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When Using Gay Rights Pushes The Envelope Too Far In Madison

January 27, 2014

As a gay man I am not interested in being used as a wedge issue over a local development.

Readers to this blog know where I stand on civil rights and equality for gay people.   It does not take long to wade through my posts to know I am uncompromising when it comes to allowing for same-sex marriage.  I also am pointed with my feelings about people who are gay (and closeted) in the public arena who do not live authentically, and in the process of their work undermine the gay community.    I have been open about my same-sex partner of 14 years, and am proud that our relationship has surpassed by 100% the average length of starter marriages for most straight couples.

But there comes a time when I feel using gay rights as an argument has limits, such as with some in Madison concerning a desire to stop a development project from proceeding.

The fight this time revolves around Steve Brown’s proposal to replace three buildings on the 100 block of West Gilman Street.   The 10-story Highlander apartment building, 121 W. Gilman St., and houses at 123 and 127 W. Gilman St., would be replaced by three five-story apartment buildings.   At the present time The Landmarks Commission seems content with demolishing the Highlander which is a 1960′s type eye-sore that one can honestly say was dreadful from the first day it opened,  and seems largely comfortable with moving the vintage house at 123 W. Gilman to the 100 block of West Gorham Street.    In my estimation it would be best not to move that building as it seems a move would only undermine the whole purpose of a historic district.  But I am also pragmatic enough to understand the larger goals of this current process, and so if moving the house allows for its preservation then I am ready to accept that action.

But it is the Clarenbach House at 123 W. Gilman, that is now being promoted as a place the city should honor for gay history.  Former State Representative Clarenbach lived at this residence in the city’s Mansion Hill historic district during 1978-80 and owned the property until 1987.   He was the mover and muscle in the Wisconsin Legislature that made sure passage was secured for the first law in the country which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.  It was a major landmark victory.  I, along with many, are most grateful for the service he provided when in office.

But should the house that he lived in be somehow elevated to a higher status based on his political abilities or sexual orientation?

Should the house be saved simply because it was previously home to the first openly gay elected official in the state, former Madison Alder Jimmy Yeadon, who was also the fourth openly gay elected official in the nation?

If one needs to resort to these arguments for saving the house than it seems to me the larger case for the house has been lost.

The reason this house should be respected should be based on when it was built and the type of architecture it contains.  The house already resides within a historic district and there should be teeth to the laws and ordinances on the books to secure the longevity of this house.  As I have already stated I would prefer to see this house stay at its present location, but if there needs to be a deal struck where it is moved to make way for a development that the various city committees deem appropriate than I can live with it being moved.

One can make legitimate arguments about the character of the neighborhood that would change with the new development, or what the need for new apartments in this area actually happen to be at this time.  One can talk about how a new development undermines the historic charm to the area.  There are countless avenues one can proceed with to press the case against Steve Brown’s proposal.

I took the approach in a previous post that  “demolition by neglect” should not be allowed to take place in Madison.

But what I and many others can not fathom, and hopefully with the backing of the city will never see some to fruition, is the destruction of the three-story house at 127 W. Gilman Street.  Wise and knowledgeable people have added much background about the historic aspects of this house during the ongoing conversation.  The rationale for not razing it has been made, and we can be pleased that the staff report to the city’s Planning Division recommends that this house not be destroyed.  The matter comes to a head this week when Planning will meet.

The part of this whole story that has smacked me as offensive from the start is the idea that if a property is allowed to be neglected long enough the only solution is to demolish it.  If a developer has grand plans for a plot of land and wants to get his way one route might be to just allow for the current building to erode and deteriorate.  That is exactly what many people in the city contend Brown did when it came to 127 W. Gilman.  In fact, that is what the Building Inspection Division accuses Brown of doing.

As a gay man I am not interested in being used as a wedge issue over a local development.  There are plenty of  more constructive ways to talk about historic houses, and the need to preserve them.  As for Clarenbach the best way to honor his work is to fight the new legal battles that are being waged across the nation on our way to full marriage equality.

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