Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Masonic Hotel Inches Forward

Approval depends on 20 well-hidden stained glass windows.

By - May 10th, 2017 02:58 pm
Potential Hotel at the Masonic Center. Rendering provided by Ascendant Holdings.

Potential Hotel at the Masonic Center. Rendering provided by Ascendant Holdings.

The developers of a proposed 220-room, 14-story hotel to be built atop the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center are still working with city officials to secure final approval for their project. The developers are haggling with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and historic preservation staff over the fate of 20 stained-glass windows, none of which are original to the building.

You’re forgiven if you’ve never noticed the stained glass windows; at least one of the commissioners was in the same boat. Said Commissioner Patti Keating Kahn during the meeting: “when I drive past the building I cannot see stained glass. The building is so dark.” She’s right, they’re barely visible because they’re covered by a dark plate glass. Yet, interior photos shown by historic preservation staff member Tim Askin show a number of colorful windows, most notably in a second-floor chapel space.

Ascendant Holdings, led by Eric Nordeen and Matthew Prescott, is looking to remove and relocate the windows as part of their redevelopment of the property at 790 N. Van Buren St. The hotel will be operated by Portland-based boutique operator Provenance Hotels, who has told Ascendant that the windows create an environment that is too dark to be used as food and beverage space or meeting rooms.

The discussion surrounding the windows has many layers, not unlike the history of the building itself. On one-hand, they’re not original to the building, and not even part of the 1936 conversion that modified the original 1889 Richardsonian Romanesque building by Alexander C. Eschweiler into an Art Deco building by Herbert Tullgren. They were added from 1938 to 1950 after being given to the Masons by newly inducted members. On another hand, they’re integral to the interior of the building, but the interior of a building isn’t governed by Milwaukee’s historic preservation ordinance. Adding another layer to the issue, Ascendant doesn’t actually own the building. They only have a purchase option from the Masons and won’t purchase the building until the project is fully approved.

Ascendant will need commission approval to remove the windows and display them as art in the hotel’s interior, as they’ve indicated they desire to. Yet the Historic Preservation Commission wouldn’t have the authority to compel them to display them once they’ve been removed. No one is suggesting Ascendant has any desire to pull a bait-and-switch, but the preservation staff and commission have raised concerns over setting precedent regarding future projects.

Further complicating things, two stained glass experts, including local firm Conrad Schmitt Studios, have examined the windows and, according to Nordeen, deemed them inferior. As Nordeen told the commission “both independently concluded [the windows are] locally made, of inferior quality and they don’t really have any secondary value. They do have value to the Masons.”

Perhaps more germane to the commission than the hard-to-regulate fate of the windows is what Ascendant would replace them with. Matthew Jarosz, who chairs the commission and leads UW-Milwaukee Historic Preservation Institute, held a lengthy back and forth with project architect Ken Gowland about the merits of various window replacement options. The stained glass windows weren’t built as entirely new windows, but instead installed inside the existing window frames. The rest of the windows in the building were replaced in 1996 by the masons. Nordeen suggested that replacing the stained glass windows could lead to a building with greater historic integrity.

Ultimately, the commission seemed supportive of finding a solution, but held off on making a decision. The meeting ended with Jarosz telling Nordeen, “I think you need to come back and tell us exactly where you want to go with it.”

Ascendant and their team, including a partnership of New Jersey-based Kraig Kalashian Architecture & Design and New Orleans-based Metro Studio, must now firm up plans of how they wish to use the windows and what they’ll replace them with.

Will the masons find a home for them?  Will Ascendant display them within the building, and if so how many? Will they leave any in place? We’ll know more soon. Should the commission reject Ascendant’s plans, the developer would retain the right to go to the full Common Council to override the historic commission’s decision.


Existing Building

6 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Masonic Hotel Inches Forward”

  1. Lucy Cooper says:

    It takes a 2/3 common council vote to overturn HPC – not easy, particularly if Alderman is against you.

    Where does the area Alderman stand?

  2. AG says:

    This is definitely one of my favorite projects in the works right now. I’m happy to see this progressing and hope they work out a compromise!

  3. Sarah says:

    I don’t approve this project as a hotel.
    1. The design is hideous. It does not fit the area at all.
    2. We don’t need another hotel. There needs to be subsidized housing.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Sarah As a neighborhood resident I think a hotel would be excellent… This stretch needs a little more activity and streetlife which this will add. I must admit the Marriott hotel has helped with this on Milwaukee. The design well, it’s different, but that’s fine. And yes, downtown could using more affordable (subsidized) housing, but that’s really a separate issue.

  5. Tom R says:

    Ugh. I just lost my lunch. That hotel is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.

  6. Sam says:

    Meh, the design is different at least. Hotel saturation is likely to become an issue at some point, but if this group thinks they will make money…then by all means.

    The roof deck design is a little weird. You’d think you’d try and push the deck to the very edges of the street on the north and west sides instead of having a bunch of bushes blocking views of the street. Whatever, you won’t be able to use it 8 months out of the year anyways.

    Best of luck.

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