Historic Madison Needs To Stay Historic! Do Not Weaken City Rules


I have at times mentioned on this blog how it feels to sit very late at night in the dark and look out a window on this plot of land once owned by James Doty. (We have his signature for the land in the abstract deed.) Hearing the creak of this old home during the frigid nights on the Madison isthmus my mind wanders to others who lived here, how a carriage might have sounded late in the dark returning home on rutted ice, or how often the coffin porch door was used. Or how often a body might have been presented to mourners in the very room where I look out from onto the street.

There is a vast array of history just within the line of sight from my windows. The home that once was a building where whatever you brewed could be bottled. The magnificent home of a Civil War veteran who treated his horse to the best of comforts after it helped save his life. Or the specially created bay window on a massive home that allowed for the woman sewing to see a clear sight of the unobstructed splendor of the statehouse.

I can look out upon a home that for a time was where Georgia O’Keeffe resided as a teenager. Just a couple blocks from our home is the place where the first cemetery in Madison resided which contained both Union and Confederate soldiers.   

And then of course there are the famed and priceless carriage steps, now curbside, to have made it easier to leave a carriage and not step into the once muddy street.

But some have other views about the treasures found in these types of neighborhoods or the essential need to not allow for wiggling with city rules that could risk the future of historic neighborhoods with short-sighted development.

There is no doubt–no matter where you look in our society–a zeal exists to replace yesterday with something ‘bigger and better’ today. While I understand the need for modern developments and adapting for the needs of our society it is essential that we not unwind a spool of thread that can not be spun back into place.

This brings me to the fight underway in Madison about two strongly competing notions about five historic sites in Madison. For the record, I do not reside in one of the areas now facing contentious rule-making within the city, but James and I do live in a historic district.

City officials and a preservationist group differ on proposed rules to protect five Madison historic districts when property owners want to make changes to buildings or developers propose new projects.

To change or demolish a building in a historic district, an owner must get approval from the city’s Landmarks Commission. But the city’s five historic districts — Mansion Hill, First Settlement, Third Lake Ridge, Marquette Bungalows and University Heights — were established at different times and each has widely different standards, some detailed and others vague.

The city’s Landmarks Ordinance Review Committee, created in 2013, is proposing to largely merge the standards with clearer, simpler rules for all five districts.

The committee ultimately decided the approach we took worked best for increasing process predictability for property owners, contractors, developers and the Landmarks Commission,” said committee chair Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District.

“Our approach provides consistency and, when appropriate, district-specific exceptions or differences are called out,” Furman said. “LORC (the Landmarks Ordinance Review Committee) and staff have generally believed that the benefits of unified standards and guidelines are substantial and there was still the ability to maintain the uniqueness of each local historic district.”

But the Madison Alliance for Historic Preservation contends it’s better to have core standards for all districts but keep district-specific rules where needed.

“One of the main objectives of this rewrite is to recognize that each of the districts is unique and therefore requires district-specific standards,” said local historian David Mollenhoff, chair of the Madison Alliance for Historic Preservation. “Unfortunately, LORC has embraced a one-size-fits-all concept that cannot provide sufficient or effective protection for Madison’s historic resources.”

Obviously, I agree with a stronger hand for the separate and distinct historic districts to have their own list of requirements and procedures as Madison grows. I also am a firm advocate for density and smart growth that reflects the needs of an ever-growing and dynamic urban environment. My support for the high-rises on East Washington is unabated.

But it is pure folly to weaken or in any way undermine the charm and continual presence of historic areas of our city. I have breathed this part of the city, where I now live, from the time I arrived in Madison in 1986. I then rented only five blocks away from the Victorian home where I now write.

So yes, I know this neighborhood very well, care for it deeply, and strongly advocate for its future. As I often say, it is a duty to help preserve these homes and advocate on their behalf so many others ‘James’ and Gregorys’ can live here for another hundred years.

One of the reasons that history is vital to know and preserve is that it allows for a collective memory from which to unite as citizens. There is no need for everyone to agree about the various interpretations of a home, spot of ground, or a celebrated moment but we all can agree that having those places or events in a visible form allows for history to then follow in stories and memories.

The fact that people have divergent perspectives about memories of historical people and places is the reason they need to be preserved. It is those places where we then can have larger dialogues about the memory that is created from walking through a home or gazing at a carriage step.

When rules are made so that historic neighborhoods can be easier playgrounds for developers it weakens our hand being held to the past. We can, and must have robust development to keep pace with the future needs of this city.

But we must do it in concert with the historic past.

And so it goes.

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