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Off the Grid
Some of the city’s most historic homes are not listed on official registries.

Illustration by Marisa Seguin

Stewart Dempsey’s friends thought he’d fallen into a money pit when, in 1988, he bought a 4,000-square-foot 1881 Beaux Arts Victorian home in Walnut Hill, a crime-ridden section of Milwaukee where homes were literally falling apart, including his.

“Many people had looked at it and thought it was ready for the bulldozer,” says Dempsey, who spotted beauty in the old house’s wood beams, decorative plaster and period hardware. But saying he had a job ahead of him would’ve been an understatement. “There was much to do to get the original footprint of the house back.”

It’s been 24 years, and he’s still not done. “You can’t just expect to go out and get a replacement part,” says Dempsey, who has made a profession out of supplying such parts: He owns Samara Garden and Home on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, a store specializing in historic lighting and plumbing fixtures. “It’s a process. I’m still on the lookout for things.”

Despite being a partisan for historic restoration, Dempsey hasn’t applied to list his home with historic registries maintained by either the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission or the National Register of Historic Places. And he’s not the only owner of a local historic home to go this cheaper, easier route. A large percentage would rather avoid the strict oversight and higher insurance costs that come along with an “official” historic designation.

Once listed, Dempsey says, “You’re bound to very strict requirements.” Both the city and national registries were created to stop the destruction or degradation of historic buildings, including at the hands of their occupants. “You can’t just go to Menards to replace the front door,” he says.

In a city rife with historic properties, there are only 42 single-family homes and duplexes on the city’s historic registry by virtue of individual designations. (There are others lumped in because of historic districts.) Individual selections include half a dozen craftsman-style Louis Auer and Son houses on East Kenwood Boulevard in Milwaukee; the Edmund Gustorf Boat House at 3138 N. Cambridge Ave.; and a Greek revival farmhouse at 11142 W. Bradley Rd.

The seven-member Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, composed of architects, citizens, historians and Downtown Ald. Robert Bauman, votes up or down on the “appropriateness” of changes to a registered home’s exterior, whether alterations call for building a fence or making repairs to stucco siding. Appointed by the mayor, the commission’s members meet monthly at City Hall.

About 1.5 percent of the city’s parcels are on the registry. “They’re very carefully vetted,” says Paul Jakubovich, a planner with the commission. The registry was formed in 1982 in response to the demolition of a residential property, the historic Elizabeth Plankinton house at 1492 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee.

Insuring a designated home at full value can be pricey. “Sometimes, companies won’t insure for replacement-cost values,” says Jakubovich, “for houses that would cost millions to replace.”

According to Ann Gonya, vice president at the Baltimore firm Maury Donnelly & Parr – which specializes in insuring homes on the national registry – even the biggest insurers think twice when presented with a historic home. Gonya says companies often refuse to insure historic properties because of the steep replacement costs.

Some high-profile properties are missing from the city’s registry, including the former Blatz family mansion on Lake Drive in Shorewood. Its current owner, Peter Wells, listed it for sale last fall, and this summer, it was priced at $1.29 million.

“I’m not all that interested in putting it on a register because it creates a lot of roadblocks,” says Wells, who owns Wells Design, a remodeling firm. “You want to use modern materials, which actually work better,” he adds, noting new windows and insulation as two examples.

Kel Svoboda with Next Generation Real Estate is marketing the mansion with a video ad that talks up its Viking appliances, whirlpool tub and sauna, but it’s the home’s historic bones he hopes will woo a buyer.

Other owners work with the historic designation, despite the hurdles. “They are labors of love, I tell you,” says James Neuber Jr., who owns a stark-white, classical revival home just off Brady Street that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

And there’s that one perk, too: tax credits. Wisconsin offers them to owners spending more than $10,000 on improvements during a two-year period. Neuber scored some thanks to his new air-conditioning system. He’s also installed a new roof and chimney, repaired porch beams and converted his fireplace. For each fix, he sought – and won – approval from the National Register of Historic Places.

In the end, endeavors like the National Register and unregistered owners like Dempsey have the same goal: to preserve historic homes for future generations. “We’re just temporary custodians,” he says.

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