Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Forest Home Library Is Historic. For Now

Temporary designation stops development for 28 days. Hearing on permanent designation on November 30th.

By - Nov 2nd, 2020 06:07 pm
Forest Home Library. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

Forest Home Library. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

The Historic Preservation Commission granted the former Forest Home Library temporary historic designation on Monday, creating a temporary restraining order on any changes to the mid-century modern building.

But a more impactful hearing on permanent designation is scheduled for November 30th, with Common Council review to follow.

“Whatever we do today will have very little impact unless someone is doing something to the building in the next 28 days,” said commission member Alderman Robert Bauman. “This is not as bad or good as people think, depending on people’s view on this.”

The library is preparing to sell the building, located at 1432 W. Forest Home Ave., to ICAP Development, which would demolish the 14,500-square-foot structure in favor of a $5 million, 18,000-square-foot clinic for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

It’s the third time the Milwaukee Public Library has tried to sell the building since 2017 when it relocated the branch library to 906 W. Historic Mitchell St. Immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera was poised to buy and rehabilitate the building in 2018, but that fell through, as did a second sale to HK Gill Properties.

The library had originally prohibited demolition as part of the sale. “I think people felt the building was in good hands,” said commissioner staffer Carlen Hatala.

Completed in 1966, the building was one of many libraries the city built from the late 1950s to early 1970s. But as the city has sought to replace or redevelop the aging properties, it’s the only one to have drawn interest in preservation.

Hatala said that’s because the design is the best of the bunch, including the use of Cor-Ten steel, then a new building product, inside and out.

Designed by Fritz von Grossman, the building was recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Wisconsin chapter and the Institute of Steel Construction in 1967. “If that weren’t enough,” Hatala noted, the company used Forest Home Library in an ad for Cor-Ten steel. Von Grossman, who practiced in the partnership of von Grossman, Burroughs & Van Lanen, designed a handful of buildings in the mid-century modern style in the Milwaukee area and also created the signature Kohl’s grocery store arch design.

She said the library building satisfies four of the city’s criteria for designation, including serving as an example of the city’s cultural history, a leading example of its architectural style, being designed by a master architect or builder and innovation, for its use of Cor-Ten steel. The last point is being invoked for the first time, said Hatala.

The designation was supported by nominators Kelsey Kuehn and Eric Vogel, an educator and architectural historian, both of Vogel Design Group, Jeremy Ebersole of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, preservation-focused architect Julia Ausloos-Bedinger and a granddaughter of von Grossman.

Brian Adamson of ICAP spoke in objection. “We think this building is interesting, but every interesting building can not be designated historic,” he said.

The library also objects to the designation. Newly-installed head librarian Joan Johnson said that preventing demolition will kill the deal and leave the library vacant, boarded up and “a blight on the community.”

“One can expect vacancy and degradation to continue, meaning eventual razing is likely,” wrote Johnson. But Bauman said those factors were not material to a discussion on temporary designation according to the ordinance.

Johnson also said that the city is exempt from historic designation restrictions, but Hatala said both City Hall and the Central Library have been historically designated.

“Let’s resolve that,” said Bauman, suggesting the City Attorney weigh in by the November 30th meeting.

The text of the ordinance indicates an exemption is given to city-owned buildings the Common Council votes to include in a dormant “initiative to market city assets for advertising, sponsorship and naming rights to private businesses and nonprofit organizations” and is not a blanket exemption.

The committee voted unanimously to endorse the temporary designation.

“We’ll probably see a lot of you folks in three weeks,” said Bauman, thanking everyone for sticking to only the relevant issues.

The one-story library building occupies a trapezoidal site bordered by S. 15th St. and W. Forest Home Ave. A parking lot is included on the north portion of the property.


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Related Legislation: File 200863

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