conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Urban landscaper
Artist turns rooftop into a true green living space


July 2011

The spacious rooftop of the Walkerís Point building where Jenny Espenscheid lives provides a versatile space for entertaining, working, gardening and playing. The space includes an artistís studio, playground and lots of homegrown fruits and veggies. Nearly the entire space is built and decorated with found objects.

Jenny Espenscheid enjoys looking out at the city skyline from the roof of the Walkerís Point building in which she lives, but spends most of her outdoor time looking inward at the lush garden, playground, work and gathering space she has created in its 4,000 square feet. Here her two young daughters, Veda, 4, and Nika, nearly 2, ride bikes, play tag, swim, swing and snag apples from the trees. Espenscheid, an architect and artist, orchestrates found objects and organic materials for functional and aesthetic uses. Her creativity has led to other "green" commissions, including a design for planters for the city of Milwaukee and Third Ward courtyard. "Itís really exciting to take what Iíve learned ó itís been a series of experiments really ó and apply it practically to other spaces," she says. "You can do green and be environmentally friendly in a very useful and very cool way."

Q. How does the space function?

The whole garden is filled with little spaces for doing different things. There are a couple hundred square feet for the artwork ó the heavy, dirty, anything I need carving or spraying. The bulk of it is playground for Hot Wheels, bikes, games and stuff. There are "roads" so the kids can ride their bikes around and play hide and seek. They do a lot of weeding, although they pull a lot of actual plants out. They are "helping," and it keeps them busy and makes naptime longer. The back corner is where I do the composting. Every year I just mix the compost in with the rest of it. There are morning doves and frogs and unfortunately a couple of squirrels I had to do battle with and lost last year before winter kind of took over. I guess Iíll call it a stalemate. (This year) I just have to be smarter than the squirrels.

Q. What is the mood of the rooftop?

It is probably like my style, very collective, a lot of found objects. The rule was to just use materials I came across and had, and not to spend a lot of money on it. I built a sun shade made all out of scrap. It is about reusing and having fun with what you have.

Q. If this were a work of art, what would it be?

I would call it a quilt, sort of a contemporary and organic quilt. Itís set up rather geometrically, yet it transforms over the season. What at one time looks very angular, by the end of the summer looks overgrown. Itís partially contrived, but itís also nature taking over and the compost doing what it is supposed to do.

For more information on artist Jenny Espenscheid, go to

Q. What is your favorite time of the day to be on the rooftop?

Morning. The kids get up early, sometimes even before dawn, and the light is coming over the lake. Itís just such a gentle awakening, sort of dewy, the doves cooing. Itís very peaceful, especially on weekends. You wouldnít know you are in the city.

Q. What are some of the plantings you have used?

Evergreens are easy, maple trees, an apple tree that had two seasons already. Trees have done really, really well. I have a great big magnolia that I put inside every year. Itís really happy there in the summer. If the soil is good, (the trees) donít need a lot. There is a tree out there thatís at least 20 feet tall. Tomatoes just go crazy. I have squash, kale, kohlrabi and cabbage, and sunflowers and seed flowers for the kids. Some of the veggies I start inside and some I buy as little babies. They all end up being the same size. Anything that is bite-sized ó snap peas, cherry tomatoes, little apples that the kids can just pick and eat as they are running around. Youíve got to make it practical. I wanted chickens but that hasnít happened. Iíve got to draw the line somewhere ó for now.

Q. How did a girl who grew up on a ranch in South Dakota and a farm in Wisconsin come to be a full-fledged city girl?

Well, I think either way you have to evolve, whether on ranch or in the city. Iíve thought about this a lot. Things are very exciting in different ways in both places. I could never do the middle, though. It has got to be urban or country.


This story ran in the July 2011 issue of: