Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Did Karl Kopp Let Historic Building Rot?

Unique 1871 building on river was “irreplaceable.” Bauman blames Kopp for its destruction.

By - Dec 10th, 2015 10:59 am
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Unique 1871 building on river was “irreplaceable.” Bauman blames Kopp for its destruction. Back to the full article.

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17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Did Karl Kopp Let Historic Building Rot?”

  1. Bill Kissinger says:

    This truly is a tragedy many years in the making. And it is a tragedy that caused some memorable collateral damage along the way. The 2004 plan to redevelop the building briefly but revealingly pitted local architecture buffs and preservationists against one another. For it appeared that the Burnham building, a rundown, unassuming “eyesore” was standing in the way of an exciting new development. Building owner Karl Kopp and his development partner, Doug Weas were proposing for this site a building designed by the celebrated New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, “Tod and Billie” as they are known, had recently completed the American Folk Art Museum in NYC, a project that made them the toast of Manhattan and darlings in the world of architecture. Those who sought to preserve the Burnham building were said to be standing in the way of another Calatrava-like landmark in the making.

    Whitney Gould, the Journal Sentinel’s revered architecture critic (and one time Madison Landmarks Commissioner) made the case for demolition when, in January 2004, she wrote a column with this lede: “Torn between preserving the city’s past and looking toward its future: …to what extent will inventing a city for the 21st century be hobbled by our warm and fuzzy feelings for the 19th?” (The column, unfortunately is no longer available on-line).

    Now the story, like the little building, comes to a rotten end. But not without a bitter and ironic twist.

    As it happens, the American Folk Art Museum in NYC, whose building put Tod and Billie on the map, nearly went broke in part due to the expense of the building itself. The museum was forced to move and the building was sold to its next door neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art. It was demolished in earlier this year.

  2. David Coles says:

    Milwaukee’s system for protecting historic buildings has clearly failed. This is a textbook example of “demolition by neglect,” and the City of Milwaukee is complicit. What kind of historic preservation system allows uncooperative building owners the option of doing nothing, letting Mother Nature conduct the demolition they are legally prohibited from performing themselves?

    After so much neglect, the building was indeed in poor shape. It doesn’t take a great imagination, however, to picture how cool it would have looked if restored. According to the City’s experts, restoration would have been expensive (read: lots of local construction jobs), but not unfeasible. Since this had been deemed a culturally important public asset, financial assistance toward restoration was available, via tax credits. Historic buildings are so integral to what makes Milwaukee Milwaukee, and not some generic any-place. We are foolish to sacrifice these irreplaceable assets, and posterity will not judge us kindly for such missteps.

  3. Marie says:

    We’re lucky we have advocates for preservation but it often takes a lot of commitment (passion even), vision, and creative effort and financing to make it happen. But averting deterioration is also essential.

    I wonder if they made an effort to recycle the building materials, which also have value.

  4. douglas quigley says:

    In answer to the title question-
    yes he did. And got away with it.

  5. 2fs says:

    Sorry – but this article seems entirely speculative. What evidence do you have that Kopp just let the building rot? Do you have evidence that he didn’t spend the $750,000? If so, then maybe you have a point…but if he did spend it, it hardly seems likely he’d just piss away 3/4 million just as cover…when if the building was past rehab, a study probably costing less could have established that.

  6. Ursula Twombly says:

    Whether he neglected the building intentionally or not, we as a community need to find better safeguards from letting this happen to other buildings. the city can issue a raze order and have a contractor come in and tear it down so why can’t we ask a contractor to make the building water tight and add it to the property owners tax bill?

  7. Andy Umbo says:

    I was told by a developer thirty years ago, that unless someone has meticulously maintained a vintage building, it was too costly to rehab, prohibitively costly. What he said was: “…you could tear it down and build something that looks exactly like it, for less money.”

  8. Lucy Cooper says:

    I think some points should be made for Mr. Kopp. He purchased an old rundown building in 1984, used it 19 years for storage and presumably paid property taxes on it. The building was not “landmarked” by the city when he bought it, and he had every right to rely on his ability to manage it as he saw fit within existing zoning ordinances. In 2003, with the neighborhood gentrifying, he saw an opportunity to develop the property and make a tidy profit. I didn’t think that was illegal or unpatriotic or evil. According to a previous poster here, Kopp hired good architects and proposed an attractive apartment building, not a shoddy inferior get rich quick box of a building. Even Whitney Gould, a serious preservation advocate with an influential newspaper column, supported his plan.

    At that point the righteous preservationists swoop in to landmark his building and he is forced to abandon HIS preferred use of his property. Now the preservationists want to say what he should have done and what the city should have done to make him do what they think he should have done – all of which involve spending HIS money to do what THEY think he should have done to preserve a property he owned for 19 years as a storage facility without a peep from anyone.

    I haven’t a clue about the whether he was or was not dealing in good faith by the time 2013 rolled around – and neither do most of the people opining the issue. I do know the bullying tactics of the HPC and the self appointed guardians of the city managed to stop a property from being developed for 12 years and providing attractive housing and enhanced property taxes.

    I am not saying all historic preservationists are always wrong – far from it. But this penchant for landmarking buildings AFTER a longtime owner seeks to develop one can be wielded unfairly and end up with the tqxpyers and the preservationists losing more than they gained. As for Mr. Kopp, I know he is a rich guy and he will survive, and maybe he did “play” the city and the HPC. But I think he has some good arguments for his position.

  9. David Ciepluch says:

    There are many great comments. There are many buildings that result in a demolition by neglect. It takes a special owner with knowledge and dedication to preserve a vintage building. Anyone that owns an old home or car knows this. And many arguments for just letting it be demolished instead of restoration.

    A very recent case in point is the Milwaukee City Hall. Millions spent to preserve it and fortify sinking foundations and falling tiles. Then the wrong caulk that was specified causes millions more in repairs that were already done. Taxpayers supported this one and we could discuss endlessly the pros and cons.

  10. Bill Kissinger says:

    Lucy Cooper’s points are all well-taken. She describes accurately the conflict between our system of property rights and the legitimate urge of a culture to preserve its artifacts.

    In my earlier comments I cited Whitney Gould’s column to highlight just how hard this stuff is. I’m sure most observers overlooked the significance of this particular little gem. I’m almost positive Karl Kopp had the best of intentions when he proposed his Tod & Billie project.

    The fact remains that this is the kind of tragic waste that happens in every place that is ambivalent about its past. There is a saying that says to invest in real estate because “they’re not making any more.” The same can be said of the things bequeathed to us from the past.

  11. Jill says:

    I’m with Lucy Cooper on this one. It’s pretty dirty that someone can take a dilapidated building that no one wants and then the second they try and do something with it all the North Shore Nancy preservationists are suddenly interested in having their say. Where are all these preservationists when the building is falling apart or possibly near foreclosure? They get to put up all kinds of roadblocks and added expenses for the owner – but they don’t have to pony up a dime.

    The City’s HPC should do a survey FIRST and then designate those buildings it feels are “historic.” The Common Council can then pass legislation that requires a new buyer to be informed that there are historic preservation requirements on the building. This would enable buyers who do not wish to comply with HPC standards to avoid buying such buildings. But this attacking of owners after they’ve bought a random, undesignated building and then foisting extra costs on them is just not right.

  12. Bill and Lucy make very good points.

    I would take Carl Kopps at his word. Look at his other places in Milwaukee, the custard stands and Elsa’s. Very classy in the best possible meaning of term. Elsa’s started out when everyone thought downtown was dead, and decades later retains its vitality like no other establishment in Milwaukee, in part because of Kopps attention to architectural detail and quality.

    Preservationist’s in Milwaukee should find a way to allow people like Karl Kopps to make buildings today that will become historic in the future.

  13. Dave Reid says:

    “I would take Carl Kopps at his word. ” Really? wow

  14. Observor says:

    I was in that building maybe 30 years ago. It was then an antique shop. I think it was owned by Dusty who also rehabbed the building and bar that is now Shaker’s Cigar Bar. There was no water damage then, but much can change in 30 years. The exterior was beautiful and it is a shame it was leveled.

  15. Chris Kuester says:

    I have been past the Burnham building many times throughout the past Summer- while you couldn’t see much going on from the street vantage point, from the river you could see engineers and construction workers crawling all over the building most of the summer. Having a construction background, I can attest at least $750K was spent judging from the amount and time workers were on site.
    It is sad to lose a historic building, but I believe Karl Kopp did his level best to revitalize and restore the building to usable standards. I don’t believe Mr. Kopp would have burnt $750K as a ruse to demolish the building, no savvy businessman would…
    I am looking forward now to what may be created on this prominent Milwaukee site.

  16. Ben Tyjeski says:

    Attention developers: preserve at least a portion of a building! We have done this before in Milwaukee, although this is rare. Off 3rd and Wells on the northwest corner of the Century Building remains a wall from the Grasller & Gezelschap lighting and plumbing fixtures store. Most noteworthy is the atlas sculpture. Some people may say it means little to most people, but I disagree. The charm and wonder of living in a city (with “old buildings”) is that one can live and work in the foundation of our culture and history.

    If Kopp proceeds with a residential tower, I would imagine that a prospective resident of the Fifth Ward would have admired a portion of the former building still existing. It goes with that whole “story of the building” tag that you hear on HGTV House Hunters when a couple looks for an apartment in the city. Of course, they want the “modern” amenities, but they also want the “historic, vintage” charm. Unlike the zealous demolition crews in Milwaukee, Seattle has several examples of building new, high-rise development and preserving historic structures. The New Allen Institute Building and Cristalla Building are two striking examples.

  17. Virginia Small says:

    I second Ben’s suggestion. Preservation does not have to be all or nothing. It takes effort, commitment and creativity to seek innovative alternatives. But it does pay off in retaining distinctive character and buildings and neighborhoods that attract people. Authenticity generates economic impact and there’s plenty of proof in Milwaukee.

    The Brewery is a prime example. Original plans for Pabst City called for razing 20 of the 28 buildings. Some went down, but many more have been saved. Zilber has done the right things to create an appealing and sustainable neighborhood

    Sadly, we lost two stalwart preservationists within the last two years: Paul Jakubovich in the city’s preservation office and Donna Schlieman, a volunteer community advocate. Thankfully, there are still many pushing preservation and the National Historic Trust’s Main Streets USA will be hosting their conference in Milwaukee in May. Let’s hope it inspires even more passion for preservation.

    As we speak, state legislators are trying–again–to cut off historic preservation funding.

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