This article was featured in our December 2014 issue of BUILDER Magazine.

Julilly Kohler’s commitment to community activism stems from her family tree. 

Her grandfather, Walter, son of Kohler Co. founder John Michael, was a visionary community planner in addition to helping run the family business. Julilly grew up in Kohler Village, the town Walter founded with the help of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Built in 1913 to house factory workers, it was one of the country’s first planned communities and its small town charm is still enjoyed today by residents, tourists, and employees of the giant plumbing manufacturer.

“My grandfather had a deep belief that your surroundings make up what kind of community you have,” Kohler says. “He believed in a rose garden for every house, with lots of parks and reasons for people to get outside.”

As a young girl, Kohler witnessed firsthand the importance of her grandfather’s efforts at placemaking—before anyone called it that. “It’s really just all about figuring out what gets people up off their couches,” she says.

Like her grandfather, Kohler believes in the power of strong communities to improve residents’ lives. After graduating from law school she moved to Milwaukee and fell in love with the city’s older neighborhoods, especially the part of town known as Little Italy, a vibrant working-class community dating to the late 1800s about 10 blocks from the downtown business district. Through the years it was home to German, Polish, and then Italian immigrants and later became a bohemian enclave similar to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

The Brady Street neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the work of community activists like Julilly Kohler.
The Brady Street neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the work of community activists like Julilly Kohler.

“It had such charm and fun—great grocery stores, a vegetable truck that came by two times a week, churches, restaurants, and butcher stores,” ideally located between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, Kohler says.

By the late 1970s the area began to decline but Kohler hardly noticed because she so adored its urban charm. She realized how bad things were when she opened an art gallery there in 1982.

“On opening day I realized that despite a wonderful new Italian restaurant there, many buildings were shuttered and empty,” she says. Never one to shrink from a challenge, Kohler set her sights on revitalizing the area, both as a private developer and as a member of the city’s planning commission. After she bought her first building for $26,000 and rehabbed it she was hooked.  “I found myself learning about the process by doing—and loving it,” she says. 

Kohler worked alongside other local advocates for years to help bring the Brady Street neighborhood back to life, including former mayor John Norquist, a staunch supporter of urban renewal who recently headed the Congress for New Urbanism. They worked tirelessly to block a wholesale buyout of small houses by large developers who planned to tear them down. Those types of sales were averted when the planning commission approved a historic designation for the neighborhood. 

One of the community's most impressive residential projects is one that Kohler developed, Kane Commons, which encompasses eight three-story buildings on a 0.5-acre site overlooking the Milwaukee River. 

The development’s 12 units, designed by architect Russell LaFrombois III, range in size from 1,200 square feet to 3,300 square feet and are built around a common courtyard with sustainable features such as renewable energy systems and green roofs. Kohler lives in the most sustainable one in the cluster, a geothermal-powered straw bale house that embodies her belief in living lightly on the land. The whimsical dwelling features floors made of repurposed high school gym bleachers, recycled stone flooring, bookshelves fashioned from reclaimed lumber, and a staircase composed of salvaged bridge trestles. The toilets reuse water from tank-mounted handwashing sinks. 

The neighborhood’s redevelopment has drawn many new residents to the once-blighted area—people who share Kohler and her grandfather’s vision for vibrant urban living. Today, the eclectic area is filled with coffee houses, nightclubs, restaurants, and vintage clothing stores. 

“I’m really interested in all the things that help a city renew itself, and I’ve learned that it has to be done one neighborhood at a time,” she says.