Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Forest Home Library Not Historic, Alders Vote

Committee overturns historic designation for 1960s building, full council vote to come

By - Dec 8th, 2020 01:43 pm
Forest Home Library. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

Forest Home Library. Image from the City of Milwaukee.

A Common Council committee delivered a blow to those hoping for historic preservation of the Forest Home Library in a vote taken on Tuesday morning.

Advocates say the library is among the city’s best examples of the Mid-Century Modern style, well preserved and suited for reuse, while opponents say the building is energy inefficient and has outlived its useful life and that efforts to give it historic designation should have come earlier.

The Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee sided with the opponents, voting unanimously to recommend denial of historic designation for the former library, reversing a unanimous recommendation from the Historic Preservation Commission.

“I just want to mention this decision took some reflection on my part to support,” said area alderman and committee chair Jose G. Perez. “The library has been vacant for several years and did not receive the attention it is receiving now.”

Perez was joined by council members Milele A. Coggs, Marina Dimitrijevic and Ashanti Hamilton. Ald. Robert Bauman first moved to support the commission’s historic designation, then later voted with his colleagues to put the designation “on file,” which effectively killed the designation.

Designed by Fritz von Grossmann, the one-story building, 1432 W. Forest Home Ave., was completed in 1966. It’s received awards for its use of Cor-Ten steel in its structure.

The Milwaukee Public Library system is proposing to sell the property to ICAP Development for $450,000, which would demolish the 14,500-square-foot structure and the build 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 project fell through, as did a second sale to HK Gill Properties.

Historic Preservation Commission staffer Carlen Hatala endorsed the building’s designation. In a response to a question from Perez, she said the staff had not considered its designation before. “I guess as staff, we thought ‘good, the building will be preserved based on the listing’,” said Hatala.

The request for proposals called for preservation of the building, but the Department of City Development and library are dropping the requirement. “It became clear after many many months of due diligence that razing the building was the best option,” said DCD representative Dave Misky of ICAP’s research.

“I believe in an RFP like that, many of those terms change in getting to the finish line on a project,” said Perez. He said the requirements don’t carry the weight of law.

“Structurally speaking this building is in fine shape,” said ICAP’s Brian Adamson. “But it is more appropriate to call this building a pavilion.” He said the building was only well suited to a single, highly-visible internal use.

Steven Petitt, a partner and architect with Groth Design Group, working for ICAP, said the building lacked sufficient insulation. “This building does not just need a few select upgrades, it needs all upgrades,” he said.

Adamson said the replacement building would use less energy, honor its design and improve ingress-egress transportation issues. “We simply do not believe this building rises to the level of a historic building,” said Adamson. “All interesting buildings do not rise to the level of historic.”

Children’s Hospital vice president Dr. Smriti Khare and Adamson said the highly-visible location was desirable for a clinic. Khare said 4,500 children travel outside of the neighborhood to visit a primary care provider. “We would like to bring them back home,” she said.

“We are not here to point out the faults of other projects,” said nominator Eric Vogel. “We are not against the idea of a new health clinic. Far from it.” He said an online petition has collected over 500 signatures in one week.

Vogel, founder of Vogel Design Group, said he has worked quickly to build a coalition to save the building. His co-nominator Kelsey Kuehn, an architectural historian at Vogel Design Group, said they have worked with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance to build support for preservation, identify other sites for the clinic and brainstorm potential reuse opportunities for the library.

Preservation-focused architect Julia Ausloos-Bedinger said the facility could be repurposed as a community marketplace similar to the Sherman Phoenix, an event venue or an education and training center.

“Has anyone made an offer on the building? I’m assuming not,” said Perez. He said the ideas were good and would work for many sites in the neighborhood.

Vogel said he raised $500,000 in 10 days to purchase the buildings. “Once we get access to the building we can address the full scope of the project,” he said. “We have equity. We have a development team in place.” Architects from The Kubala Washatko Architects, with a 32-slide presentation, detailed how the library building could be improved and preserved.

The preservation advocates are suggesting the proposed clinic be built five blocks east on a city-owned surface parking at 1030 W. Maple St. Milwaukee Preservation Alliance executive director Jeremy Ebersole called it a “win-win” solution.

Perez said he asked ICAP to consider other sites, but they prefer the Forest Home site.

The preservation group attempted to conclude its remarks with a pre-recorded video of historian John Gurda endorsing the building’s preservation, but technology issues prevented it from being played.

The library and its board oppose the designation.

If our children are sick and dying what memories will be created?” said library board president and Journey House CEO Michele Bria in arguing to block the designation. “I urge you to consider the children and families on Milwaukee’s Near South Side.”

Before the two-hour discussion began, Dimitrijevic said she wouldn’t support historic designation and said advocates and city officials needs to find a way to advance those designations earlier. “Heck I would like to know in my own district what’s out there, rather than it being the last hour,” said the newly-elected alderwoman.

It’s a similar request to one Bauman and Commissioner Sally Peltz took during the historic commission hearing on the matter. Hatala said she would work to make it so.

“We will do a better job of communicating with Carlen, [HPC staffer Tim Askin] and HPC staff,” said Misky of DCD’s involvement.

The committee unanimously approved the land sale resolution following the designation.

The full Common Council is scheduled to vote on the designation and land sale on December 15th


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Related Legislation: File 200865

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