The Milwaukee Common Council is expected to vote soon on historic designation for the property

The Journal Sentinel’s two former architecture critics have written to the Milwaukee Common Council advocating that it approve the historic designation of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, and preserve the grove of horse-chestnut trees just south of the 50-year-old building.

Whitney Gould, the paper’s urban landscape reporter and architecture critic from 1995 to her retirement in 2007,  and Mary Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic until leaving the paper in January, write that they’ve never written to elected officials before, but are doing so now “because there is a significant public interest here that has not been given its due.” Gould has been a member of the city’s Plan Commission for about 11 years and is currently its vice chair. Schumacher has written about the fate of the grove – both at the Journal Sentinel and since.

In an email, Gould admitted that both of them feel “a little awkward now in doing such open public advocacy, but we are private citizens, after all, and feel deeply about saving this little oasis, so why not swing for the fences?”

The grove was designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley for the Marcus Center, which opened in 1969 as the Performing Arts Center.

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted April 1 to give the Marcus Center property historic designation, but the Council could overrule it. According to the letter, an effort is also in the works to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ald. Robert Bauman, who sits on the Historic Preservation Commission and voted for historic designation, says the Council’s Zoning and Neighborhood Development Committee will take up the matter April 30, and it could go before the full Council as early as May 7. Marcus Center officials, who want to replace the grove with a lawn fringed by honey locust trees, could also seek permission for that plan from the Historic Preservation Commission, even if the Council upholds the designation. Four trees were being removed from the grove this week because they were in danger of falling, the JS reported Tuesday.

Here’s the letter from Gould and Schumacher:

8 April, 2019

As former architecture critics for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and longtime Milwaukee

residents, we urge you to uphold the Historic Preservation Commission’s recent designation of

the Marcus Center site as a historic property.

We are taking the rare step of writing to elected officials— something we have never done—

because we believe there is a significant public interest here that has not been given its due.

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This site, especially its completely free and open-to-the-public oasis of green space in the

middle of a rapidly redeveloping downtown, is beloved by many. Designation will ensure that

everyday Milwaukeeans will have a voice in what happens as the Marcus Center reinvents

itself.

Designed by two modernist masters, architect Harry Weese and landscape architect Dan Kiley,

the site most assuredly meets four of the criteria for designation, including cultural, economic

or social heritage; association with an architect or master builder; characteristics of an

architectural type (in this case, a lighter version of the monumental style known as Brutalism);

and recognition as a visual landmark. The collaboration between these two giants of 20th

century urbanism is one that any cosmopolitan community should celebrate.

Since the site was developed in 1969, it has been a center of cultural life in Milwaukee and

contributed richly to our sense of place. With its sunken, rectilinear grid of 36 horse chestnut

trees, the Kiley grove on the southern edge of the building is a serene sanctuary on a busy

street—a leafy outdoor room that serves as a gentle counterpoint to the bold strokes of

Weese’s building. Studies show that such spaces add economic value to nearby property.

We concede that both of the major components of the Marcus Center site are not the same as

they were 50 years ago. The building has seen its crisp Travertine skin replaced with blander

stone cladding; its entrance is now glassy and canopied; and other changes have altered the

relationship of solids and voids. Also, some of Kiley’s chestnuts are now failing, due to poor

maintenance, and the grove is not user friendly to people with disabilities.

But these are not fatal to historic designation. Many other landmarked buildings have

undergone significant modifications, including the headquarters of our own former employer,

the Journal Sentinel, and the Scottish Rite Masonic Center, whose elegant Art Deco facade

from 1936 encases an entire Romanesque Revival church from 1889. Yet such buildings, like

Weese’s Marcus Center, remain important exemplars of their time and place, allowing us to

“read” the passage of time in the built environment.

Also, the accessibility problems with Kiley’s chestnut grove can be fixed with the addition of

gentle ramps, discreet railings, and permeable paving that would provide a stable surface and

let water percolate—the sort of reasonable accommodations that are made all the time, as the

Americans with Disabilities Act provides. The failing trees can be replaced with new ones, as

has been done with other Kiley installations and with cultural landscapes around the world. The

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restoration option would be far better than the Marcus Center’s preferred substitute: a flat lawn

lined on either side with rows of locusts.

For guidance on how such a renovation could be sensitively accomplished, the U.S.

Department of Interior’s guidelines for restoring historic cultural landscapes could be a starting

point. And the Marcus Center could consult with Joe Karr, who worked with Dan Kiley on the

project and still lives in Chicago.

In short, designation will not freeze this property in amber. Rather, it will give the public a say in

what happens to it. And it will ensure that as the Marcus Center renews itself, it has broad civic

buy-in, which is essential to the longterm viability of the facility. Indeed, an unfortunate side

effect of the current plans for the site is the ill will that they have generated. We have heard

expressions of dismay and outrage about those plans from people throughout Milwaukee, and

from as far away as California, Georgia, Florida, New York and Chicago (many who retain ties

to Milwaukee). Some of these people are potential donors to the Marcus Center who echo

what one told us: “I’m not giving one red cent if that chestnut grove is destroyed.” In that light,

how ironic that many of the center’s proposed changes are being made to appeal to big

donors!

As a measure of the national attention this issue is drawing, an effort is under way to get the

site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If that happens, as seems plausible, any

effort to tear out the Kiley grove would give the city a black eye—just what it doesn’t need as it

prepares to host the Democratic National Convention in 2020. So, if the Marcus Center

succeeds in overturning the designation, it could be a case of winning the battle but losing the

war.

We can foresee the outlines of an intelligent compromise here, in which the Kiley grove is

restored and made accessible and the Weese building, already altered, could get some

sensitively designed improvements that will accommodate the Marcus Center’s program needs

while retaining (and perhaps returning) more of the building’s integrity. Let its talented architect,

Jim Shields, who has shown his skill with many other challenging projects, work with the

Preservation Commission in taking that next step.

Thank you for taking the time to consider our arguments. We would welcome the chance to

talk further with you.

Sincerely,

Whitney Gould

Mary Louise Schumacher

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