Joshua Jeffers, the developer who has become well known for the historic restoration projects that have brought back to life Milwaukee landmarks including the Mitchell Building and Mackie Building, spent the early part of the year convincing the city to let him tear down a 19th-century addition at a downtown church.
After four meetings, the Historic Preservation Commission agreed demolishing the parish house at the former St. James Episcopal Church at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. was the only way to save the remainder of the building.
Jeffers planned to replace structure with student housing. The church will be converted into a wedding and events venue.
In July, Jeffers, president of J. Jeffers & Co., will go back to the Historic Preservation Commission for a fifth time and ask them to approve plans to save the parish house.
The former parish house is a two-and-a-half-story structure built in 1899 that is attached to the rear of the church.
Bringing the building up to code and making it historically accurate will cost him more than the money he could make on student housing. But Jeffers said changes to state law are making the $6.6 million project work.
It also better reflects his company’s beliefs.
“Our company is in the historic preservation business, so it was a little unnerving to proceed with the demolition permit,” Jeffers said.
Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman, who chairs the Historic Preservation Commission and represents the district the former church is in, was surprised to hear the parish house is going to be saved.
“We fought long and hard over this issue and would have preferred to keep the building intact,” Bauman said. “The parish house is really a fine piece of architecture. Now that demolition is not required, this is great news for the city, historic preservation and for the west side of Milwaukee.”
Of the $6.6 million budget, $4 million is a traditional loan and $900,000 will come from federal and state historic tax credits.
Wisconsin lawmakers increased the limit on tax credits for historic rehabilitation projects from $500,000 to $3.5 million in February. The vote walked back Gov. Scott Walker’s September 2017 line item budget veto that reduced the per-project cap from $5 million to $500,000.
The federal historic tax credit program was also preserved, which many feared would not happen.
“Without that bump in the value of state historic tax credits, this would not have happened,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers also discovered that while many churches don’t qualify for historic tax credits because the building’s original use is disrupted during renovation, his project will qualify.
“Turns out our use is effectively a needle in the haystack because we want to use it for wedding receptions, funerals and other events,” Jeffers said.
The remaining $1.8 million in financing is coming from a small investor pool, which Jeffers said he and his business partners found after taking a page out of fellow developer Juli Kaufmann’s book.
Kaufmann, who is currently working on several projects, including the Sherman Phoenix with JoAnne Johnson-Sabir, partners with business owners and finds investors who either live in the neighborhood or are passionate about the mission.
Jeffers has partnered with Oliver Hunt and Kate Crowle, who own catering company and mobile kitchen The Hidden Kitchen, on the St. James Project.
“In our case, we have this amazing historic preservation story,” Jeffers said. “We have a landmark structure that was built in 1868. It was Alexander Mitchell’s church. It has amazing history. We have been working with socially-conscious investors who want to restore and preserve the entire complex.”
Jeffers credited Crowle for identifying investors and Kaufmann for creating a different type of public-private partnership in the community.
“To be able to work with an entrepreneurial couple who wants to give this a second lease on life for the next 150 years has been incredibly rewarding,” Jeffers said.