State Bills Improved, But Still Weaken Local Preservation Laws

Two bills in the Wisconsin Legislature that would have forced opt-out provisions on local historic preservation ordinances have been amended, but they still weaken communities' ability to designate historic places, and provide long-term protection. 

Historic downtown Portage

Historic downtown Portage

Companion bills in the Wisconsin Senate (SB445) and Assembly (AB568) have been amended and are working their way through Committees. The original bills included an unconditional opt-out provision for property owners. Owners would have had veto power over historic designation, and over design standards in historic districts. It would have essentially dismantled local historic preservation ordinances that are designed for long-term conservation of historic buildings, structures, objects, and districts for the economic and cultural health of the whole community.

Amendments to both bills put some conditions on the opt-out provision, but still weaken the ability of communities to designate historic places when they meet community-developed criteria for historic significance, and regulate changes over the long term under conditions of changing ownership.

Here's how the bills work in their current form:

  • The bills preserve the right of Counties, Cities, and Towns to have preservation ordinances, design standards for historic properties, and to establish a Historic Preservation Commission. 

  • If a County, City, or Town proposes to designate a Historic District or individual Landmark they must:

    • Notify all affected property owners,

    • Provide a form to each owner, to vote for or against designation,

    • Allow 60 days for owner(s) to vote.

  • Then after 60 days:

    • In the case of an individual Landmark, if the owner has not voted against designation, the County, City, or Town may proceed with designation.

    • In the case of a Historic District, if 2/3 of votes cast within the allowed 60 days are in favor of designation (1 vote per “principal structure”), then County, City, or Town may proceed with designation.  If 2/3 threshold is not reached, then the designation may not proceed.

Pinckney Street, Capitol Square, Madison

Pinckney Street, Capitol Square, Madison

Other important provisions:

  • “No” votes by property owners who have used historic tax credits would not be counted. (presumably “yes” votes by these owners would be counted. The language is silent on this. This matters in Historic Districts where 2/3 of votes cast must be in favor in order to proceed). 

  • “No” votes by owners of properties listed in the National or State Registers would not be counted.

  • If a historic designation is rejected by votes of the property owner(s), then the County, City, or Town must wait one year before proposing same designation.

  • Once a Landmark or Historic District is designated, it may not be rescinded without the consent of the County, City, or Town. 

  • Preservation easements would not be affected by the current provisions.

Representative Leon Young (D- Milwaukee) offered an amendment to AB568 that would have removed all provisions related to local preservation ordinances.  Young's amendment was voted down in the Assembly's Housing and Real Estate Committee. WTHP supported this amendment because virtually all local ordinances in Wisconsin already include "pressure-release" provisions that allow property owners to appeal decisions of Historic Preservation Commission, and seek variances from design standards in cases of economic hardship.

As these bills move from Committees to the full legislature, we will continue to support the removal of all provisions of these bills that impose unnecessary state overrides of local historic preservation ordinances. 

Local Historic Preservation ordinances - regulation of historic and cultural places through municipal powers of zoning - are important tools in many Wisconsin communities. They are embedded into local and county zoning codes, and help communities regulate their own look, feel, and functionality. That regulation goes far beyond individual property ownership that changes, on average, every seven years. There are generational marks left on Wisconsin communities that define those communities, and define a heritage worth visiting, worth investing in, and worth caring about. The longevity of those those places should rise above the privilege of short-term property ownership. 

What AB-568 Means to Wisconsin's Historic Communities

Wisconsin Assembly bill AB-568 (and a similar bill, SB445 in the Senate) contains clauses that would require owner consent before any historic property can be designated under local historic preservation ordinances. It would also make it optional for owners of historic properties to abide by design standards crafted under local historic preservation ordinances. These provisions would make local historic preservation ordinances optional.

The Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation is opposed to these provisions and has asked legislators to remove them from the bill. Here's why:

Eager Free Public Library - Evansville

Eager Free Public Library - Evansville

Making preservation optional disables the only tool that Wisconsin communities have to protect their historic places. The federal National Register of Historic Places program provides no protection for historic places. A National Register building can be demolished with no penalty whatsoever. So, a local historic preservation ordinance is the only tool available to Wisconsin communities to determine what is important to their heritage, and how the community will protect their irreplaceable cultural assets.  It's a tool that is important to many Wisconsin communities in determining the quality of their historic residential and commercial districts. Towns like Bayfield, Cedarburg, Mineral Point, and Ephraim, need local historic designation ordinances and historic standards to maintain the character and unique quality that is at the heart of their tourism industry, their retail activity, and the quality of life in their communities. This bill would make it impossible to enforce such standards. It would place the long-term protection of community heritage in the hands of short-term owners. 

Historic Preservation is an important component of economic development. Recently, Mayors from  Bayfield, Waukesha, and Oshkosh testified against the "owner consent" provisions of the bill, saying that local historic preservation regulation is important to maintain the character and quality-of-life they've tried to cultivate for their communities. Bayfield Mayor, Larry McDonald, testified that Bayfield uses a triple bottom-line model to measure their success and quality of life. It requires that residents are taken care of, businesses are profitable, and environment (including the lakeshore heritage and historic character) is well-protected. "We have a tremendous concern," he said, "about what it would do to our economy, and we really believe it would really devalue the surrounding historic neighborhoods and buildings. We've got a brand, we've got a look."

Some of the most well-known and most visited historic districts in the nation - Charleston, Savannah, the French Quarter - are successful not because their design standards are optional, but because these cities have the power to compel adherence to design standards, and  they are diligent about enforcing their standards.

Are historic preservation regulation constitutional? Yes. Regulation of private property (including historic preservation regulations) for the purpose of beautification and redevelopment of the community falls within municipal powers of zoning, and do not violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  These powers, and historic district regulation by cities and towns, have been affirmed by the US Supreme Court in several cases (e.g. Berman v. Parker, 1954 and Penn Central v. NYC, 1978).  The "owner consent provisions of AB-568 rescind a constitutional power from Wisconsin municipalities and gives it to property owners. It's akin to making local waterfront zoning rules optional.

Historic Preservation is a long game. Owner consent provisions are short-sighted. Having historic places in your Wisconsin town is a long-term effort. Historic places, especially buildings, are dependent on their historic character to tell their stories - to be places people want to visit. But they also need to be economically viable. That means they need to be adapted to modern uses, but they need to retain their historic character. That is exactly the balance that local preservation ordinances try to strike. Property owners come and go. On average, real estate changes hands every seven years. As historic properties change hands and change uses design standards are in place to maintain their historic character over the long term, so that a town's historic shoe factory keeps looking like a shoe factory, and isn't eroded little by little over time.  If owners are allowed to opt out of local design standards, any short-term owner can opt out, demolish, and leave the community without that piece of their heritage.

Find your state representative here. Contact them and tell them local control of historic places is important to your Wisconsin community.

Shared risk, shared reward. Many studies of the economic impacts of historic preservation conclude that local regulation of historic districts, both commercial and residential, tends to stabilize and even increase property values in those districts. Property owners in those district have a shared interest in the health - the appearance and quality - of their district. All owners share the reward that comes with a well-regulated neighborhood. And all owners also share the risk of allowing deterioration of the character of their district.  Owners who have no interest in maintaining the character of their property bring risk to the stability and value of historic districts. 

Research Tower at SCJohnson company headquarters -Racine. Photo courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers on Flickr.

Research Tower at SCJohnson company headquarters -Racine. Photo courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers on Flickr.

Building codes are not equivalent to historic design standards. Building codes address safety and structural standards, but not aesthetic standards. Historic buildings, sites, and districts are critically dependent on the historic integrity and character for their significance. It's what makes people want to visit them. Building codes can make a property owner repair a damaged roof, but historic design standards make the owner of historic buildings make the roof look like it did before it was damaged. Why is this important? Just imagine Frank Lloyd Wright's SCJohnson research tower in Racine with a mansard roof like a barn. It would protect the building pursuant to Racine's building code, but it would completely change the character of the historic building.

Local HP ordinances are not arbitrary, and they are not applied to every old building. Local ordinances rely on community-defined criteria that properties must meet in order to be designated. Once they are designated, they are subject to community-developed standards for maintaining their historic integrity. Also, local ordinances have pressure release clauses that allow property owners to appeal a decision of the local historic preservation commissions. They also have economic hardship causes that allow property owners to skirt the standards when compliance would impose and burdensome economic hardship.

The Mary Nohl Artist Environment (PRESERVATION FORUM)

A public forum on the preservation of artist environments is being convened on Thursday, July 10, 2014 in the Lubar Auditorium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 7:15-9 pm. The forum was organized in response to the announcement that the John Michael Kohler Arts Center intends to move the environment of artist Mary Nohl, located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Fox Point, and a rare example of a vernacular environment created by a female artist, to a location in Sheboygan. The forum is free and open to the public.

The Mary Nohl Art Environment is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

The Mary Nohl Art Environment is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Event Information: Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lubar Auditorium of the Milwaukee Art Museum

700 North Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

7:15-9 pm

The public is encouraged to arrive at the Milwaukee Art Museum at 6 pm to attend the opening of Postcards from America: Milwaukee in the Contemporary Galleries. The remarks by photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti and Curator of Photography Lisa Sutcliffe begin at 6:30 pm and will conclude prior to the beginning of the Preservation Forum at 7:15 pm. More information on the exhibition at:

The central purpose of the Preservation Forum is to provide fuller public consideration of the issues surrounding the preservation of artist environments such as the Mary Nohl residence, particularly when they are located in communities that must balance the impact of allowing public access (even on a very limited basis) against the value of preserving a local cultural treasure. The Kohler Arts Center's announcement, which caught many by surprise, became the catalyst for a discussion of the ramifications of moving such a site. It is hoped that this event will not only expand public understanding of the particularities of the Nohl situation, but also introduce into the discourse a clearer sense of the recurring preservation issues that surround artist environments: negotiating with neighbors, defining public access, funding preservation, and weighing the impact of cultural loss on our sense of place.

The program will be moderated by Polly Morris of the Public Art Subcommittee of the Milwaukee Arts Board and will begin with an introduction to the artist's work by Debra Brehmer of the Portrait Society Gallery. Speakers include Ruth DeYoung Kohler, director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center; Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; preservation architect Matthew Jarosz; and local historian John Gurda.

Presentations & Presenters (in order of appearance)

Debra Brehmer: A Yard of One's Own: A Tour of Mary Nohl's Art Environment

Brehmer will take a brief look at the environment Mary Nohl built inside and outside her Beach Drive home over a period of more than forty years. Brehmer has a master's degree in Art History, and wrote her thesis on Mary Nohl. She is the owner and director of Portrait Society Gallery and teaches part time at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Lisa Stone: Women's Work: Mary Nohl and Her "Fellow" Environment Builders

Following a brief introduction to the significance of vernacular environments in our cultural landscape and the imperative to preserve the best examples, Stone will present an overview of environments built by women––most of which are no longer extant––to position Mary Nohl's work within this context. Stone's research and teaching focus on the preservation and interpretation of artist’s environments and collections, and the relationship of objects to creative practice. Since the early 1980s she has worked on the documentation and preservation of environments by artist/builders whose works are home and garden-based, who ignore or dissolve boundaries between home and studio, life and art. She works with Don Howlett on preservation planning and project implementation for their company Preservation Services, Inc.

Matthew Jarosz: Issues in Historic Preservation

Matthew Thomas Jarosz, Associate Adjunct Professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is best known for his architectural design work related to historic preservation. By combining his teaching and research with his involvement in community preservation projects, he has provided extensive opportunities for students to apply and expand academic learning. His private practice, JaroszLynch Architects, has offered students important hands-on education in the matter of professional preservation activities.

John Gurda: The Importance of Context

Since the 1970s, historic preservation has grown from a value-added element--nice but not necessary--to a cornerstone of civic planning. There have been losses, certainly, but there is also a new and broadly shared awareness of the importance of the past in our present. What's too often missing in the preservation discussion is a concern for context. No landmark exists in a vacuum. Each is embedded and embodied in a particular landscape that is integral to comprehending its story and understanding its importance. Gurda will illustrate the general principle with examples from Milwaukee's built environment. Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of nineteen books, including histories of Milwaukee-area neighborhoods, industries, and places of worship. The Making of Milwaukee is Gurda’s most ambitious effort. With 450 pages and more than 500 illustrations, it is the first full-length history of the community published since 1948. Milwaukee Public Television created an Emmy Award-winning documentary series based on the book in 2006. In addition to his work as an author, Gurda is a lecturer, tour guide, and local history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He holds a B.A. in English from Boston College and an M.A. in Cultural Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Gurda is an eight-time winner of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Award of Merit.

Ruth DeYoung Kohler: Preserving Artist Environments: Balancing Access and Preservation

Ruth DeYoung Kohler, director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, will provide a deeper understanding of how the institution works to preserve artist environments, and the many elements that contributed to the board's decision to move the Mary Nohl Art Environment from its original location. Kohler has been director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center since 1972.

Conference Stories | Plum Island Life-Saving and Light Station – Door County, WI

The following excerpt was presented by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2013 Local History and Historic Preservation Conference in early October. This excerpt is the eighth and final post in a series of stories we have published to the WTHP blog over the last month. Please check back in our archives for more. You can find the whole series here.


Plum Island is located halfway between Washington Island and the tip of Door County in the Port des Morts passage. In 1848, the 325-acre island was reserved from the public domain for lighthouse purposes. In 1896, Congress authorized funds to construct a new keeper’s quarters, range lights, fog signal building, and life-saving station on Plum Island. The Coast Guard operated the facilities on the island until 1990. In 2007, the island was transferred to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Friends of Plum and Pilot Island (FOPPI) was established to provide stewardship for the island’s architectural resources. The entire island was listed as a National Register Historic District in 2010.

This past summer, FOPPI restored the life-saving station’s nearly collapsed front porch. Other work in progress includes an engineering study of the dock, the break wall, and the boathouse. This study was funded by a Wisconsin Coastal Management grant with an in-kind match from FOPPI. FOPPI also received a grant to hire a strategic planning consultant to assist with the establishment of a five-year plan of action. A special ceremony is planned for Spring 2014, when Plum Island is opened to the public for the first time.

Conference Stories | Hospital Building at Wisconsin Veterans Home – King, WI

The following excerpt was presented by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2013 Local History and Historic Preservation Conference in early October. This excerpt is the seventh in a series of eight stories we will publish to the WTHP blog over the next few weeks. Please check back often for more. You can find the whole series here.


The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs plans to demolish the 1929 Hospital Building on the campus of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King for the construction of a new 200-bed skilled nursing facility. The building, designed by Arthur Peabody, is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The Wisconsin Veterans Home was established by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1888 on the shores of Rainbow Lake, part of Waupaca’s Chain O’ Lakes. Arthur Peabody was born in Eau Claire in 1858 and was campus architect for the University of Wisconsin – Madison from 1905 to 1915. He became state architect of Wisconsin in 1915 and designed a number of Madison landmarks, including the Wisconsin State Office Building, the UW Memorial Union, Camp Randall Field House, and the university’s Carillon Tower.

Conference Stories | Canadian National Railroad and the City of Oshkosh – Oshkosh, WI

The following excerpt was presented by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2013 Local History and Historic Preservation Conference in early October. This excerpt is the fifth in a series of eight stories we will publish to the WTHP blog over the next few weeks. Please check back often for more. You can find the whole series here.


Interpretation of 1899 Chicago & North Western Railway Bridge

The City of Oshkosh Landmarks Commission and the Canadian National Railroad worked together to save portions of the 1899 Chicago and North Western Railway Swing bridge over the Fox River at Oshkosh. Although the historic bridge was dismantled and replaced with a new bridge in 2013, both parties worked diligently and cooperatively to save the original bridge’s 1899 date plaque and builder’s plate. These remnants will be incorporated into interpretive panels to be installed along the north and south shores of the Oshkosh’s River Walk. The Canadian National Railroad donated money for the creation and installation of the interpretive panels. In addition, twenty foot sections of the north and south shore bridge spans have been retained by the city for eventual incorporation into the south shore River Walk. The joint project is an excellent example of public and private cooperation for the benefit of the community.

Download the PDF of this story here.

Conference Stories | Garwin Mace Lime Kilns at Lime Kiln Park – Menomonee Falls, WI

The following excerpt was presented by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2013 Local History and Historic Preservation Conference in early October. This excerpt is the fourth in a series of eight stories we will publish to the WTHP blog over the next few weeks. Please check back often for more. You can find the whole series here.


Lime Kiln Park is graced with the town’s namesake falls of the Menomonee River. It is also the site of two National Register-listed lime kilns, erected in 1890 to service the nearby limestone quarry. By 2010, the Lannon stone kilns were in desperate need of restoration; the Village of Menomonee Falls funded repair work on the lime kilns beginning in 2011. The original scope of the repair was to clean and re-point all mortar joints on both structures. It soon became apparent that one of the kiln’s load bearing arches was near the point of collapse. Masonry Restoration, Inc. was tasked with the careful removal and documentation of the stone façade, the dismantling of over eight feet of crumbling backup walls, and the rebuilding of the load bearing arches. These repairs have extended the life of the structures so that they may continue to convey an important piece of early Menomonee Falls history.

Download the PDF of this story here

Conference Stories | White Elm Nursery – Hartland, WI

The following excerpt was presented by the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2013 Local History and Historic Preservation Conference in early October. This excerpt is the thirdin a series of eight stories we will publish to the WTHP blog over the next few weeks. Please check back often for more. You can find the whole series here.


The 1929 White Elm Nursery, designed by prominent Milwaukee architectural firm Eschweiler and Eschweiler, is a scholarly example of the Tudor Revival Style applied to an unusual building type. The first floor of the building housed office and retail space for the nursery, while the upstairs was living quarters for the property’s caretaker. A large brick chimney stack on the south facade serviced the boiler that provided steam power for the nursery. The building and its associated structures functioned as a nursery and greenhouse for almost 75 years. In 1986, White Elm Nursery was determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register Multiple Property Listing for Hartland. It is currently bank-owned and threatened with demolition for a proposed 36-unit apartment complex. The Hartland Historical Society is encouraging the owner and developer to search for creative solutions to retain and restore the Tudor Revival building.

Download the PDF of this story here