The Masonic Hotel Moves Forward
14-story tower would be built atop historic three-story building. Will it be opposed?
Ascendant Holdings would purchase and redevelop the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center into a 220-room hotel under plans that have now been filed with the city. The proposal would add a 14-floor tower atop the three-story building at 790 N. Van Buren St.
We first reported on the project last May and things have moved forward since then, although Ascendant is still a long way from breaking out the golden shovels. The hotel now has an announced operator, Portland-based boutique operator Provenance Hotels, and a proposed design by New Jersey-based Kraig Kalashian Architecture & Design and New Orleans-based Metro Studio. Still, a lengthy approval process may stand between the developer and a groundbreaking.
Those plans include a tower set above N. Van Buren St. and E. Wells St. with a 7,000 square-foot footprint. The roof of the current building would become a deck for hotel and event guests. The bulk of the current building would be converted to the hotel’s common areas including a lobby, restaurant, ballrooms and meeting spaces. The 350-seat theater in the building today would be preserved. Plans also call for preserving a substantial amount of the historic interior elements of the building.
Nordeen told the Milwaukee Business Journal “we intend to do a project that assumes the building becomes a locally designated landmark under Milwaukee’s landmark ordinance.” His firm is approaching the process in an unusual order though. Before the local historic designation is fully approved Ascendant would like the Historic Preservation Commission to approve the redevelopment plan.
Ascendant’s other notable property in downtown Milwaukee is the Wells Building at 324 E. Wisconsin Ave. That historic office building was originally built in 1901. Ascendant acquired the building in 2011. The hotel, like the Wells Building, would have parking provided for the hotel in a nearby garage.
Political Fight Coming?
In May I predicted the project could face “a political fight.” Is that still likely? Hard to say, but Ascendant probably wouldn’t have submitted plans to the city without confidence that officials support the proposal. Nordeen said in early January “the good news is that HPC staff has been really great to work with and very thoughtful in their approach. We realize they are very busy so we are respectful of their time, but also pushing as much as we can to keep it moving.”
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission approved a historic designation for the building in May following a petition by Peter Zanghi of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance that area alderman and commission member Robert Bauman said was made “in good faith.” That designation, which has been held in the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee since May 17th, would limit the developer’s ability to make changes to the building. The desire by Ascendant to have the hotel approved before the historic designation leaves this prior decision in an awkward position.
Similar to the controversial 2010 process that created the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown hotel, this project seems headed for a collision with city ordinances. The 2010 project spurred a rewrite of the city’s historic preservation rules, but still causes projects like Ascendant’s to fall into limbo.
Bob Hagerty, chairman of the trustees of the Scottish Rite Valley of Milwaukee, the local branch of the world-wide fraternal organization of Freemasons, told the Historic Preservation Commission in May that his group is in no position to operate the building long term. At the group’s peak in the 1960s, it had 8,000 members, but today has “just under 700 members, of which less than 100 are active,” he noted, and the average member is 73 years old. The building is “far beyond our financial ability” to maintain and its maintenance costs continue to climb, Hagerty added. The organization voted to sell the building in December 2015. Ascendant has a purchase option on the property.
The building was originally built as the Plymouth Congregational Church in 1889, but designed in a way to emphasize its “social justice mission” and avoid a traditional church design. It was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by congregation member and prominent architect Edward Townsend Mix. According to city’s historic designation study report, those design decisions drew criticism from as far away as New York, Texas and Missouri. Mix, whose health was failing at the time of the building’s construction, would die in 1890.
According to the 2016 study of the building “particular attention was paid by the press at the time of construction to the striking life-sized stylized figures on the exterior… Nineteen windows show leaded art glass depicting everything from masonic symbols to individuals important to masonry such as George Washington.”
In 1994 ownership of the Wisconsin Consistory Building was transferred to the group’s charitable and educational foundation, the Wisconsin Scottish Rite Foundation, Inc. This coincided with the building’s rebranding as the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center. This changeover and a $5 million update made the building more attractive for public events, including weddings, and was intended as a financially prudent way to support the facility’s upkeep.
The site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994. Locally it’s been up for designation twice before, once in 1986 when it was denied, and another time in 1992 when a two-year agreement was put in place to avoid any demolition.
More about the Masonic Hotel
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Masonic Hotel Inches Forward - Jeramey Jannene - May 10th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Masonic Hotel Gets Key Approval - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 13th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: More Views of Masonic Hotel - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 24th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: The Masonic Hotel Moves Forward - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 18th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Masonic Lodge Could Become Hotel - Jeramey Jannene - May 10th, 2016