Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Can Mitchell Street Building Be Moved?

Owner doesn't think so, but Historic Commission wants an engineer's opinion

By - Jul 10th, 2023 05:22 pm
515 W. Historic Mitchell St. (center) and 529 W. Historic Mitchell St. (right). Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

515 W. Historic Mitchell St. (center) and 529 W. Historic Mitchell St. (right). Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The future of a 139-year-old building on Historic Mitchell Street hangs, or more appropriately leans, in the balance.

Funeral home director and former alderman Jim Witkowiak is seeking Historic Preservation Commission approval to reconstruct the building at 515 W. Historic Mitchell St. two lots to the east of his namesake funeral home, 529 W. Historic Mitchell St., in order to create a plaza.

But the commission would like to see Witkowiak literally pick up and move the structure 50 feet to make room for the new plaza, as he promised when securing approval in 2016, rather than save the front facade and build a new rear structure.

Witkowiak and his architect, Luis Barbosa Perches of BMR Design Group, don’t think the two-story building could survive today.

“The building itself is nothing more than a shell,” said Barbosa to the commission on Monday. “If you make any attempts to move it in any direction, I think it will collapse.”

“Structurally, had I not jumped in there a few years ago, that building would have fell over,” said Witkowiak. He said he’s installed 27 hydraulic jacks to support the vacant, 2,800-square-foot building and made other repairs.

The former alderman said he’s struggled to find a contractor that can guarantee the building would survive a move, and favors rebuilding the structure with all new components behind the facade.

But the commission’s regulations don’t support reconstruction, said staffer Tim Askin. He said several structures have been moved on the street in the past and it would be acceptable in this case.

The commissioners want to see a licensed professional’s report before making any decisions.

“I just think a report from a structural engineer would answer a lot of our questions,” said Commissioner Sally Peltz.

“At the end of the day, it’s too bad that it didn’t fall over,” she said.

“I agree,” said Witkowiak.

“Let’s just say it like it is,” said Peltz.

But that didn’t move the commission, including Alderman Robert Bauman, who suggested a wood-frame building should be able to be moved given recent experience with moving houses in the city.

Witkowiak attempted to bargain for approval as the commission debated and debated. “If I move the building, will you let me re-side it with Hardiboard?” asked Witkowiak about a commonly disallowed material. He detailed how he was given approval to use the fiber cement siding product on a nearby building two decades ago, but Askin said it was before his time and he wouldn’t recommend its approval. Wood siding is required by the guidelines. The commission didn’t indicate whether it would consider the offer, returning to the discussion of the engineering report.

“We’re not at the point now… whether we can say yes or no,” said Commissioner Matt Jarosz of the larger discussion.

Jarosz moved to hold the matter, with Witkowiak agreeing to come back with more information.

“I really appreciate the commitment to the street,” said Jarosz. His grandfather started Grand Studio Photography, 539 W. Historic Mitchell St., which continues to operate under different owners to the west of the funeral home.

On the south side of the block, Witkowiak owns all of the properties but the photo studio. If he successfully reconstructs or moves the debated structure, he intends to lease the building to a flower shop that serves the funeral home and St. Stanislaus Church.

The funeral home director initially secured approval in 2016 to move the building and construct a rear addition. Similar to his current proposal, a plaza would have been constructed and a parking lot reconfigured to create an overflow space for visitation and funeral guests that currently block the sidewalk.

Witkowiak said he wasn’t able to move forward on the initial proposal because of timing issues with acquiring and combining vacant lots on the block and securing contractors before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Should the commission ultimately reject Witkowiak’s plan, he could appeal the decision to the full Common Council.


2023 Plan

2016 Plan

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Related Legislation: File 230322

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