Madison’s Mansion Hill – A Rumination on the Role of Historic Preservation

A battle is brewing in Madison, WI over the proposed construction of three four and five-story apartment buildings in one of the city’s designated historic districts: Mansion Hill. News like this is far from rare in Madison. The city is populated by a politically engaged people with an eye towards preserving the unique place they call home–those “60 square miles surrounded by reality”–the best they can. But the newest fight may be showing more about how Madison’s characteristic reluctance towards new development and self-consciousness about its small size is creating a mix of qualities that, if not handled properly, will lead to worse outcomes for the city.

Thinking a lot about historic preservation and the conflict that often arises between preservationists and developers I recognize both the incredible importance of preservation, but also an argument for development that alters historic spaces in some way. Madison is becoming a city of contrasts. While some areas get more than enough attention just blocks away, huge developments are going up in a cookie-cutter post-modernist style. They take up entire city blocks, overwhelm smaller buildings nearby and are more like big-box developments in the sky than smart urban projects. They don’t always get built with the character of the area taken into account and also threaten the character of non-historic parts of the city. These are getting built with little interruption and usually the biggest fight is over the height (none are ever much more than 9 or 11 floors).

In this way Madison offers ample examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to preservation versus development; the most recent fight is growing in the heart of Mansion Hill over three proposed apartment buildings. The project calls for an undesirable mid-rise building from the 60s to be demolished, an historic home to be moved to another lot on the block and another dilapidated older home to be demolished. The developer designed the buildings with the intention of matching the character of the area by choosing the New York City style brick walk-up apartment style as the inspiration. The designs do the job well and the developer is careful to use dark brown, cream and red bricks for the entire exterior and even features well designed décor on the façades in the manner of older pre-war buildings.

This is what most of the blocks in Mansion Hill in Madison, WI look like.

This is what most of the blocks in Mansion Hill in Madison, WI look like.

Mansion Hill rises above Lake Mendota’s southern end and overlooks Capital Hill and Downtown Madison to the south and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to the west. Mansion Hill is a beautiful neighborhood in a beautiful city dominated by lakes and hills, whose loss would be a shame for the cultural and architectural heritage of the city. The area is a vintage impression of Victorian era America in the heart of this burgeoning American city. The neighborhood is dominated by stately old homes with ample gardens, frat and sorority houses and the ubiquitous house-turned-apartment, a standard of any college campus. The area is quiet and in many ways the ideal neighborhood for an urban-minded but small American city. It is leafy, but has access to other neighborhoods and Downtown that allows for low car ownership, walkability, and bike-friendly streets. The buildings being proposed would be fitting additions to the neighborhood and if they were being built on empty lots there would likely be little problem.

In Madison though, no project could go through without major opposition, especially in a neighborhood like Mansion Hill. Opponents of the project address scale and height in arguments against the project. The biggest issue however is the supposed precedent it would set for new projects in Madison’s historic districts. The fear being that if this is allowed (the removal of an ‘historic’ building), then other projects like this might be successful in other parts of the city and wear away the power of Madison’s landmark and preservation laws.

This is the site of the proposed development in Mansion Hill. The taller concrete structure would be demolished as would the building next door. The next building to the right would be moved to another lot on the block.

This is the site of the proposed development in Mansion Hill. The taller concrete structure would be demolished as would the building next door. The next building to the right would be moved to another lot on the block.

The precedent preservationists speak against involves the small white building at 127 W. Gilman Street. The building is in a poor state and from looking at it that is reasonably concluded. Although preservationists claim it can be salvaged the development firm, Steve Brown Apartments, claims multiple parties have declared it beyond its useful life and appropriate for demolition. And I agree with them on that last point. The firm should be applauded for thinking so deeply about how they would design buildings that bring more units to the area (which is desperately needed in Downtown Madison, which has high rents and low vacancy and unending demand for apartments), but respect the character of the neighborhood and maximize preserved buildings.

The building at 127 W. Gilman is far from historically and architecturally significant. Other than being old, there is nothing innovative or special about the building, which prompts reason for preservation. Secondly, the building’s story is far from unique. Like many places in Madison it became home to a fraternity and housed other local organizations. In this case it was an early Jewish fraternity. Other than that though, there was nothing remarkable about who built it, lived there, or worked there. The loss of this building doesn’t signal a blow to Madison’s heritage. Nor does this signal a net loss for Madison. The area needs more apartments and it needs more thoughtful contemporary architecture that accomplishes that goal.

Compare this project to other Downtown and Campus proposals in Madison and the state of preservation and development becomes clear: Madison has no real sense of what it wants out of its buildings and what preservation is truly considered important. At one end, scale is always argued. Yet, the city has allowed for a number of gargantuan projects along the corridor between Downtown and the UW-Madison campus which are not just out of scale with the neighborhoods, but the city itself. Madison has strict height limits to preserve views of the state capitol so many of these huge buildings have larger footprints to make up for lost height. But ultimately they turn into big box stores in the air and tower over the surrounding neighbors. The buildings at Gilman are larger than most neighbors, but try to make up for the modestly larger scale with aesthetics.

Preserving access and costs to storefronts and apartments also play into preservation. Madison as a whole seeks to preserve its character, which includes good prices for apartments, a mix of people, and small businesses. The Isthmus as a whole is getting expensive and if the city is going to keep prices low it needs to increase supply for things there is a lot of demand for: apartments and commercial space.* Again, preservationists said nichts when a building hosing a number of local restaurants and businesses as well as an affordable hotel on State Street, the city’s main commercial district, was demolished for a massive new development. This pushed a number of businesses to extinction, because they depended on the cheap rent at their old location.**

This is a rendering of what the buildings on West Gilman in Mansion Hill, proposed by Steve Brown Apartments, would look like.

This is a rendering of what the buildings on West Gilman in Mansion Hill, proposed by Steve Brown Apartments, would look like.

Preservation is a careful and thoughtful process, and in Madison it doesn’t to take that into account. Rather than putting their efforts into saving a mediocre old building, the city and the local preservationists’ community should be thinking about how to maximize saving what is most important to them. They should focus on saving buildings with the most historical and architectural value, not just buildings that are old and save them for the sake of being old. In the historic districts the additional work should be to make sure new buildings fit into the aesthetic and social character of the neighborhood. Firms like Steve Brown should be rewarded with approval for the good projects they propose, not rejected because it includes demolishing one insignificant building. Finally, the city should examine how preservation can be used as an economic tool to keep Madison an affordable city for important characteristics of the city: students, small businesses, independence. This is where preserving older buildings like the one formerly at the corner of State Street and Francis Street comes into play.

The city of Madison has the ability to create a strong and sustainable, but also practical and realistic plan for historical preservation and development. One that prevents unnecessary and harmful intrusions into the city, but also allow for positive growth and rewards developers for work well done.

As it is now, Madison has a haphazard plan, where sometimes overzealous preservationists are given too much power in one place unnecessarily and prevents the developments the city deserves, whereas in other areas developers have too much power to go-go-go for the sake of development. This is exemplified in the unfortunate contrast in Madison’s policy between the large new developments going up with little hinderance and the well-designed thoughtful proposal presented for Mansion Hill. The city should be encouraging the latter and not the former to achieve the goal of preserving the city’s character and history while supported necessary new development.

As Madison grows it needs to take a step back and seriously and carefully think about the future it wants. Otherwise the city might change before its very eyes, perhaps for the better, but maybe not. It can’t be said what will be lost or gained, but good work should be done.

*For people unfamiliar with Madison, the Downtown population is dominated by college students and young professionals who need affordability more than most people. The city also has a history of supporting small businesses and socially mixed neighborhoods. The rising costs of rent Downtown are pushing these people and businesses out. 

**This building was in a Mid-century Modern style and even though it was certainly overdue for a makeover in my opinion it was actually more architecturally significant than the building on W. Gilman. It added a level of aesthetic variation that doesn’t otherwise exist in Downtown Madison.