The Misuse of History

On February 7th we may see just how serious the Madison Common Council and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway are about the city’s housing shortage. 

That’s the day the council is scheduled to take up a proposal, unanimously endorsed by the Landmarks Commission, to confer local landmarks status on the Filene House, a large nondescript office building near Tenney Park that originally served as the first headquarters of the Credit Union National Association. President Harry Truman dedicated the building in 1950.

Several months ago Vermilion Development of Chicago proposed to demolish the building and replace it with several hundred units of rental housing. Neighbors objected to the size of that project and Vermilion scaled it down a bit to a still substantial 400 units, including two five-story buildings. 

The neighborhood was lukewarm to even that. Then somebody discovered that the Filene building had this history related to the credit union movement. Opponents of the project have now latched onto that as a means of blocking a development they just don’t like. Vermilion says they looked at adaptive reuse of the building, but it’s impractical. 

If the council goes along with the landmarks designation it may result in a project that is further scaled back or it’s possible that Vermilion will just walk away from it altogether. Four hundred units of much needed housing could disappear. 

Harry Truman was here once. Who cares?

This wouldn’t be the first time that the city’s historic preservation ordinance was cynically perverted to try to stop a project that neighbors didn’t like for its size. Last year a similarly large housing project was scaled back and costs were added (so much for affordability) because preservationists fought to save the architecturally insignificant former Wonder Bar near the Alliant Energy Center. Its alleged significance was that Chicago gangsters noshed and drank there on their way through Wisconsin. It might be the first time the city’s preservation ordinance was used to save a building because it was a known hangout of murderers. 

Back in 2014 apartment developer Steve Brown proposed razing an ugly bunker of a building called the Highlander and a few rundown houses on Gilman Street to replace it with an attractive new apartment building. Mansion Hill neighbors didn’t like the size of the building and were fighting the project. The outcome was uncertain until somebody remembered that Madison’s first openly gay alder as well as state Rep. David Clarenbach (who was never openly gay while serving in the Legislature, but championed a first in the nation anti-discrimination law) lived in one of those houses. As I wrote at the time, my view was that the neighbors were able to successfully play the preservation ordinance to stop a building they didn’t like for its size. To be fair, others I respected disagreed. Gay rights historian, the late Dick Wagner, thought the house had rich history in regard to that movement and deserved preservation. I thought taking down the awful Highlander and providing more housing trumped that and that the house could have been moved in any event.

When I was mayor in 2010 those same Mansion Hill neighbors fought like crazy against the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment. That project restored the original Art Deco hotel building and ripped off the ugly 1970s-era facade from another portion of the hotel. Everybody liked those things, but what neighbors didn’t like was — you guessed it — a new tall building that made the rest of the project economically feasible. Their efforts to use the historic preservation ordinance failed because I was able to convince the council to override the objections of the Landmarks Commission — the first time that had ever been done. After more twists and turns after I left office, the project went ahead. Today, nobody complains about the Edgewater. That big, tall building did not destroy the neighborhood after all.

Meanwhile, in December, the truly historic Ben DiSalvo and Sons Grocery Store, lately Buckingham’s Bar and Grill, was razed without so much as a whimper from preservationists. That old brick building was not only attractive, but it had been a focal point of the old Greenbush Neighborhood, home to Madison’s immigrant Italian community and others. What was the difference? The DiSalvo building didn’t have powerful neighbors who didn’t like the big building that would replace it. Its neighbors are the UW, which didn’t object to the project and, across the street, the redeveloping Triangle neighborhood of subsidized housing. 

If Vermilion gets its formal application into city staff before the council acts on the landmarks designation then they can proceed under the old rules and the designation, if it happens, won’t matter. But that move would be fraught with political peril. The company might be seen as gaming the system — never mind that the project’s opponents are doing exactly that in their effort to use the preservation ordinance to kill a project that they dislike for reasons wholly unrelated to history. 

In fact, what’s curious about the Filene House, the Gilman property and the Wonder Bar is that somebody discovered their historic significance only after neighbors started fighting the projects that would raze them because they didn’t like the size and massing of the new buildings. The motivation was to kill or downsize the project. Historic preservation was just leverage. 

This council and mayor have done a surprisingly good job of allowing housing projects to move forward, sometimes despite neighborhood opposition. In a clash between trumped up historic preservation and a real need for housing, this choice should be easy. We’ll see if it is. 

This piece originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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