Jeramey Jannene

New Restaurant Would Save Historic Wildenberg Hotel

Cafe India owner plans major development on S. 27th St.

By - Apr 2nd, 2024 10:48 am
Wildenberg Hotel redevelopment proposal. Rendering by Stack Design Group.

Wildenberg Hotel redevelopment proposal. Rendering by Stack Design Group.

The owner of Cafe India plans to purchase and renovate the historic, but long-vacant Wildenberg Hotel, 3774 S. 27th St.

A 14,000-square-foot rear addition would allow the Italianate, Cream City brick mansion to be used as a modern banquet hall and restaurant.

A two-building, strip mall-style complex with space for five tenants across 7,000 square feet would be developed to the north, perpendicular to the commercial street.

“We are really excited and looking forward for things to move in a positive direction for all of us,” said Rakesh Rehan, owner of Cafe India, to the Historic Preservation Commission on March 11.

The 2,800-square-foot house was built as a country estate in 1856 for speculator and distiller Jacob NunnemacherThe house, which once anchored a 1,000-acre farm, has overlooked the vast changes that have come to the south-side main street over the past 165 years.

It has been used as a bar, hotel and anchor building for a trailer park. Over time, the surrounding property was sold off, leaving a 1.86-acre parcel just north of W. Howard Avenue on what was, before the interstate system, the primary highway into the city.

Edward Wildenberg acquired the site in 1954 and replaced the cabins on the property with trailers, but maintained the house as The Evergreen with hotel rooms and a bar. The family lost the property via tax foreclosure in 2013 and the operation was shuttered by the city in 2014.

Now, Rehan hopes to bring some of the original glory back.

“All of the visible Cream City brick will be repaired and restored,” said historic commission planner Tim Askin in describing the proposal. Portions of the cupola and chimneys would be restored. “There will also be some demolition of later additions to the building.” The addition would house a full commercial kitchen, an accessible entrance, bathrooms and the banquet hall. A new patio, with reclaimed Cream City brick, would be created in the front.

The commission has oversight of the house itself, but not the adjacent development. Rehan and architect Tom Stachowiak of Stack Design Group are working with the Department of City Development (DCD) on the proposal after winning a 2022 requests-for-proposals process.

“The design is well researched and replicates and restores countless features,” said Askin.

But Askin said the rear addition should be modified so that it doesn’t appear so similar to the house.

Commissioner and UW-Milwaukee architecture professor Matt Jarosz said he expected the state historic preservation officer to require more differentiation. The state, and National Parks Service, get a say in the building’s design because the proposal relies on historic preservation tax credits which would offset 40% of applicable costs.

The commission unanimously endorsed the proposal on a conceptual basis, with guidance to come back, after reviews by the state and DCD are completed, for final approval.

“This is a very creative use of this space. My hat’s off to you,” said Alderman Robert Bauman.

But what would the future restaurant be? Rehan said it would “probably” serve Indian food, but declined to say it would be another Cafe India location.

The first Cafe India is located at 601 S. 1st St. in Walker’s Point. The second opened in 2014 at 2201 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bay View.

There is already a Kinnickinnic connection to the Wildenberg. Nunnemacher ran the Kinnickinnic Distilling Company from the property, but ended up as one of many distillers whose property was seized in the nationwide Whiskey Ring taxation scandal. He spent several weeks in jail before being pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Developer Que El-Amin, in 2018 and 2020, was given city approval to pursue affordable housing projects at the site. But neither proposal secured the necessary financing to advance.

The house currently sits between a strip mall and a one-story office building. The concrete-channeled Wilson Park Creek forms the eastern border of the site, but plans call for it to be naturalized eventually. A portion of the rear of the site is the fringe of the Kinnickinnic River 100-year flood plain, which impedes its development.

The Common Council will need to approve a land sale for the property. A purchase price hasn’t been disclosed, but the property was listed for $200,000. Preserving the house was a condition of the listing.

Photos and Redevelopment Plan

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Related Legislation: File 231653

One thought on “New Restaurant Would Save Historic Wildenberg Hotel”

  1. Duane says:

    The design rendering looks beautiful, I wouldn’t change anything. Tim Askin’s (founder of the Askin’s Diet) statement that “the rear addition should be modified so that it doesn’t appear so similar to the house” makes no sense to me but just who am I anyway? I’m certainly not the historic commission planner.

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