Former Hospital Designated Historic
HPC decision made despite UWM's objections. But alderman thinks real fight yet to come.
The Historic Preservation Commission unanimously granted permanent historic designation Monday to the oldest portion of the former Columbia Hospital, while UW-Milwaukee continues to pursue demolition of the structure in the middle of its campus. Supporters of the designation contend the university should further explore converting the largely unaltered building to housing, while UWM is seeking to demolish the structure because it has not identified a viable use for it.
The university paid $20.2 million in 2010 for the 1.1-million-square-foot hospital complex at 2015-2025 E. Newport Ave. The oldest portion, an L-shaped building near the intersection of N. Maryland Ave. and E. Hartford Ave., was constructed between 1919 and 1969.
“The real case will be when they file a [Certificate of Appropriateness] for demolition,” said area Alderman Nik Kovac. A COA request, subject to HPC and council review, is the process by which a historic building can be altered or demolished. The council could determine the structure to be worthy of designation, but later approve a demolition request that UWM could argue on economic grounds.
The university is reportedly spending $232,000 annually on the building and would need to spend $6 million to demolish and clear the site. According to a UWM report, it would cost $96.5 million to reconfigure the building for STEM space, which the university views as its most pressing need. It is developing a new chemistry building a block to the south.
The structure is not currently listed on either the national register of historic places, but is on the state register. In a March 31 letter to the city, the University of Wisconsin System says it has fulfilled all obligations to begin demolition of the structure on May 2 and does not need to obtain a certificate of appropriateness. A response from the City Attorney’s Office states the belief based on a 1984 opinion that the city’s zoning rules, including historic designation, do apply and requests a letter from the university system that it will engage in demolition without local approval.
UWM associate vice chancellor for facilities, planning and management Melissa Spadanuda said Monday that the university is seeking to be a “responsible steward” of state dollars. “UWM owns multiple historic buildings that we do preserve and maintain,” she said. But what the university calls Northwest Quad A isn’t suitable to be added to that list, she told the commission.
“It has remained nearly entirely vacant [since being purchased] and it’s unusable, costing hundreds of thousands each year in utilities and security,” said Spadanuda. She said it lacks a sprinkler system and is lined with asbestos.
She said, unlike an alumni house sold last year to become a private house, it doesn’t make sense to sell the Columbia Hospital building. The structure is located at the center of UWM’s campus and is attached to newer hospital buildings that UWM is repurposing.
Its layout is also unsuitable for university housing she said, with UWM now creating suites or pods of rooms around small common spaces. UWM is also restricted from using the former building for housing as a condition of its purchase. The restriction comes in the form of a memorandum of understanding agreed to with the surrounding neighborhoods.
The original building was designed in the Georgian Revival style by the Chicago-based firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin. HPC staffer Carlen Hatala gave a detailed presentation on the firm and hospital’s history, including its role in the development of electro cardiology and orthopedics, and recommended it be designated for its exemplification of Milwaukee’s healthcare history, its embodiment of distinguishing characteristics of the Georgian Revival architectural style and the significance of the architecture firm that designed it, which also designed Chicago’s since-demolished Michael Reese Hospital and a number of other hospitals.
Hatala and others said precedent exists locally for converting the building to housing. She said Old Main at Soldiers’ Home, a post-Civil War structure, was in worse condition, but was successfully converted last year to affordable housing for military veterans. The St. Anthony Hospital, 1004 N. 10th St., a hospital from the same era as Columbia, was redeveloped into the St. Anthony Apartments in 2018. Other hospitals in Milwaukee have been converted to housing as well.
Catherine T. Miller, who nominated the structure for historic designation after seeing a construction fence go up, said she has fond memories of the structure. “The building is beautiful and it really does fit in with the neighborhood,” she said. “Certainly the buildings of Sandburg Hall don’t fit in with the neighborhood and enhance the neighborhood… I think we’re short sighted when we can destroy a historic building and replace it with something else.”
UWM first held a public meeting about its demolition plan in January 2020 and in February 2020 received approval from the State of Wisconsin Building Commission to proceed with the demolition project. The university acquired the hospital as part of a series of mergers. Columbia merged with St. Mary’s Hospital in 1995, and then with Ascension in 1999. A large, modern complex was built at the St. Mary’s site along E. North Ave. in 2006, with all operations consolidated there by 2010.
A full copy of the historic designation report can be found on Urban Milwaukee.
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