St. Rita Church has stood in Milwaukee’s Lower East side since the 1930s, serving as a heart of the local Italian American community.

Over the years, the church, along with a long-vacant school and adjoined convent, had fallen into disrepair. In 2016, Jim Tarantino, a longstanding member of the church and the founder and principal of Capri Communities (Waukesha, Wis.), which operates senior living campuses across Southern Wisconsin, began discussions with the archdiocese about the church’s preservation.

“Prior to Capri’s involvement, the future of the church was not certain,” he says. “The parish was considering a proposal to sell the property to a nonprofit, faith-based developer whose plan was to raze the church to make room for their development.”

Vision for middle-market senior housing

Personally motivated to help protect the area’s Italian culture and this sacred space, Tarantino began evaluating whether the neighborhood had an unmet need for senior housing. His thought was that it might provide an avenue for saving the church.

From an industry viewpoint, Capri saw an opportunity for a middle-market senior housing option for the area, Tarantino says. At the time, existing communities served either affluent or low-income residents.

The location was within a revitalized area of downtown Milwaukee that’s highly walkable. The site also is adjacent to a future expansion of the city’s downtown streetcar.

Additionally, intergenerational connections were already built in, thanks to a nearby park and school, says Eric Harrmann, chief design officer at AG Architecture (Wauwatosa, Wis.), the architecture firm on the project.

So in 2018, Capri bought the property. The idea was to rebuild the church and connect it to a new senior living project. Capri felt this would create a stronger sense of community for the residents (many of whom are longstanding parish members) and the rest of the parish.

The sale included the old church, school, and convent for a price of $1. With a condition: the agreement that Capri would sell the new church back to the archdiocese for the same amount. In other words, the parish exchanged the land for a newly rebuilt church. And Capri was able to build the new senior community on it complete with that special amenity, creating a win-win.

Vertical solution for senior living room

Opened in August 2020, the 182,000-square-foot St. Rita Square comprises two six-story towers with a total of 118 residential units. The vertical solution met the needs of the tight one-acre lot.

It was also Capri Communities’ first multistory building in the city. One tower houses independent living while the other includes four stories of one- and two-bedroom assisted living units and studio memory care units. Additionally, an independent living unit is located on the sixth floor. This tower also connects to the new church.

Amenity spaces include a club room on the top floor of the independent living tower and a second-floor rooftop terrace on the other.

Design features

The community is fronted by a covered entry that leads into a spacious ground-floor commons area in the independent/assisted living/memory care building. Here, residents have a large split-level dining space, which includes a lower-level trattoria and a multipurpose room.

An outdoor piazza (considered the heart of communities in Italy) is created between the two towers. The piazza offers an exterior courtyard space that’s elevated above street level. This layout gives residents a direct connection to the urban fabric of the neighborhood as well as a sense of privacy and security.

It also helps to break up the mass of the building volumes as do setbacks and material changes on the building’s façade. Together, these features give the multistory structure a more hospitable presence in the residential neighborhood, Harrmann says.

“The creation of the piazza tied back into the Italian heritage of the community and gave us the ability to program those common spaces with the fitness and dining components all building off of [it],” he says.

Local influences guide aesthetic of St. Rita Square

To further connect the new senior living community with the neighborhood, the overall aesthetic is inspired by the Italian region of Sicily.

“When you look at the historic baroque architecture of Sicily, you see strong horizontal lines reading through that architecture,” Harrmann says.

To translate that to the exterior of St. Rita Square, the elevations are accented with horizontal bands created by using an accent stone in a slightly darker tone. Higher up the building, dark bronze aluminum railings supporting terraces further accentuate the approach.

“That’s how we extrapolated that style to meet the urban nature of the building,” he says.

The interior also ties into this theme through the use of elevated ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows in common areas and resident units as well as the overall color and materials palettes.

“We used sunbaked colors found in Mediterranean seaside communities and combined that with a base palette grounded in warm neutrals and aged patinas, reflective of the industrial character of Milwaukee,” says Rebecca Keller, senior interior design at Direct Supply Aptura (Milwaukee), the firm behind the project’s interior design.

Incorporating artifacts

Restored artifacts from both the original St. Rita Church and its predecessor, The Blessed Lady of Pompeii, are incorporated inside and out. For example, original cornerstones from the old church’s main entry are used on the piazza. Additionally, a backlit, stained-glass window serves as a backsplash in the reception area.

Near the common area’s multipurpose room, which is used for wedding and funeral gatherings as well as luncheons and dinners, an original St. Rita Church name stone sits above an entrance connecting the community to the church from within.

At the new church, the original bell is used in the bell tower, and crowning the new church’s top is a restored statue of the archangel Gabriel, which was sculpted in 1904 for The Blessed Lady of Pompeii.

Neighborhood connection

Overall, Tarantino says the project has been an impactful development for the neighborhood.

“I think the [community] is very unique, how we were able to provide for our residents and combine that to also address extending the life of the parish,” he says. “The church had fallen into disrepair and wasn’t contributing to the neighborhood. Now, it’s injected vitality.”

Project details for St. Rita Square:

Project completion date: August 2020
Owner: Capri Communities
Total building area: 182,048 sq. ft.
Total construction cost: $28.9 million
Cost/sq. ft.: $159
Architect: AG Architecture
Interior designer: Direct Supply Aptura (St. Rita Square)
Liturgical design: Groth Design Group (St. Rita Church)
Landscape design: Heller & Associates
General Contractor: Pepper Construction
Engineering: Reyn Engineering (structural), The Sigma Group (civil)
Art/pictures: Artline Ltd.
Carpet/flooring: Tandus, Centiva, Patcraft, Interface
Ceiling/wall systems: Rulon
Doors/locks/hardware: La Force Inc.
Fabric/textiles: Romo Black Edition, Fabricut, Carnegie, Kravet, Architex
Furniture—seating/casegoods: Rondel, Global Views
Chairs: Maxwell Thomas, Holsag, Fairfield Chair
Lighting: Hubbardton Forge, Hinkley Lighting, Currey & Company
Signage/wayfinding: Poblocki Sign Co.
Surfaces—solid/other: Granada Tile, Crossville
Wallcoverings: Ellie Cashman Design, DL Couch

Joann Plockova is a freelance writer based between Jupiter, Fla., and Prague, Czech Republic. She can be reached at