Journal Complex Historic for Now
Historic Preservation Commission grants temporary designation for complex.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s downtown office complex is historic, at least for now.
The Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved temporary historic designation for the complex at the corner of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and W. State St. A hearing on permanent designation is scheduled for March 18th.
The six-story building has seen a lot of changes in its nearly 100 years of life. Built in 1924 for The Milwaukee Journal, the printing presses have decamped for suburban West Milwaukee while an ever-shrinking reporting staff remains. A highly-decorative frieze (stone artwork wrapping the building) depicting the history of communication was removed from the building in 2011. A handful of decorative elements still remain on the facade, paying tribute to historic figures in communication and printing. City records indicate the Journal building has 256,429 square feet of space – much of it now empty.
A lengthy presentation by city preservation staffer Carlen Hatala, which ironically included the mention of the cultural significance of longtime editor and president Lucius Nieman‘s push for brevity and just the facts, detailed the history of the complex and newspaper.
Hatala summarized an article in a 1925 edition of American Architect that highlighted the building’s unique foundation (each printing press had its own), employee amenities (a cafeteria) and substantial interior lighting. Hatala also detailed the paper’s business history, including the 1995 merger of the Journal and Sentinel and stock option program.
The building, designed by Chicago architect and engineer Frank D. Chase, was recommended for historic designation based on its cultural significance, distinguished architectural style and role as a neighborhood icon. Hatala also added that Nieman’s contributions to Milwaukee and the newspaper industry also make it worthy of designation.
Common Council members Robert Bauman and Michael Murphy nominated the complex for designation in early February given its likely sale. The temporary designation now applies to the entire complex, including a parking lot, while a permanent designation could exempt certain buildings or components.
The full-block complex, which includes a building long occupied by the Milwaukee Sentinel (918 N. Vel R. Phillips Ave.), has been listed for sale for a couple years since the paper has changed hands. Gannett, the paper’s current owner, rejected a takeover bid last month from Digital First. But Digital First, which owns almost 10 percent of Gannett already, could bid again or attempt a hostile takeover. But whether the sale goes through or not, the newspaper could find itself on the move.
Jeffers has successfully navigated the restrictions of local historic designation in the past, for buildings both old and new. Most recently the developer secured approval to build an 11-story office building at the northwest corner of N. Broadway and E. Clybourn St. in a city-designated historic district. Adjacent to that he also successfully redeveloped the Mitchell and Mackie buildings. On the other end of Downtown, the developer is pursuing a plan to develop an event space in the former St. James Episcopal Church.
A building’s owner retains the right to appeal the decision of the Historic Preservation Commission to the full Common Council, but neither Gannett nor anyone else registered opposition to the temporary designation. Permanent designation would require any future exterior modifications to the building to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the commission. The city’s historic preservation ordinance does not govern the interior of buildings.
Exempt from the whole debate is the building currently occupied by Major Goolsby’s restaurant and bar. That building, owned by Gannett, is part of a different parcel.
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Related Legislation: File 181638