New firm reflects Ehrlich’s goal of following in father’s footsteps
When Michael Ehrlich was still in high school, he enjoyed helping out at his father Paul’s Port Washington architectural office, just like each of his six siblings.
As it turned out, Michael ended up being the only one in that next generation who gave the profession much more than passing consideration.
Today, Ehrlich is CEO and director of architecture for a newly formed architectural and engineering firm, 6E6S Architects in Port Washington.
“When I was young, I would help clean up around the office and run plans for my dad. Because I was the only one of the kids who expressed any interest in his work, my dad took the time to explain the process to me and took me to job sites,” Ehrlich said.
He said he was always fascinated by the role architects played in turning paper plans into buildings.
Just as importantly, he said, he was in awe of the impact his father had on his hometown through his work with Ehrlich, Genson and Associates.
“Whenever our family would have guests from out of town come to visit, my dad would drive them around and point out the buildings he helped design,” Ehrlich said.
“When you look around, a lot of what you see in Port Washington is a legacy to the work my dad did. He has left big shoes to fill.”
The younger Ehrlich hopes he is up to the challenge.
Ehrlich earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota, gaining licenses in that state and Wisconsin.
“I had a lot of growing up to do, and going to school in the Twin Cities really helped,” he said.
Ehrlich toyed with the idea of coming home to practice his new trade, but still had some big dreams.
“I envisioned building skyscrapers and big buildings,” he said, a challenge he realized was unlikely to be met back in Port.
He took the position of senior architectural designer with LHB Engineers and Architects in Minnesota. The firm specialized in designing health-care facilities, and he worked on projects in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Illinois and Wisconsin.
“None of the projects turned out to be skyscrapers but there were some pretty impressive buildings, including a United Healthcare Hospital in St. Paul that turned out beautifully,” Ehrlich said.
After five years of seasoning, Ehrlich took a job with the regional engineering firm Bonestroo, Rosene, Anderlik & Associates and then Jordan Architects, both in St. Paul.
In 2004, he returned to Port Washington as project manager with Haag Müller Architects, where he stayed until June.
At Haag Müller, Ehrlich began working on projects that have enhanced the Ozaukee County landscape.
Over the past nine years, he worked on several high profile public projects, including expansions of the Port Washington police and fire department buildings and the relocation of the senior center to the former church that once housed Franklin Energies.
Ehrlich said he got a special kick out of helping design the bell tower that was erected on the grounds of St. Peter of Alcantara Catholic Church, a building his father designed.
He has also been involved in the plans for the Duluth Trading Company store on Franklin Street. The store was created in the former Smith Bros. restaurant.
Ehrlich has embraced his hometown at many other levels, winning election to the city’s Common Council and serving as a member of the Main Street Program Design Committee.
Despite that growing level of success with a highly respected design business, Ehrlich said he felt drawn to the idea of starting up his own firm.
“I got a lot of advice from my father, who warned me that such a move would mean working long hours for little pay. He has been very good about telling me what he thinks, although usually not unless asked,” he said.
Despite the warning, the attraction of starting something new wouldn’t go away.
“I had set some specific requirements I wanted to meet before going off on my own, things I wanted to have in place to give me a level of comfort,” Ehrlich said.
Topping that list was having a major client lined up, a role filled when the Port Washington Historical Society approached him with the concept of rehabilitating the old Businessman’s Club building on Franklin Street into a museum.
With the encouragement of a silent partner, Ehrlich started 6E6S Architects this summer. The name is a reference to the six members of his family and the six members in the family of his anonymous partner.
A third colleague, Tim Mentink, who has 28 years experience in residential development, also came to 6E6S from Haag Müller.
“Tim has been a good counterpoint for me. He tends to keep me in line and forces me to rethink things, which is a great thing to have on the team,” Ehrlich said.
The firm has been working on the restoration of the former Lueptow’s Furniture store, which has been purchased by New York financier Daniel Ewig, a former Port Washington resident.
“I think it is exciting to see the things happening in Port with the Boerner Building (the Lueptow’s store), Duluth Trading Company and the museum. They are going to have a huge impact on the community,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Ehrlich turns a blind eye to the challenges various sites in the city pose.
“As an alderman and a member of Main Street, I have always been very pro-Port Washington. It is walking a fine line, but professionally I have to keep the needs of the client in mind first. If a site isn’t a good fit, I will be the first to let them know,” Ehrlich said.
Although he said nothing is set in stone, he hopes his firm remains small enough — no more than 10 employees — to remain readily responsive to clients.
“The work of an architect can be highly technical in nature, but it also requires a great deal of creativity. What I enjoy most is that every project is different. Each building requires you to learn something new about the processes the client uses and their needs,” Ehrlich said.
“The day I think I know everything about the business is the day I need to retire.”
That day appears to be a long way off.
Image Information: The landmark building is being converted into a museum by the Port Washington Historical Society. Ehrlich reviewed plans with designer Tim Mentink in the offices of 6E6S Architects in Port Washington. Photo by Mark Jaeger