East Side Homes’ Historic Designation Stuck in Limbo
Commission defers decision on designation for homes otherwise poised for demolition.
The fate of two 133-year-old houses on Milwaukee’s East Side remains an undecided matter pending before the Historic Preservation Commission. But the owner of the two houses believes the inaction of Milwaukee Water Works has already sealed their fate.
In August 2021, the commission granted the houses, 2275 N. Summit Ave. and 2279 N. Summit Ave., temporary historic designation. The move effectively works as a restraining order, granting 180 days of protection while a more stringently evaluated, permanent designation is considered.
But with the deadline looming, the commission is holding off on a decision while applicant Dawn McCarthy and a consultant study designating an even broader area as historic.
The siding has already been stripped from both of them. But it’s what inside that TamaRock’s attorney Thomas Gartner claims makes them economically infeasible to salvage.
“It’s our position that both of those houses are in such a state of disrepair that even if designated they will need to be demolished,” said Gartner at Monday’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting.
But Wagner agreed to maintain the temporary designation past the 180-day expiration in order to let McCarthy’s consultant study if more nearby homes should be added to the North Point South Historic District.
The wood-frame, 1889 houses are across the street from the city’s North Point South Historic District, which includes some of the city’s most valuable homes. The district does not include the west side homes, despite that they are from a similar era and subdivision.
“It is staff’s opinion that when this was designated in the 80s this was an oversight, probably a classist oversight,” said staffer Tim Askin in August. The subject houses are two-story, 1,662-square-foot structures. They were developed by William Spence, of whom little is known other than he likely built a number of homes across the city.
“Our consultants will look at houses south on Summit and also between Summit and Prospect to determine which houses might be considered to be included in an expanded historic district,” said McCarthy.
“It’s our position that these two individual homes should be considered in conjunction with the proposal to expand the district to include other houses on that block so that all of the information is available to the commission at the same time,” said Gartner.
Wagner’s demolition request is part of a bigger plan to develop a seven-story, 90-unit apartment building on the corner of N. Summit Ave. and E. North Ave. He also applied to demolish two four-unit structures along E. North Ave. But that new development, which would also require a zoning change, is on hold, at least for now.
“It feels like benign neglect,” said Commissioner Sally Peltz of the inaction. “We let this thing go on and on and then we have no other alternative but to demolish it. The attorney is basically saying that.”
Gartner claims the damage was done before the 2021 designation request.
In November 2020, Wagner requested the water be shut off to all four properties, but it was only shut off to the North Avenue properties. Pipes burst in the unoccupied Summit Avenue homes, which Gartner claims Wagner only became aware of in May 2021.
A May 25 letter from the water utility attributes the failure to shut off the water to an “internal error.” Gartner, who submitted photos of the interior to the record, says the homes now have falling plaster, mold and other damage. Wagner applied to demolish them in June, triggering McCarthy’s application.
The commission, in holding the matter for a broader review of the area, will also coordinate an interior visit to the house for its staff to assess the condition. Gartner suggested a Department of Neighborhood Services building inspector attend.
Wagner’s E North LLC paid $425,000 combined for the two houses. It paid $1.2 million combined for the 1940s buildings, 2231 E. North Ave. and 2239 E. North Ave. No historic designation is pending for the North Avenue buildings.
In August, Commissioner Matt Jarosz, a UW-Milwaukee architecture professor, said the commission should address the jagged borders of the district. He suggested following National Park Service guidance to square them off and designate non-historic structures as non-contributing. “I think we have a bigger issue we should talk about so we don’t have to keep cleaning up this stuff,” he said.
A similar fight over district borders occurred in the adjacent North Point North Historic District in 2018 when three new houses were proposed for a vacant lot.
Should permanent designation ultimately come as part of a larger historic district, the decision is automatically forwarded to the Common Council for review. In a handful of high-profile cases, the Common Council has overruled the historic commission, denying designation.
McCarthy told the commission she expected the consultant’s report to be completed by March at the earliest.
March 2021 Renderings
August 2021 Photos
2020 Site Photos
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