Sanctuary Woods in Wauwatosa has attracted a lot of attention over the past year as concerned citizens reacted to a controversial plan to develop portions of it. As of today, that attention has gone national for the first time. This morning The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., unveiled its annual call to action in support of important places it considers threatened. Following a rigorous application, jurying and vetting process, Milwaukee County’s Sanctuary Woods has been included among 13 at-risk landscapes from all over the country.
The mission of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is to connect people to places, to educate and engage the public “to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards.” One of the ways the foundation does this is through a program it calls Landslide: Open Season on Open Space, which draws attention to threatened places. The purposes of Landslide are to reveal the value of identified places, to highlight and monitor at-risk landscapes, and to save our heritage for future generations. This year Sanctuary Woods shares the Landslide spotlight with 12 other new entries that range from a tiny pocket park in Manhattan to the million-acre Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota.
The Landslide designation recognizes that the southeast corner of the Milwaukee County Grounds, popularly known as Sanctuary Woods, is far more than a patch of woodland. Preservation advocates and development promoters alike have largely focused on its wildlife habitat and recreational value. As important as those things are, they do not tell the whole story. TCLF defines cultural landscapes as ones “that have been affected, influenced, or shaped by human involvement.” They can be repositories of cultural narratives and expressions of regional identity. Not only does Sanctuary Woods have a rich and compelling history, but fragments of that narrative are still evident in the landscape.
Full disclosure: As a member of the County Grounds Coalition I helped draft the nomination for Sanctuary Woods to be considered for this year’s Landslide.
Here is an edited version of the Sanctuary Woods story, as recorded in Landslide:
“Sanctuary Woods was the site of Milwaukee’s first hospital for the care and treatment of persons with mental health concerns, originally known as the Milwaukee County Asylum for the Insane, designed by Henry C. Koch and opened in 1880. At the peak of institutionalization in the 1940s and ’50s, Milwaukee County housed some 6,000 people with mental illness.
“The landscape surrounding the asylum was a precursor to today’s healing gardens and contained features designed to help patients relax and recuperate, such as an artificial lake and waterfall, sunken gardens and a “women’s grove” for the repose of the women patients. Many of these features, including remnants of fieldstone and curbed woodland pathways, stone staircases, a walled patio, a segment of the former sunken garden and other elements, were built by the patients themselves as a therapeutic activity under the supervision of Dr. Moses White, an early superintendent of the asylum.
“Sanctuary Woods is a section of the much larger Milwaukee County Grounds, which housed a number of county institutions, including the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children, a farm for the indigent (Poor Farm), and The Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy. The latter was designed by noted Milwaukee architect, Alexander C. Eschweiler, although most of the Eschweiler-designed structures have subsequently been demolished and replaced with new development.
“Two cemeteries are located adjacent to Sanctuary Woods, the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery and Asylum Cemetery. The exact locations of all indigent people and asylum residents who died and were buried there are not known; however, approximately 200 people were buried in the Asylum Cemetery.
“The 66 acres of Sanctuary Woods include a diverse variety of terrains and ecological niches. The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission identifies it as an “isolated environmental corridor” that provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. It is contiguous with a 55-acre county park and 90-acre flood detention basin. All of these together with a 45-acre Wisconsin State Forest and Milwaukee County parkways along the Menomonee River and Underwood Creek comprise the second largest open green space in Milwaukee County. Sanctuary Woods is among the most dynamic portions of this landscape and the only one that currently remains unprotected.”
The proposed Wauwatosa Life Sciences District Master Plan, first unveiled in 2016 and updated in January 2017, calls for new roads that would divide the woods as well as dense, high-rise residential and commercial construction along “a continuous edge that marks the regulatory boundary between high density urban buildings and picturesque park features.” The image of a wall of high-rises overlooking the woods, which would create an urban character not unlike that along the edges of New York’s Central Park, has not appealed to the public.
Numerous times over the past year citizens have appeared in great numbers to voice their opposition to the plan. In response, the Wauwatosa Community Affairs Committee unanimously passed a resolution May 9 that requested protection “in perpetuity” for three portions of the County Grounds including Sanctuary Woods. While no boundaries were defined for the woods, the intent was clear to everyone in attendance. On May 25, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors followed this up with a likewise unanimous resolution, signed by County Executive Chris Abele, to rezone and protect Sanctuary Woods.
What, then is at risk? Why is Sanctuary Woods featured in this year’s TCLF Landslide as a threatened landscape?
Despite the resolutions and promises to protect the woods, little has actually changed. The Life Sciences District Master Plan, with its “Scenic Parkway” cutting a swath directly through the entire property along with high density, high-rise developments, has not been altered. According to Tammy Szudy, principal planner for the City of Wauwatosa, the January 12 version is still the latest one. Because of the unanimity of voices in favor of preservation, from the Wauwatosa Common Council and Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to the general public, any new or revised plan is unlikely to carve quite so deeply into the woods as this one. However, even the County Board resolution of May 25, which requests protections for “approximate 43 acres of wooded area,” appears to leave approximately 23 acres at risk.
When I spoke with County Supervisor John Weishan about this apparent discrepancy, he assured me that the intent of the County Board was to protect the entirety of the two “taxkey” properties that make up what is being called Sanctuary Woods. However, he also explained that the request by the county is not binding on the City of Wauwatosa.
Neither is it binding on the offices of the County Executive. In September Milwaukee County Development Director James Tarantino presented a request to the City of Wauwatosa that Sanctuary Woods be subdivided and the resulting parcels rezoned to allow development of multi-unit housing. According to Weishan, and a majority of the County Board who signed a letter opposing this move, this was a clear violation of the intent of the board’s resolution.
Part of the problem is the name “Sanctuary Woods” itself, which remains unofficial and undefined. “Sanctuary Woods” was coined by preservation advocates in order to capture the attention of the public. Unfortunately, the very success of the name has led to its being used by proponents of development to undermine preservation efforts. Thus, development proponents can promise to preserve “the woods” while also planning to develop parts of the land that currently appear less wooded.
Unfortunately, any development outside the footprint of existing buildings would degrade not only the wildlife habitat but the human experience of this engaging cultural landscape. The meadow and parking lot immediately north of the water tower, for example, was one of the sections identified by Tarantino for potential residential development. This is where the original asylum building was located. It also serves as the most accessible and grand public point of entry into this historic landscape. This new recognition by The Cultural Landscape Foundation honors the value of Sanctuary Woods in its entirety. It also forthrightly underlines the urgency of efforts to preserve it.
You can help. As stated above, the public outcry has had an effect. Below is contact information for calls, letters and emails to the pertinent officials. Please urge them to protect all 66 acres of Sanctuary Woods from development.
Kathleen Ehley, Mayor, City of Wauwatosa
7725 W. North Ave.
Wauwatosa, WI 53213
T: (414) 479-8915
Wauwatosa Common Council:
Carla A. Ledesma, CMC, City Clerk:
Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Executive
Milwaukee County Courthouse
901 N. 9th Street, Room 306
Milwaukee, WI 53233
You can see more photographs of Sanctuary Woods at Flickr.