Hotel planned for Scottish Rite Masonic Center

Historic designation sought for building could complicate project

The Masonic Center.

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 05:02 pm

Plans to turn the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center building in downtown Milwaukee into a hotel could move forward before the Milwaukee Common Council decides if the building should receive a historic designation.

The Masonic Center.
The Masonic Center.

This week, Eric Nordeen of Ascendant Holdings, a commercial real estate investment firm with offices in Madison and Milwaukee, stepped forward as a potential buyer for the 80,000-square-foot building at 790 N. Van Buren St.

Nordeen, who said, he still needs several months to come up with a definite development plan, wants to use the building’s existing meeting space for a hotel lobby and event room and build a vertical addition for additional hotel rooms.

He came forward Monday during the city’s Historical Preservation Commission meeting where the commission voted unanimously to nominate the center for a city historic designation. Doing so would likely curb Nordeen’s plans and possibly stop the sale.

The masons listed the building, where they have been located since 1912, for sale in February for $4 million after years of declining membership.

Attorney Bruce Block, who has been hired by the masons, has asked the city to delay the historic designation for 90 days so Nordeen can continue his due diligence.

The next step is for the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development committee to review the designation which will likely be in June, said Carlen Hatala, senior planner for historic preservation. The committee will have three options: deny the historic designation, grant the 90-day extension or immediately designate the center historic and send it to the Common Council for review. If that happens, the council has up to two years to decide whether or not to approve it, Hatala said.

In the meantime, Nordeen could continue moving forward with plans.

Matthew Jarosz, an architect and member of the Historic Preservation Commission, said developers look at historic designations as a death knell, but they are merely a way to make sure the integrity of historic buildings are kept intact.

“We want to retain the right to review and discuss, which is a good thing,” Jarosz said. “Designating this building is such an obvious one. It’s not being portrayed that way. In the world of real estate, image is more important than reality. But we’re not going to lay down and let them mess with that building.”

Nordeen has not hired an architect for the project yet, but said he wants to be very careful with the design and will be sensitive to the architecture of the existing building.

“Whatever it will be, it will be exceptionally designed,” he said. “We like historic properties. We like urban infill and we like the momentum happening downtown.”

The center is located across the street from the site where Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s new residential tower is being built and is adjacent to the Northwestern Mutual corporate headquarters campus.

The Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center building was built in 1889 as a Romanesque Revival church designed by Edward Townsend Mix. The church congregation moved to the East Side and the Scottish Rite Masons bought the building in 1912 to house the Scottish Rite Valley of Milwaukee, according to Historic Milwaukee Inc.

The building was remodeled in 1994, which allowed the masons to begin opening it to the public for weddings, fundraisers and theatrical performances. The facility includes a two-story theater, classrooms, mahogany dining room and one of the largest private art collections in Wisconsin.

Nordeen said his vision is to add additional floors, but he doesn’t know how many yet. He also doesn’t have specific details on the type of hotel he wants to offer.

“The potential uses for the building are quite limited but we do think a hotel could work there,” he said. “The building is large and open, there is limited commercial use. As beautiful as it is, but it’s functionally obsolete.”

 

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