Wondering About the Wonder Bar

Madison’s historic preservation movement has gone off track.

Recently, a welcome new development just off John Nolen Drive that would provide much needed housing was laid on the table while neighbors fight to save the “historic” Wonder Bar building. The alleged reason? It was frequented by Chicago mobsters in the 1930s.

Seriously, folks? The building, which has no particularly interesting architectural characteristics, should be preserved because murderers used to eat there? If El Chapo ever found his way to Madison would we save the building he stayed in? 

It’s a ridiculous argument on its face. Yet, the developer will take time and spend money to try to work it out. That will only add to the cost of the project and those costs will eventually find their way into rental payments, assuming the project gets built at all. So much for affordable housing. 

Much needed housing is being delayed as people fight to save a building once frequented by mobsters, like Al Capone (though it’s not clear Capone himself ever stopped at the Wonder Bar).

What may be behind this is Madison’s dislike for tall buildings. The proposal would be 18 stories tall. A similar fight took place over the Edgewater Hotel when I was mayor. In that case, preservationists applauded the plan to rehab the original part of the hotel and to tear off and replace an awful 1970s facade. But they strenuously objected to a new nine-story tower, which they claimed would destroy the historic district that the building sits in. 

After a long and tough battle, in which the city’s Landmarks Commission was overturned, the project got built. Today even some of its strongest detractors, including Fred Mohs who was a leader of the opponents, think it’s just fine. The Mansion Hill Historic District is not only no worse for wear, but has gotten a shot in the arm from the activity and the new resource in the neighborhood. 

And a few years ago, an attractive, but large, development that would have added housing on Gilman Street was shot down when somebody discovered that Madison’s first openly gay alder once lived in a run down house on that block. I can’t help but feel that that slim reed of historic significance — which no one had bothered to even note before the development proposal was on the table — was used in the service of defeating a building that was more massive than preservation activists like to see. 

Too often, I think, the movement allows itself to be captured by people who just don’t like tall and big buildings in any form. But it’s not just that. City historic preservation officials have recently proposed two actions that fell flat with policy makers. 

In spring 2020 city staff recommended that the awful, defaced Centre Seven building on Pinckney Street be preserved thanks to a minor architectural detail. Leaving Centre Seven in place would have made it either impossible or much more expensive to move forward with a major redevelopment on that block. Fortunately, the staff recommendation was not followed. (It should be noted that in that case even the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation admitted that the feature could be preserved without saving the entire building.) 

And just last month preservationists suffered an embarrassing defeat over an embarrassing proposal. They wanted to limit development on an important downtown block to preserve the sliver of a remaining view to Lake Mendota from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lamp House. The City Council voted that down overwhelmingly. 

And, in the meantime, the truly historic Churchill Building remains unprotected because preservationists allowed themselves to be intimidated by the building’s owner and so withdrew a strong application for landmark status. 

Historic preservation is, fundamentally, subjective. Exactly what constitutes an architectural feature or a building’s history that justifies preservation is very much in the eye of the beholder. We can agree on the Capitol building, and after that you’ll probably get an argument on pretty much anything. 

But there does need to be a common sense political test applied. When preservationists mess up again and again they fail to preserve something really important: their own credibility. 

Welcome to the 179th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

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