A New Gallery in Racine, Wisconsin, Plays off Its Historic Brick Surroundings

OS Projects, which includes a ground-floor gallery with studio space above, responds to the surrounding street grid with a clever cantilever.
OS projects gallery racine

The new OS Projects space in Racine, Wisconsin. Courtesy John J. Macaulay

Driving into downtown Racine, Wisconsin, you can’t miss Johnsen Schmaling Architects’ new OS Projects gallery. Occupying the end of a block filled with storefronts and row houses of 19th-century masonry, the building features expansive windows, bronze panels, second-story louvers, and a sharp cantilever. All this will snap you out of the bucolic if mildly shabby tenor set by the surrounding beer-hall brick, which evinces the area’s German heritage. But OS is no tabula rasa alien arrival. In the vestibule, past its brilliant yellow door—flush with the facade, nearly unnoticeable—is a peephole with a silver button. Press it and squint, and you’ll see a magnified photo of a painted sign (“Stoll’s Bar—Save . . . on Bottle Goods”) that was on a neighbor’s wall, now covered by the new gallery. Replicating this sign, and building the gallery itself, are fond affirmations of the cultural vitality of this city of 78,000 between Milwaukee and Chicago. 

Such affirmations are the work of Vera Scekic and Robert Osborne, OS’s founders. Scekic, a painter and Racine native, commissioned studio space atop a ground-floor gallery dedicated to regional artists. Her previous studio was shoehorned into commercial office space (former GOP congressman Paul Ryan’s constituent services office, she notes with considerable irony), and she’s thankful for the 30-foot built-in table that Johnsen Schmaling designed. “I do a lot of my work on the floor,” she says. “There’s a lot of pouring involved, and sanding. Setting this table up is going to save my back.”

The transitions between the new gallery and the town-square brick du jour are sharpened by differing materials but contained within the neighborhood’s intimate scale. A border outline of dark-gray stucco defines its cantilevered second story, while white concrete bricks in bas-relief offset patterns emulate the surrounding masonry, like that at the Racine German Club, founded in 1894, which the studio’s rear deck overlooks. 

OS Projects, sitting on an intensely urban site, is defined by the street grid. One off-axis street forms an acute angle, and while the gallery is purely rectilinear, the studio above cantilevers out to fill the geometry. For this, Scekic and Osborne had to purchase air rights—a first for the city. “I think we paid them $500,” Osborne says.

That small fee—and the gallery itself—is an investment in quality design for the arts community of Racine, despite years of Rust Belt neglect and mileage to the nearest validated cultural capital. Sebastian Schmaling of the Milwaukee-based firm says he wants the gallery to be a new “cultural anchor” for Racine: “We’ve always been skeptical of the notion that just because you’re a third-tier place, the quality of the work matches that third tier.”

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Categories: Cultural Architecture