Goodbye to Historic Milwaukee

Opgenorth leaves HMI for job with Mandel, but still hopes to help build support for historic buildings.

By - Sep 18th, 2013 10:12 am
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Anna-Marie Opgenorth. Photo taken June 18th, 2012 by <a href="">Erik Ljung</a>. All Rights Reserved.

Anna-Marie Opgenorth. Photo taken June 18th, 2012 by Erik Ljung. All Rights Reserved.

On August 30, Anna-Marie Opgenorth spent her last day as executive director of Historic Milwaukee, Inc.  She’ll begin a one-year stint with the Mandel Group in Milwaukee, working on a variety of philanthropic and community outreach initiatives for the real estate development firm.  As one of the group’s Development Associates, she will also work on development related activities.

Opgenorth says the decision to leave HMI was difficult. “While I am excited to begin new projects and carve different paths, my enthusiasm and care for HMI and everyone I’ve worked with only continues to increase.  As long as I am in Milwaukee, I’ll do whatever I can in support of the organization’s mission.”  That includes doing what she can to make sure Doors Open Milwaukee, the organization’s hallmark event (September 21-22, see continues to enjoy success in its third season.

Opgenorth came to HMI with a background in both art and architectural history.  She holds a BS degree in Art History from UW-Milwaukee.  Opgenorth also spent three years at the Savannah College of Art and Design, studying painting and art history.

Opgenorth will continue to add to her skills base next year after she finishes her stint with the Mandel Group.  She plans to begin work towards an MA in Real Estate Development in the fall of 2014.  She is applying to the very well-regarded James A. Grasskamp Center for Real Estate at UW-Madison, with Marquette and UWM as back-up choices.

Through the six years she spent at Historic Milwaukee, Opgenorth’s commitment to preserving and promoting the built environment grew markedly, hand-in-hand with the work of the organization.  She notes that HMI does not measure large on paper, yet has been able to develop and expand programs such as Doors Open, the Spaces and Traces tours and public discussions and events such as Remarkable Milwaukee, an annual event honoring an organization contributing to our city’s heritage and built environment.

One key to HMI’s continued success is its ability to attract large numbers of committed volunteers.  Opgenorth’s own relationship with HMI began as a volunteer guide.  She completed the two-month training course and then went on to an internship on the HMI board of directors.

When taking the HMI guide training class in 2005, she was one of the two youngest people in the class and asked herself,  “Why weren’t we connecting more with young people and business?”  She notes that the built environment is the largest economic incubator in any community.  And keeping our architectural heritage intact, managing it in a smart way, is vital to our continued success as a city, she says, along with involving new generations of Milwaukee residents.  HMI, especially through Doors Open Milwaukee, has become more successful at getting the attention of young people.

Opgenorth bemoans the destruction years ago of two amazing, historically significant buildings in Milwaukee – the Northwestern Railroad depot and the Plankinton mansion on the Marquette University campus. “Both had immense value,” she says.  The problem was that, at the time these treasures were demolished, the community at large didn’t have the economic or political power to do anything about it, Opgenorth says.

“We desperately need to develop the economic, cultural and political wherewithal to respect the embodied value in our historic architecture, to view it as an endangered species,” she says.

When developers begin a project with their eyes on removing a piece of local history, many might ask:  Why should we keep it, just because it’s old?  Opgenorth and HMI have worked to influence that answer. “We lose local memory very quickly,” she says.  “Preservation is part of environmental conservation. Those historic buildings can be a primary resource of knowledge, telling us not only where we’ve come from, but also providing an incubator for new culture for the future.”

There’s an unfortunate perception that old equals not very useful anymore.  On the contrary, Opgenorth says, historic buildings can have many uses.

“Old buildings contribute to the visual and built environment as much as new buildings,” she says.  And restoring an old building sometimes can be less costly for the developer than building from scratch.  “We’re doing a disservice by not considering them, not retaining them.”

Opgenorth used the platform of HMI to communicate these ideas to the wider Milwaukee community, including real estate developers.  She will be able to continue to promote preservation in Milwaukee through her membership on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Opgenorth points to three “grand spaces” in Milwaukee – the Plankinton Arcade, City Hall and the Calatrava.  She says all three illustrate that Milwaukee is a city able to actualize its wealth and demonstrate it, along with culture and high-mindedness.

As new structures continue to add to our skyline, we need to keep in mind, she says, that we are creating our historic buildings of the future. And what will future generations think of those creations?

“We want to be inspired by what we build.”


3 thoughts on “Goodbye to Historic Milwaukee”

  1. Excelsior says:

    Hopefully she can help Mandel save the Eschweiler buildings out at the county grounds that he wants to tear down, now that she is works for him.

  2. Excelsior says:

    I agree!

    What is Mandel doing to save the Eschweiler buildings?

  3. Nicholas says:

    Excelsior, Mandel is working to preserve the Escweiler buildings, not destroy them.

    Also, this article should make it clear the great leadership Milwaukee has in its midsts in Anna-Marie Opgenorth. It rare for any community to discover someone of such passion and wisdom for her city, one who tirelessly strives to carefully preserve and thoughtfully develop the streets of her town with not only the current world in mind, but that of generations not yet born. Too often we engage with our physical environment in headlong folly, ignoring and demolishing the spaces that were meaningful to our ancestors and, worse, leaving behind mindlessly inferior replacements for which future Milwaukeeans must contend. Anna-Marie has the wherewithal to remind us that our responsibilities to our civic presence are deep and beyond just fiscal measurement. She is a true hero for the city and one Milwaukeeans should all be proud to have among them.

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