Ascendant Buys Masonic Temple for Hotel
Controversial hotel project on Van Buren St. takes big step.
The proposed 14-story hotel for the former Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 790 N. Van Buren St. is moving forward. The developer, Ascendant Holdings, acquired the site last Friday for $3.5 million from the masons.
The proposal includes building a glassy 14-story tower atop the three-story masonic temple.
The 220-room 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.
Reached via email, Ascendant’s Eric Nordeen offered this update: “Next step is to engage in a full architectural and engineering design process. Our current plans are conceptual, and a lot of design work is still needed. We probably need four to six months to complete this process, planning to start construction next summer.”
A proposal for the city to designate the structure a historic building has been on hold before the Common Council since earlier this this year. The Scottish Rite Valley of Milwaukee, which previously owned the building, opposed the designation as it could limit the resale value if this deal fell through. Ascendant, however, approves of the deal.
Ascendant’s proposal, which was approved by the Historic Preservation Commission in May, utilizes the historic structure as a selling point for the hotel. A ballroom and other amenities will be included in the historic structure, with a rooftop deck constructed atop it.
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 2016 that his group can’t afford 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.
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 the city’s historic designation study, 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.
By 1912 the church decamped for 2717 E. Hampshire St. near UW-Milwaukee, where it still resides today. The Scottish Rite Masons, a branch of Freemasonry, bought the building from the Congregationalists and then built an addition to the south of the building. It was soon renamed the Wisconsin Consistory Building. In 1936 another prominent Milwaukee architect, consistory member Herbert Tullgren, completed another addition to the building. Tullgren also guided a substantial rehabilitation of the building which included erasing many of the Richardsonian Romanesque features in favor of a more Art Deco design. The brick facade was covered with Bedford Limestone, the arched windows were made rectangular and a horizontal design came to sport a more vertical orientation.
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.
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