Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Masonic Center Could House Apartments

Once slated to be a hotel with a new tower, historic downtown building would now become housing.

By - Feb 3rd, 2021 01:39 pm
Historic Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Historic Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new building permit application submitted to the city reveals a change in course for the future of the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 790 N. Van Buren St.

Ascendant Holdings introduced a plan in 2016 to build a hotel tower atop the three-story building. But those plans, ultimately approved in late 2017 to include a 14-story tower with 215 rooms, haven’t advanced to construction.

The firm, as of 2020, was publicly listing the 132-year-old building for sale.

The permit, filed by Scott Ramlow of Ramlow/Stein Architecture + Interiors, indicates the new plan would convert the building to housing. No tower would be added. The firm was not the designer of the hotel plan.

The number of units, or if they would be apartments or condominiums, isn’t revealed in the application. A project cost of $6 million is estimated.

The building has 65,400 square feet of interior space according to city records. Any changes to the historically-protected building’s exterior, including replacing or relocating the 20 painted glass windows, would require a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission.

The interior includes a theater and multiple large meeting rooms. You can take an interactive, virtual tour via the property’s online listing.

Ascendant, through AH Masonic LLC, acquired the property for $3.5 million in 2017 from the masons organization, which has been downsizing. Ascendant is listed on the building permit as the property owner, but that does not necessarily mean the firm is the one proposing the latest conversion attempt.

Ascendant partner Eric Nordeen declined to comment.

The firm sold its other downtown building, the Wells Building at 324 E. Wisconsin Ave., for $7.25 million in September 2020.

While the new hotel didn’t move forward, just one block to the west a boutique project known as the Adams Hotel is under construction.

Hotel Renderings

Existing Building

Building History

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 a 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 in 1912 and built an addition to the south of the building shortly thereafter. At that point it was renamed the Wisconsin Consistory Building. In 1936 another prominent Milwaukee architect, consistory member Herbert Tullgren, completed an addition to the building. Tullgren also guided a substantial rehabilitation of the building which included erasing most 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.

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. It was successfully locally designated as historic in 2017.

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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Masonic Center Could House Apartments”

  1. tornado75 says:

    this is a beautiful building inside and out. if the city gives any money to this project, the city should assure that the units are mixed income level. people who require a low rent should be able to live in a beautiful space especially if public money is used at all.

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