Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Committee Says Marcus Center Isn’t Historic

City committee overrules Historic Preservation Commission. Full Common Council up next.

By - Apr 30th, 2019 03:00 pm
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Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

City officials spent more than four hours today hearing testimony on the historic merits of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, ultimately voting against a permanent historic designation for the complex. The measure will now go before the full Common Council.

The Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee vote reverses a decision of the Historic Preservation Commission from earlier this month.

The temporary historic designation remains in effect on the building for the time being.

The move is another twist, maybe the final one, in the now months-long debate about the historic merits of the downtown building and large campus that was triggered by the unveiling of a dramatic redevelopment of the complex in December 2018.

Alderman Robert Bauman, who also serves on the historic commission, moved to affirm the commission’s designation. He argued that designating the building preserves a public process for any future changes to the building, most of which he said he supports.

But Bauman’s motion failed on a 3-2 vote, with only Bauman and Ald. Jose. G. Perez in support.

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, who voted against the designation alongside Russell W. Stamper, II and Khalif Rainey, said: “As we sit here, it’s clear to me that this isn’t even about historic preservation.” She said the issue was created by the county-owned facility being leased to a non-profit and the county failing to fund the facility. “Now it seems like their problems are coming over here for us to deal with,” said Coggs. Stamper, who along with Rainey is a former county supervisor, said he agreed with Coggs.

Designed in 1968 by architect Harry Weese, the complex includes a grove of Horse Chestnut trees laid out by landscape architect Dan Kiley. “They thought alike about how buildings and landscapes worked together,” said historic preservation staffer Carlen Hatala in a lengthy presentation espousing the building’s historic merits.

Jennifer Current, landscape architect at Quorum Architects and Mark Debrauske, principal and architect at the Tredo Groupfiled an application in January with the commission to have the 3.65-acre property at 929 N. Water St. added to the city’s list of locally-designated historic structures. The nomination came in response to a plan by the non-profit Marcus Center to redevelop the facility and its grounds, including replacing the Kiley grove of trees with a new, open design.

The Marcus Center, led by Paul Mathews, has opposed the designation in a series of public hearings held before the historic commission. “We know that there is history and fondness for those trees, but we have got to move forward with a plan that serves the best interests of this community,” said Mathews.

The organization has sought to redevelop the complex with philanthropic support in response to declining revenues and the loss of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as an anchor tenant.

Architect Jim Shields of HGA, which is leading the redevelopment’s design, gave a presentation centered around what he argued was the complex’s loss of integrity. In designating a structure as historic, the commission must consider what defined criteria it satisfies, but Shields argues the commission has failed to consider the preamble to the listed criteria. The opening paragraph states the building must possess integrity of location, design, materials, setting, workmanship and association.

Shields argued that the 40-foot expansion and replacement of the front entry as well as replacing the building’s white travertine marble facade with Minnesota limestone have irreversibly altered the building’s integrity.

Showing an original photo of the building, Shields said: “if this building still existed, I have no doubt it would be designatable.”

But Hatala has a different view. “The changes made to the building and ground would not preclude it from being designated,” said Hatala in her presentation.

Shields’ presentation was followed by a presentation from former Kiley associate Peter Meyer of Vermont and Graef vice president Pat Kressin. Greaf, which is providing engineering services to the Marcus Center, said Kressin, has not found Kiley’s name on any construction documents, indicating he may not have been as involved in the project as is believed. Kressin said in working with Kiley on his grove at the Milwaukee Art Museum the topic of the Marcus Center grove came up and Kiley did not remember it. A representative of the Cultural Landscape Foundation said these claims were “astonishing” as part of his testimony in support of designation.

Kiley passed away in 2004.

Meyer said the campus, especially as it is today, lacks some of Kiley’s signature elements. “I’ve never seen an urban plaza by Dan Kiley that didn’t have trees along the street,” said Meyer. “The thing that Dan loved about the grove of trees, that I think has been irreparably changed, is that you could move through the trees and come out at any single point.” He said changes to the plaza and the construction of the Peck Pavilion have altered this effect.

Meyer, who worked with Kiley for 14 years, said Kiley was a student of his own work, frequently returning to revisit prior projects. He said the horse chestnut trees have been shown to not work in an urban environment. “Personally, I would never plant them again in an urban setting,” said Meyer.

The condition of the grove has been a frequent source of debate, with the Marcus Center securing permission to remove four trees from the grove. Current and others have advocated for replanting the entire grove with new trees if necessary as a long-term maintenance plan. Mathews has argued that the grove’s design is fundamentally flawed and prevents full use of the grounds.

In a brief presentation to the committee, historic commission member Patti Keating Kahn compared the Marcus Center to the National Rifle Association (NRA) when it comes to what she said is a campaign of misinformation around how designating the building would limit the ability to make handicapped accessibility improvements to the campus and grounds. “A huge PR campaign has happened, lots of money is being spent,” said Keating Kahn. “That is totally false information. It sounds like the NRA is saying President [Barack Obama] is coming to take our guns away.”

Bauman called the issue a red herring. He said the commission routinely approves accessibility improvements. “I think the PAC should really be drawn on the carpet for not having made changes sooner,” said Bauman. ‘It’s odd now that literally the major reason for not approving the designation is accessibility.”

Brian Peters, community access and policy specialist at IndependenceFirst, disputed Keating Kahn’s remarks and those of others. Peters said he sees numerous issues with making the grove accessible, including the need for 15-foot-long ramps and gravel compacting that would further damage trees.

Approximately 10 people in the audience held up pro-accessibility signs during the hearing.

Milwaukee County owns the structure and leases it to the Marcus Center on a 99-year lease. Supervisor Steven Shea appeared to testify in favor of the historic designation. Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson, who represents the center, submitted a letter in opposition to the designation. County Executive Chris Abele did not respond to a request for comment on his stance on the designation.

For further details on the designation process, and arguments for and against, see our extensive coverage linked below.

More about the Marcus Center redevelopment

4 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Committee Says Marcus Center Isn’t Historic”

  1. George Wagner says:

    Thanks, Jeramey, for thorough coverage of this issue and yesterday’s zoning meeting. I do want to call out the duplicitous testimony of Paul Matthew, the Marcus Center’s CEO. He and his cronies are hell-bent on destroying the chestnut grove to create a more open space and used spurious evidence to support their claims about the ill health of the trees. Especially galling was the Center’s garnering support from the disabled community to oppose historic designation based on bogus claims that preservation efforts preclude accessibility. Kudos to Ald. Bauman for calling them out on this tactic. As for Jim Shields, usually an architect I admire, he’s gone down a couple of notches in my estimation by catering to the desires of his client to the detriment of the city.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    Professionals hired by the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. to testify at the hearing seemed to ignore or discount readily accessible published statements, documents and oral-history accounts about Dan Kiley’s work and legacy, including at the Marcus Center. As Ald. Bauman pointed out at the hearing, all the Kiley experts who testified against designation had significant financial stakes in the outcome.

    Joe Karr, who worked with Dan Kiley directly on the PAC project from start to finish, is now retired and has no financial stake in this process or its outcome.

    March 2109 Q & A with Joe Karr: https://www.milwaukeemag.com/thinking-behind-marcus-centers-famous-chestnut-grove/

    TCLF Oral History with Joe Karr: https://www.tclf.org/pioneer/oral-history/joe-karr-oral-history

    Article by Chicago design journalist Zach Mortice in Landscape Architecture magazine, January 2019 https://landscapearchitecturemagazine.org/2019/01/29/great-lawn-vs-grove/

  3. dk mke says:

    Isn’t there a grove of trees one block west of here, laid out in a grid, that no one gives a rip about? I appreciate the artist that designed it but at the end of the day it’s a rectangle of trees in a public space that rarely if ever gets used

  4. Thomas Martinsen says:

    The Chestnut Grove is one of the most appealing green spaces in our downtown area. Many downtown workers and some tourists have had lunch there on hot summer days, It is more than “a rectangle of trees.” It is loved by those who use it.

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