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Saving History: 6 things you need to know about historic designation

Quisling Terrace, an “art moderne” historic building in Madison, was converted into 
mixed-income housing by Gorman & Co.

Quisling Terrace, an “art moderne” historic building in Madison, was converted into mixed-income housing by Gorman & Co.

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The Madison historic designation and renovation process is mysterious to a lot of people, even to some city officials. The process review that’s currently being undertaken by an ad hoc committee of the Common Council hopefully will clarify some things about the city’s landmarks ordinance, but IB decided to jump the gun and talk to people who can speak from personal experience.

There are more than a few nuances to consider, but the process generally is designed to maintain the historic nature of residential and commercial structures, and avoid the destruction of buildings that are truly historic in some way.

“You have to find out what is significant about your building if we are going to get on the National Register of Historic Places, or the state register, or even the local landmark district or landmark classification.” — Arlan Kay, architect, the Architecture Network

Nevertheless, there is more than a little anxiety associated with the pursuit of historic status. Arlan Kay, an architect with the Architecture Network, described the pro-and-con thought process that property owners go through when considering a historic designation for their buildings.

“We’re talking to the property owner and they are curious because they are thinking, ‘Oh, my God, someone is going to tell me what to do with my property.’ Fear, fear, fear.

“Or they say, ‘I hear there are tax credits, and I want to take advantage of them,’” Kay added. “So you are having that conversation with the owner, and they say, ‘Great, let’s go forward. Yes, someone is going to have a say about what I do to the outside of my building, but these tax credits are just incredible and will help us pay for the project.’”

Process uncertainty aside, seeking a historic designation could be well worth the trouble. In some cases, a historic designation attracts welcome attention. In some but not all cases, the market responds to this special stature in ways that increase property values. Here are 6 things to consider.

1. What’s the big deal?

What makes a building or property truly historic, as opposed to merely old? There is little mystery here because there are established criteria for determining what is historically significant, and the criteria focus on four main areas of significance. Those areas are: an archaeology site; the location of a significant event or a building that’s identified with a significant person or people; unique examples of architecture, period, or style; or a structure that’s designed by a famous architect like Frank Lloyd Wright. Historic significance also can be found in a district of many buildings. (The group may be significant even if the individual structures are not.)

“You have to find out what is significant about your building if we are going to get on the National Register of Historic Places, or the state register, or even the local landmark district or landmark classification,” Kay explained.

Most historic designations pertain to architecture. Kay cited the historic Cardinal Hotel apartments building in Madison, an example of turn-of-the-century architecture that was built as a railroad hotel in 1907 and designed by Ferdinand Kronenberg, a respected local architect (see Das Kronenberg Condominiums).

Jason Tish, executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, cited UW-Madison’s historic Red Gym, where the 1902 and 1904 state Republican conventions nominated Robert LaFollette for governor. “That building was associated with those events,” Tish noted. “It also happens to be an incredible piece of architecture, and it’s also significant from that point of view.”

2. Research the researchers

To make the case that your building is historic, there is plenty of help in the state and region. Who does the legwork? According to Kay, there are many individuals and firms that do the research for a nomination. In addition to sources like previous owners, newspaper research, and organizations like the State Historical Society, he also recommended individual researchers like Elizabeth Miller, Carol Cartwright, and former city preservation planner Kitty Rankin.

“I have found that it is far more expeditious for me to hire them than to have me do the research,” Kay said.

Both the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin have done research into potential landmarks. Kay noted that during a previous term of Mayor Paul Soglin, Kitty Rankin was directed to find all the historically significant buildings in the city that are not listed on the National Register. “She did quite a bit of research and found a good number of them,” Kay noted.

Another local partner is the aforementioned Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, which works closely with the local Landmarks Commission and the State Historical Society. The trust also works with neighborhoods and individual owners who would like historic designation for a building that’s either in their neighborhood or that they own. The trust also tries to help them understand the difference between local and federal designations. (For example, the federal program requires a higher level of historic integrity.)

“Some owners just want protection for their property,” Tish explained. “We helped a couple just a few years ago to nominate two houses that they owned as local landmarks. They happened to be in a federal district, but they wanted the local protection on that in order to sell those houses. They put a lot of work into maintaining the historic nature of those houses. They wanted that to be protected, and so they sought local protection for those houses.”

3. Make parallel tracks

The Madison Landmarks Commission, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the National Register of Historic Places are the main governing bodies that rule on historic designations. Each has online nomination forms and processes to follow, but the review process does not follow a linear local, state, and national progression. Only the state and federal processes are intertwined.

Since reviews by the above agencies can take several months, Kay recommends the simultaneous pursuit of historic designation with each. “If you want to waste time, you can do things one after another,” he stated. “If you want to be efficient, you do them simultaneously because each review involves the same information.”

Tish agrees, calling simultaneous pursuit the ideal way to proceed. “We usually advise that you should get all the designations because that provides tax credit opportunities and it provides some protection from extensive modifications by a future owner,” he said. “Typically, people want protection because they want their neighborhood to be stabilized in terms of its aesthetics and its architectural quality.”

City approval can certainly support one’s case at the state and national levels, but state and national registration do not require city landmark status, Kay noted. “Think of two levels, because with the national one, they will only deal with the recommendation from the state,” he explained. “Once you’ve gotten through the state, you’re pretty much going to be accepted. The feds just take another 45 days or so to process it.”

In addition to differences in the level of historic integrity required, Tish says the nomination process for the federal program is a bit more complex than the nomination process for the local program. The nomination itself requires more intense documentation, and it needs to go through more levels of approval, such as the State Historical Society and the National Park Service. At the local level, the Madison Landmarks Commission recommends approval to the Madison Common Council.

4. No ‘remuddling’ allowed

When a building is certified as a historic property, proposed alterations or additions must be approved by one or more of the above agencies in order for a project to qualify for tax credits. According to Kay, the local Landmarks Commission is authorized to care about what’s on the outside of the building — the skin, in other words. Meanwhile, State Historical Society and National Register of Historic Places reviews typically focus on the inside.

Often, the building owner is after some type of adaptive reuse, such as turning a house into an office, transforming a warehouse into apartments or condominiums, or taking an abandoned manufacturing plant and turning it into high-tech office space.

There are differing opinions as to what owners can do with additions to historic buildings, Kay says. In some cases, the governing bodies might accept, even encourage, an addition that contrasts with the building.

However, when remodeling an existing space, building owners must keep the character of the structure in mind. At the city Landmarks Commission, a common response to a disappointing proposal is: “This is not in keeping with the building.”

“You’ve got to come up with something that is more in character with the historic building, the historic fabric itself,” Kay stated.

This is where a review gets into the finer details about the treatment of architectural and/or material elements such as windows and doors, masonry, and roofing. While they are more flexible about changing tastes in paint colors, it’s Kay’s experience that governing bodies are more sensitive when it comes to the architectural elements.

Working with their architects, building owners will be required to report on the condition of these elements and what they plan to do with them. Say the windows have to be replaced because they are old, rotten, and drafty and the molding and trim around them have seen better days. “They are going to say, ‘Replace them with what?’” Kay notes. “And you say, ‘We’re going to get some new, slick vinyl windows that are just flat and have no trim on them. They will have no profile. They will look different. They will have smaller glass because we are going to be more energy-efficient.’ And the State Historical Society says, ‘Tough. We are not accepting that.’

“You are going to have to have something that has the same-size glass, the same opening.

“I think you’ve probably seen buildings where they just take a great big window opening and they stick a little dinky window in it, and they have all that big wood siding around it. That cannot happen if you’re going to get tax credits. You’re looking for molding that’s very similar, the glass and the kind of window that would either be similar to the original, or if the original is long gone, what would’ve been similar to that.

“If something is long gone, and you have no idea what was there before, then you’re expected to put in something that would be typical in appearance of that period.”
Similarly, the reviewers will want to know how you intend to clean brick and other masonry — in the case of brick, sandblasting is out because that destroys the material — but they will take a long look at the use of bristle brushes, soap and water, or some type of chemical cleaning process.

And given the age of historic properties and changes in building codes that have occurred over the years, other issues can arise. When remodeling an old hotel, Kay found that the bathrooms were down the hall, so he had to determine whether that was still acceptable in the hotel industry. In addition, owners will have to determine whether the building complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act; if not, the owner will have to incorporate handicap-accessible amenities into the remodeling project.

Sometimes, according to Kay, a historic building has been remodeled beyond recognition: “Let’s say we did have something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and it has been so mucked up over the years, you say it is no longer a Frank Lloyd Wright home. Well, that’s tough, you can’t be a landmark,” he stated. “Some things have been remodeled and ‘remuddled’ so badly that they can’t be saved anymore. They can be used for something else, but they can’t be a landmark.”


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