Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Former Hospital Designated Historic

HPC decision made despite UWM's objections. But alderman thinks real fight yet to come.

By - Apr 5th, 2022 04:01 pm
Building A. Photo by Michael Horne.

Building A. Photo by Michael Horne.

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 designation still requires approval from the full Common Council, which has overruled the historic commission in recent years. And even if the designation is approved, UWM could still pursue multiple avenues to demolish the building.

“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.

UWM also could pursue a demolition through the court system, wherein it argues its authority as a state entity supersedes that of local zoning regulations. “Just so everyone knows, if there is a legal dispute of their jurisdiction here, they could proceed with demolition and let the chips fall where they may,” said commissioner Alderman Robert Bauman in March when the commission gave the structure temporary protection.

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 commission, however, does not consider economics in making its designation recommendations.

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.”

Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, also testified in support of the designation. He said any discussion of asbestos wasn’t relevant, as the material would also need to be abated if the building is demolished.

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.

2020 Photos

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4 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Former Hospital Designated Historic”

  1. mkeumkenews09 says:

    From what is portrayed here, this looks like another abuse by the HPC,

    Clearly, more specific and stringent guidelines need to be developed for how the HPC operates. It consistently looks like folks use it as a NIMBY and/or political tool to stop changes they disagree with and to raise costs for others.

  2. kaygeeret says:

    Truly, a very old hospital that would need going back to the studs to make anything useful – whether it be a dorm or a STEM building is hardly worthy of veneration.

    It is old, it is NOT of historic value.

    Let UWM do what it needs to do.

  3. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Why would anyone want to tear down a beautiful, perfectly maintained building like this one? If UWM doesn’t have a use for it then sell it to someone who does.

    That building is the perfect match for that neighborhood. And there’s not one single valid reason why this building must be torn down.

    Remodel the interior for student housing. Problem solved.

  4. NieWiederKrieg says:

    If you’re going to demolish this beautiful building in perfect condition because it’s “too old”, you might as well start tearing down all the large homes, estates, and mansions in the area because they are also “too old”. Maybe Chris Abele was right after all…

    Crew Destroying Abele’s Mansion – Historic $2.6 million Eschweiler mansion built by one of city’s most esteemed architects.

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