Third Ward Tavern Would Be Replaced By 2-Story Building
1884 building, one of ward's oldest, has no options for preservation say developers.
The development team that would like to demolish one of the oldest buildings in the Historic Third Ward made its case to the neighborhood’s architectural review board Wednesday.
General Capital Group and Joseph Property Development are pursuing the demolition of the historically-protected triangular tavern building at 266-272 E. Erie St. Acquired in 2014, after it was damaged in a fire, the firms initially pursued the restoration of the structure.
“We are save first. If we could, we would,” said Joseph Property vice president Nathan Bernstein to Urban Milwaukee.
Socha said the building could technically be salvaged, but it would involve replacing the foundation, replacing the roof, replacing the doors and windows, replacing many of the failing Cream City Bricks and other structural repairs.
“When we got to the end of that we said ‘holy cow, what are we building back? Is it a faux version of what is there today?'” said Socha. “If we have a group here that is dedicated here, both on the development side and design side, that is struggling to see a path, who is going to save this building?”
He said they have studied four different options for the building, including building a replica. “We have exhausted after years ‘what do we do with this thing,'” said the architect.
The presentation only briefly touched on what a replacement could be: a two-story structure that is sympathetic in design to the original building and to the larger neighborhood. No designs were shown.
Constructed in 1884, the current two-story building was originally a saloon and rooming house operated by the widowed Catherine Foley. It survived the 1892 Third Ward fire, when approximately 440 nearby buildings were destroyed. Miller Brewing acquired the property in 1896, using it as a tied-house tavern, and expanded the structure in 1912.
Socha said the addition is now leaning on the original structure as a result of settling on marshy soil. He said seven substantial alterations have been made to the structure with various degrees of success.
Socha and Patin said that the pipe is linked to the substantial bowing that is occurring on the northern side of the structure.
They both said the problems started well before the 2013 fire. Spire Engineering has also reviewed the structure. Socha said the current owners have made minor repairs to seal the building as best they could and prevent further damage.
The building housed the Wreck Room tavern, a prominent LGBTQ+ tavern described as the first cowboy and leather bar in the city, from 1972 until 1996. The building served as the student union for the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design from 1997 until 2013, when the fire substantially damaged the structure. It’s been vacant since then.
“It was in really bad shape when we bought it,” said board member and MIAD professor Mark Lawson. “The wiring was in terrible shape, which is what caused the fire. It was no one’s negligence really.”
He said the college did not have the resources to substantially renovate it. “We became aware of the foundation issues and it was just beyond our capacity at the time to deal with it,” said Lawson. “It was a huge challenge for us.”
The current owners acquired the fire-damaged building, the three-story building at 143 N. Broadway and an adjacent parking lot at 139 N. Broadway in 2014 for $760,000 and pursued a mixed-use building for the oddly-shaped, 8,293-square-foot site.
But Historic Preservation Commission, with the support of the architectural review board and Historic Third Ward Association, designated the structure as historic in 2015. The move made it more difficult to demolish the structure, with the partners switching plans in 2017 to pursue redevelopment of the building as a restaurant and bar. But those plans never progressed publicly after the architectural review board endorsed the concept.
Area alderman and review board chair Robert Bauman, as he did in 2015, said there is a pathway for demolition, but it involves a substantial process. He did not indicate his support for or against the proposal.
The board took no action Wednesday.
The historic commission must formally review any demolition request, with the commission’s decision being subject to an appeal to the Common Council. The architectural review board would have design control over any new building at the site.
But despite the lack of substantial testimony from the review board, a number of members of the public offered their comments.
“We request that throughout the course of the project, the voice of the LGBT community be heard,” said county supervisor Peter Burgelis, speaking in his capacity as a board member of the Cream City Foundation.
Wisconsin LGBT History Project founder Don Schwamb said he would like to see the building preserved as a bar or restaurant. He said it was one of three important neighborhood buildings for the LGBTQ+ community, and one he personally remembers patronizing. “This is one of those buildings that can be easily identified with because of its rich history.” His comments were backed by a MIAD student who said she used Schwamb’s website and an LGBTQ+ Milwaukee history book by Michail Takach to learn about the building.
Two representatives of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance spoke in favor of the building’s preservation. “It’s one of the few buildings that illustrate what the Third Ward looked like prior to the fire,” said Joselia Mendiolea. She said it was important for its history with the neighborhood, as well as being a female-owned business in the 1800s and its ties to Milwaukee’s Irish community. “This building is a survivor… It’s these structures that make the Third Ward an attractive place to live and work.”
The 2015 historic designation report says the building is the oldest remaining structure in the neighborhood with direct ties to the Irish community, which for several decades was the dominant ethnic group in the area.
The property sits at the triangular intersection of E. Menomonee St. and E. Erie St. The neighboring properties that the developers own border Catalano Square and sit back-to-back with the historic tavern. The four-story building at 147 N. Broadway, divided into condominiums and owned by others, prevents the developers from owning what would otherwise be a triangular site.
The development team could next apply to the preservation commission for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the building or return to the architectural review board for an informal review of a proposed new building.
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