Madison Updates 1971 Landmarks Ordinance

The city of Madison has adopted a revised historic preservation ordinance after several years of review by the city's Landmarks Commission and a committee of alders. A full review of the ordinance was undertaken by the Landmarks Commission in 2011 after a high-profile and controversial redevelopment project caused bitter negotiations and competing interpretations of the ordinance as it move through the approval process. Then, in 2014, another development proposal in the Mansion Hill Historic District, the state's first locally-designated historic district, was met with stiff opposition from neighborhood residents who saw the redevelopment of a dilapidated house as a reward for demolition-by-neglect. These proposals revealed weaknesses in the language of the 1971 ordinance, and city officials pressed for a full review of the ordinance.

A new residential development being built (2014) in the Langdon Street Historic District.

A new residential development being built (2014) in the Langdon Street Historic District.

The 4-year review process came to fruition this week as Madison's 20-member Common Council unanimously adopted a revised ordinance. Supporters of the new ordinance registering and testifying at the meeting included representatives from the preservation community, and the development community. They unanimously praised the review committee, city staff, and the process. 

The biggest change to the ordinance was the adoption of maintenance standards for designated properties. The new ordinance creates a legal obligation on property owners to properly maintain historic properties. It defines demolition-by-neglect and provides significant penalties for violating the ordinance.

The key revisions to the ordinance include:

  • Clarifying the process destination and recession of Landmark status

  • Augmented the list of standards that the Landmarks Commission should consider including hen designating a new historic district.

  • Adding definitions for several key terms used in regulating alterations and new construction in historic districts

  • Redefined what relates visually to designated historic properties for use in evaluating new construction

  • Clarifying the provision that allows appeals of a Landmarks Commission decision, while maintaining the 2/3 super-majority required to overrule the Commission. 

  • Clarifying the  circumstances under which owners can apply for a variance from the ordinance standards. 

Overall, the new ordinance strikes an appropriate balance between the city's interests in conserving historic cultural resources, and in re-densification and redevelopment. 

There will be a second phase of the revisions that will review the standards in each of Madison's five historic districts designated under the ordinance. 

A Tribute to UW Professor Emerita Jane N. Graff


Jane N. Graff's life's work had been to provide program support to UW Extension Faculty as a professor in the Department of Related Art within the University of Wisconsin School of Home Economics (currently known as the School of Human Ecology). She worked in this capacity for 32 years, following which she received professor emerita status.

Beginning her career with the University in 1959, Professor Graff lived "the Wisconsin Idea" through her to outreach to Wisconsin families by way of newsletters, radio, television and other media. Her principal focus was the home environment and its impact on the Wisconsin family. By the 1970s her passion for textiles led to her work with 4-H groups in textile design and fueled her research into historic quilts. She was deeply involved with the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection in the School of Human Ecology. In fact, her commitment to the collection is reflected in her endowment of a position for a research assistant to work with the materials.

Professor Graff passed away on August 7, 2008 at the age of 81. In death, she demonstrated the same generosity that characterized her life. Her generous bequest to the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation, Inc. has been the central impetus behind the current revitalization of the organization. As we carry the mission of the Wisconsin Trust forward, Professor Graff always will remain an inspiration for her dedication and generosity.

Photograph of Professor Jane Graff (1972)
working with UW-Extension group courtesy of
University of Wisconsin Archives.