Two-story, non-residential building planned to replace historic Third Ward building

During a Wednesday meeting of the Historic Third Ward Association’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), committee members heard firsthand from architect Chris Socha about the extensive work that would need to be done to restore the 139-year-old Miller Tavern building located at 266 E. Erie St., Milwaukee.

Socha, who is with The Kubala Washatko Architects, is working with developers on a proposal to raze the historic property and construct a new building on the lot.

Socha provided little detail about plans for the new building, but did say Wednesday that it would be two stories tall and would not be residential. Up to a four-story building was considered by developers, he said.

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When The Kubala Washatko Architects was first approached by the building’s current owners — Milwaukee developer Robert Joseph and Fox Point-based General Capital Group — in 2017, the original plan was to work toward an adaptive reuse project. That quickly changed once the firm and developers realized the extent of damage to the building.

“What we are really concerned with as a firm is creating buildings that have a lasting impact,” said Socha. “We’re a firm really invested in the city and creating authentic, real places.”

The former tavern, which was built in 1884, is actually two buildings. The 1884 structure is the western-most side of the building that has a wooden, balloon-frame structure with a brick veneer. After the historic saloon survived the Third Ward Fire of 1892, a second-story addition was added several years later in 1912.

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The building also suffered a second fire in 2013 when it was owned by the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. There have been at least seven alterations to the structure since 1997.

Socha said the building will need a complete roof replacement due to fire damage. The building also sits on marshy, organic soil without deep foundations, which has led it to unevenly settle into the ground. Because the building is technically two sections, each part has settled into the ground differently. Essentially, the 1912 section of the building is pulling the 1892 section as it settles.

“If you go on the north side of that building, you will see serious and significant cracking happening at the midpoint of the façade and see how it’s effectively hinging,” said Socha.

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Socha also said there is significant brick bowing that can seen throughout the building. It would need a completely new façade. Using the original cream city brick would not be a possibility because the veneer placed over the brick would need to be stripped.

“We think the best path forward is to build something new here that can be authentic and sympathetic to the history of this place and really be here for future generations,” said Socha.

This opinion was met with trepidation by several historical organizations in attendance at Wednesday’s ARB meeting. Peter Burgelis, a Milwaukee County Board supervisor and board member of the Cream City Foundation, expressed a desire to have LGBTQ+ voices involved in the decision process moving forward, because the building has historic significance for that community, he said. Cream City Foundation would also like to see the history and integrity of the building remain intact.

“We have an interest to ensure any development that may impact historic sites for the LGBTQ+ community is done with care and with input from the community. We also recognize there is a history of many cities’ landmarks, especially for minority communities, being erased without care or thought to their history or importance,” said Burgelis.

No official action was taken Wednesday by the ARB, nor was any stance made on the proposal.

After the city’s Historic Preservation Commission; Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee; and full Common Council have considered whether the building can be razed, the ARB can then voice its opinion on what replaces the building and whether a raze permit be granted.

Ultimately, full power over this decision is left with the Common Council as the city gave the building a historical designation in 2014. If the Common Council denies the demolition request, it remains unclear how the building’s owner might move forward.

“There’s the possibility (the building) could sit there dormant for another number of years,” said Ald. Bob Baumann. “It seems counterintuitive and the neighborhood is prosperous and dynamic and fast-growing. But that would be their right as property owners.”

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