting the modern exterior with the “salvaged chic” interior.
He adds, “I wanted to create a modern tapestry of sorts, to highlight Tisha’s talent for interior design and her sensitive curation of salvaged goods.”
DÉCOR WITH A STORY
With a total of nine bedrooms and 3,500 square feet of finished space, Tisha had her work cut out for her when she set out to style The Downtowner. As the owner of I Love Funky’s, she knew where to score the best vintage around and successfully decorated the vacation rental top-to-bottom with eclectic finds.
“We incorporated a lot of fun and funky antiques,” Tisha says. “We wanted to keep it really humorous and light.”
The result is a decorative mix that delights the eye, a blend of what Tisha calls “urban industrial” and “cozy and fun.” She adds that the furnishings and antiques help to soften the industrial feel of the interiors.
She elaborates, saying, “I’m always most comfortable doing things that are funky. I think that a funky mix of antiques is a great contrast to the industrial, hard-edged interior.”
It’s likely that guests book The Downtowner for its convenient location and its charming décor. Ornate oil paintings grace the walls alongside stainless- steel heat ducts and original wood beams. Well-loved vintage signs act as artwork. And the light fixtures, a combination of modern and retro, steal the show.
Each bedroom has its own distinct atmosphere. Although Tisha says she’s not big on theming, she wanted to give the bedrooms their own personalities, something that clearly shines through with one-of-a-kind headboards. To make them look offbeat and visually-appealing, she gathered atypical materials, such as gaudy, groovy records; boat oars; an antique fence; 1940’s linoleum flooring; and even a bygone sporting clays sign.
Tisha uncovered many pieces of décor for the vacation rental at the Elkhorn Flea Market as well as Lake Geneva’s 281 Sheridan Springs, an estate consignment liquidator, that is a another vintage treasure trove.
Tisha and Doug were extremely inventive when it came to finding unexpected accents to bring into The Downtowner. For instance, the industrial light fixture above the dining room table was a DIY creation made by Doug using a hook he found near a barn and additional pieces discovered in the field of an industrial park. It hangs over a 16-foot-long table that Tisha covered with pennies.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
The Downtowner is geared toward large groups with something to celebrate. It can sleep up to 20 people, which is ideal for family reunions, corporate meetings, birthdays, weddings, and anniversary parties.
“I would say that 50% of our guests book The Downtowner for family reunions,” Tisha shares. Guests have been known to travel from New York, California and even Switzerland to stay at the vacation rental.
There are several amenities that create a comfortable experience for guests. Nearly every bedroom has a bathroom, a rarity in the vacation rental world. Showers are outfitted with luxe rain shower heads. Plus each bedroom has a flat-screen TV. There’s a full-service kitchen outfitted with two refrigerators, something that Tisha says is “really helpful for large groups of people.” In addition, you’ll find essentials like air conditioning, provided linens, wireless Internet, and a washer and dryer. The property is also pet-friendly. The Downtowner’s location is ideal, to say the least. Situated within walking distance of the lake and West Main Street shopping, it’s just over a five-minute walk to The Riviera, a popular wedding destination. Guests find that they infrequently need to use their cars during their stay.
Visitors also soak up the outdoors while staying at The Downtowner. The White River runs alongside the vacation rental while the nearby wetland preserve is within eyeshot. A patio complete with colorful chairs and a grill was made for balmy summer nights.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
As the owners of two vacation homes, the Erdmans have now set their sights on a third rental located on Highway 50 — the one-time White Swan Inn. With its serene, wooded surroundings, this vacation rental has a different feel from The Downtowner and will feature 11 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms. Its official opening is set for spring 2020.
The couple is currently living in the inn as renovations are underway. They don’t have any plans to open additional vacation rentals, and they are enjoying their new lives in Lake Geneva. “We’d like to plant our feet here. This is going to be our future,” Tisha says.
She goes on to say that she’s very proud of The Downtowner and everything that was accomplished through the project. She reflects on the vacation home, saying, “There just aren’t that many properties where you can sleep 20 people, and you can walk everywhere. The little creek that runs behind the building is really beautiful, too. It truly is a great place to spend a vacation.”