Masonic Hotel Gets Key Approval
Historic Preservation Commission clears downtown hotel tower to move forward
The proposed 220-room hotel to be built atop the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center gained a critical approval Monday from the Historic Preservation Commission. The commission granted approval to the hotel, pending a few minor design modifications that are intended to preserve the historic character of the 1889 structure. The hotel, which adds a 15-story tower to the top of the historic structure, could open as early as Spring 2019.
Ascendant Holdings, led by Eric Nordeen and Matthew Prescott, is developing the project. The hotel will be operated by Portland-based boutique operator Provenance Hotels, and is being designed by a partnership of New Jersey-based Kraig Kalashian Architecture & Design and New Orleans-based Metro Studio.
The proposal before the commission today came after more than three months of discussion between Ascendant and city staffers according to Nordeen. In their presentation of the project, city Historic Preservation staffers Carlen Hatala and Tim Askin walked through the project and noted that “while the construction of a new hotel tower atop the building is a very dramatic change for a historic building, the staff finds it appropriate.” Askin said the proposal represents a “completely new proposal from the one that walked in the door originally.” He noted the original proposal called for a tower as well, but the developer has done a good job responding to the issues raised by historic preservation staff.
Following a discussion that lasted more than a hour between the commissioners, development team, architects and historic preservation staff, a motion was put forth by Blair Williams to approve the tower on the condition that the developer work with historic preservation staff to address their concerns over the signage not matching the character of the structure, the relocation of stained glass in the interior, and canopies that block carved-stone entryway details. The commission voted in favor of the proposal, with only Ann Pieper Eisenbrown voting no.
The proposal was met with praise from Williams and Patti Keating Kahn. UW-Milwaukee architecture professor and commission chair Matt Jarosz ultimately voted for the project after offering a warning of sorts — that more such projects will come forward in the coming years and the commission needs to be prepared to properly address them. Jarosz, who had a number of questions for the architecture team and developers, praised the use of the first-floor of the tower to mitigate the “collision” of the historic building with the modern tower.
In her dissent, Pieper Eisenbrown said she appreciated how much time the developer and historic preservation staff have spent hammering out the details, but that she wasn’t comfortable with the project yet. “I’m not opposed to a glass building, but somehow it’s not coming together for me,” she noted. “I’m not trying to say no.”
Nordeen thanked the commission for their approval and the staff for their support, noting that he doesn’t see the canopies or signage as major issues to overcome. He said the stained glass work on the interior will be more difficult to address as it gives many of the interior rooms a “church-like feel” that isn’t conducive to modern meeting rooms.
In a follow-up interview after the meeting, Nordeen and Prescott said they hope to have the design issues addressed within 30 days. From there they’ll close on the purchase of the property and move to final architectural design of the interior of the tower, which they estimate could take four to six months. According to the developers, construction of the tower could begin as early as late third quarter, early fourth quarter of 2017, which would slate the tower for an early 2019 opening.
Convoluted Process To Get To Approval
The legal process to get to today’s approval was far from ordinary. A proposal early last year by the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, which ultimately supported today’s proposal, started the process to protect the building under the city’s historic preservation ordinance. That proposal is still being held by chair Jim Bohl in the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, but was approved by the Historic Preservation Commission over objections by the Masons.
In order to be able to redevelop the property as desired without the restrictions placed on it by the building being historically-designated, Ascendant and the city worked out an arrangement where the building was approved Monday for a six-month temporary designation. That compromise allowed the commission to have a vote in protecting the building’s integrity by requiring the developer to seek a certificate of appropriateness for their changes. That COA was granted today with the vote made by the commission.
Once Ascendant has acquired the property from the Masons, the city’s permanent historic designation of the property can advance without objection.
This was a win-win-win proposal for the city, the developer and lawyers seeking billable hours.
Farewell Blair Williams
Blair Williams will be stepping down from the Historic Preservation Commission following the next meeting. The real estate developer finds himself increasingly busy now that he’s leading the Live Block entertainment center component of the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The commission will be worse off without someone I’ve called the “commissioner of common sense.”
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