Longfellow Lofts blend old with new

When asked how the Longfellow Lofts apartments came to be, Randy Alexander of the Alexander Co. answers in true Randy Alexander style: “That’s so boring,” he says.

But as it turns out, the history of Longfellow Lofts at 210 S. Brooks St. in Madison is anything but boring.

A tale of two halves

The apartment complex is a tale of two halves — one, a renovation of the historic Longfellow School that has been transformed into 40 apartment units, and the other, a new, 110,760-square-foot building with 64 units. Old and new are connected by an adjoining courtyard where tenants can enjoy an outdoor kitchen or gather around a fire pit.

Longfellow School was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1996, and the Alexander Co., which specializes in breathing new life into aging structures, retained many of the building’s original elements as focal points in the apartments, such as the school’s large windows, original lockers, and chalkboards. The school’s old auditorium is now a movie theater for tenants.

“The old gyms are now two-story apartments,” Alexander says. Basketball hoops stand where they always did, but now they’re inside the apartments that were constructed around them.

When Alexander Co. first got involved, Meriter Hospital owned the building but had outgrown it, and the old school was about to stand vacant.

“Once a building becomes vacant, it becomes a sterile piece of a neighborhood,” says Nic Alexander, Randy’s son and director of marketing for the company. Designing something that attracts and engages people, he explains, creates an economic benefit and saves green space elsewhere.

Plus, he adds, historic renovations tend to be greener. “When you do a historic building, the amount of materials you’re harvesting is greatly reduced because you can reuse so much of it.

“A normal construction project might mean spending two-thirds of your budget on material and one-third on labor. With a historic building, that kind of flips, and you spend more on labor than materials. So you create more jobs.”

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Opposition turns to acceptance

Several years ago, as plans for the Longfellow Lofts project came to the forefront, opposition mounted. Despite the Madison Plan Commission’s approval in 2013, the Greenbush Neighborhood Association strongly opposed the school’s transformation to apartments and the proposed new housing complex next door.

In a Cap Times article dated August 26, 2013, the association opposed the size of the project, which they said far surpassed the Greenbush neighborhood plan goal of 15 housing units per acre.

“The Longfellow rental project will re-enforce (sic) perceptions of the neighborhood as a rental enclave with its attendant congestion on evenings and weekends and will discourage interest in conversion of surrounding properties into owner-occupied houses,” the association charged.

A few weeks later, Mayor Paul Soglin vetoed the Common Council’s approval over a parking objection, but he withdrew the veto five days later. On Oct. 1, 2013, the Common Council conditionally approved the project.

The Alexander Co. served as the primary developer on the project, while Iconica handled much of the construction. A recent check found current rents running between $1,400 and $2,100 depending on location and the number of bedrooms.

Two schools, one project

The new apartment building actually sits on the site of what once was the old Greenbush School that, Randy Alexander explains, was so named because of the surrounding greenery and oak savannahs. It was built in the 1880s and torn down in 1927. Construction on Longfellow School next door began in 1913.

Several historic items are including in the new building, such as Longfellow’s original school bell and a large clock that once ran all the other clocks in the school. Also on display is an old trophy case, complete with several of the school’s original sports trophies. “Anything we could find [from the old schools], we used,” son Nic says.

Which brings us back to what Randy Alexander considers the best story to arise from the project:

“We have a 95-year-old friend named Clarence who taught school [at Longfellow] until it closed,” he says. “He ran all the sports programs they had there. When we held the grand opening, we wheeled Clarence throughout the school building in his wheelchair. He knew every room and what each was used for.”

What Clarence didn’t know was that his son had given Alexander a decades-old picture of him in gymnastics class. “It was really, really dated,” Alexander says. “We put the picture in the trophy case and noted the years he taught school there. When we wheeled him up to the trophy case, boy, he almost got teary-eyed. It was really neat.”

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