Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Fight Over Former Columbia Hospital Heads Back To Court

City appeals ruling, seeks to block UWM's further demolition of hospital.

By - Aug 29th, 2022 02:14 pm
Demolition is underway on the former Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Demolition is underway on the former Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A panel of three appeals court judges now controls the future of the former Columbia Hospital, and possibly whether local governments can historically protect state-owned buildings.

The City of Milwaukee is appealing a judge’s ruling that UW-Milwaukee could proceed with the demolition of the oldest portion of the former Columbia Hospital. If the city is successful, it could halt the demolition of the building for the second time, while also leaving open the possibility that the building is ultimately demolished.

The city formally approved designating the structure as historic in April, which established the requirement for UWM to apply for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish or modify the 103-year-old structure. But Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Martens ruled on June 30 that the city’s requirement is a local permitting matter from which the state is exempt and shortly thereafter dismissed the city’s initial lawsuit.

As Urban Milwaukee reported, UWM, through contractor JP Cullen, began highly visible demolition work, including removing windows, while Historic Preservation Commission members publicly and privately debated whether to appeal the ruling.

That appeal was filed on Aug. 18. The city also has a pending injunction request before circuit court judge Glenn Yamahiro to halt the demolition until the Court of Appeals makes a ruling.

The university is seeking to demolish the oldest portions of the hospital to create green space on its landlocked campus. It has pursued demolition through a public process since 2019, but a petition for historic designation was not submitted until February 2022 after a construction fence went up and interior demolition work started.

The university paid $20.2 million for the 1.1-million-square-foot hospital complex in 2010. The oldest portion, an L-shaped building near the intersection of N. Maryland Ave. and E. Hartford Ave., was constructed in 1919 with additions built progressively to the west. UWM officials said the 1919 portion was vacant prior to the university’s acquisition and has remained so, while the university has repurposed newer sections of the hospital.

UWM is reportedly spending $232,000 annually on the vacant 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.

Could It Be Reused As Housing?

UWM officials previously said a memorandum of understanding between the university and area neighborhood associations prevents it from being used for housing. But a copy of that 2012 agreement, labeled as “collaborative framework,” does not explicitly mention housing, nor the building, and instead discusses the need for enhanced cooperation between the parties.

One of the neighborhood representatives, in an email provided to Urban Milwaukee, said the discussions about using the building for housing took place, but that neighborhood objections were about its potential to be used as undergraduate housing and that UWM never mentioned the building could be demolished.

According to discussions with preservation advocates, at least one party has expressed interest in potentially purchasing the property for use as housing and said it is well suited for such a conversion. UWM associate vice chancellor for facilities, planning and management Melissa Spadanuda said in April it is not practical to sell the building because it is in the middle of its campus.

HPC member and Alderman Robert Baumanin April, suggested the agreement could be amended and then-alderman for the area Nik Kovac said the situation has changed given that the university has built new residence halls off campus.

Preservation Ordinance At Stake?

An appeals court ruling against the city carries the risk of invalidating the application of all local historic preservation ordinances against state-owned properties.

“This sets a precedent for going forward with state buildings throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said commission chair Patti Keating Kahn on July 11.

Assistant city attorney Alexander Carson said the broadest reading of the June 30 ruling would indicate that the city no longer has preservation authority over state-owned buildings.

Milwaukee’s historic preservation ordinance, which applies to the exterior of designated properties, does not completely prohibit demolition. An applicant needs to obtain a certificate of appropriateness for demolition, which can be granted by the council over the objection of the commission.

The original building was designed in the Georgian Revival style by the Chicago-based firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin. The firm was a prolific designer of hospitals, but this is its only Milwaukee project. An early expansion was designed by famed Milwaukee architect Alexander C. Eschweiler. Both of those structures  are now being demolished.

A full copy of the historic designation report can be found on Urban Milwaukee.

Aug. 12 Photos

2020 Photos

5 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Fight Over Former Columbia Hospital Heads Back To Court”

  1. David Coles says:

    UWM’s $96.5M estimate of what it would cost to repurpose the building is not credible. This is the entity trying to convince the powers that be that restoration is prohibitively expensive. Safe to assume they are padding the numbers significantly.

  2. dmkrueger2 says:

    The City of Milwaukee should cease and desist. As a resident, I’m of the opinion there are a few (sarcasm intended) better places to spend their time and attention.

    And, The Historic Preservation Commission members have too much power, time and money.

    1) I don’t find this building unique or beautiful or significant in any way such that it needed to be preserved (it was a power move to designate it as such).

    2) More green space is a good thing. UWM is investing in their campus in other areas. This is how the cycle goes.

    3) We don’t earn tax dollars for this bldg – so whether vacant land or a building doesn’t effect us taxpayers financially.

    To David Cole, who cares if UWM is padding the budget – the view that this is a historic bldg is nonsense. Thank god someone has the power to push back against this committee – us poor folks couldn’t.

  3. Colin says:

    lol they ripped out the windows so the elements can get in and destroy the building even faster. And these court cases will take TIME. They’re just gonna let mother nature handle this one and make it unfixable. I’m surprised they didn’t rip the roof off first.
    This is the wrong fight to play, and now the case will be lost and that right stripped away for any future cases. Terrific work.

  4. JT says:

    The last letter of STEM is for Math. The Math department needs space, but it doesn’t need expensive lab space. Build it simply, and give it to the math department.

  5. mkeumkenews09 says:

    Why is Milwaukee wasting our tax money on this foolish Historical Preservation issue?

    This appears to be a NIMBY issue for some folks who have money and feel it might affect their property values.

    If they want it stopped, let them pay for it, not the taxpayers!

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