Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:22 am
The developer hoping to turn the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center building in downtown Milwaukee into a 220-room hotel has submitted plans to the city of Milwaukee that include a 14-story tower above the existing building.
Ascendant Holdings, LLC, which has offices in Milwaukee and Madison, is seeking a certificate of appropriateness for the project from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
The approval process is working in reverse of the norm, since the 128-year-old building has not yet been locally designated on the historic registry.
The Masons listed the building, where they have been located since 1912, for sale in February 2016 for $4 million after years of declining membership. Eric Nordeen, principal of Ascendant Holdings, stepped forward as a potential buyer for the 80,000-square-foot building at 790 N. Van Buren St. in May.
Ascendant Holdings still has not purchased the property. Nordeen said the firm will do so, once it knows the city is on board with the plans for the site.
“We don’t have a plan B for alternate uses,” Nordeen said. “Usually we wouldn’t go public until we could fill in all the blanks and there is still a long way to go on the design concepts and what the restaurants will be. I’m happy to revise some of the design, but I need to make sure Milwaukee is comfortable with appropriate adaptive reuse.”
Carlen Hatala, senior planner for historic preservation with the city of Milwaukee, said the Masons have not wanted the local historic designation because they are concerned it would hurt their chances of selling the property.
By granting a certificate of appropriateness, even without the building being officially “historic,” provides a consensus for all parties, Hatala said.
“Both parties want certain assurances and this would provide a comfort level,” Hatala said.
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 plans to use the tower as the guest rooms and possibly utilize some of the space on the third floor of the existing building as rooms.
Uses of the existing Masonic Center space would also include restaurants, a ballroom and meeting space, Nordeen said.
Nordeen said the proposed design tries to accomplish a lot of different goals, which is difficult.
“It needs to look very different than the old, we don’t want to have a historic recreation,” he said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to compete. Both forms need to stand on their own, but have some reference in the new addition to the old design, even if its subtle.”
Nordeen said he took on this project because there is a unique opportunity to weave local history into the hotel’s story.
“It can be accomplished with new construction, but it is really great if you can leverage the historic fabric and unique architectural DNA that is irreplaceable and that becomes part of the brand story and guest experience (of the hotel),” he said. “It creates an opportunity.”