Last night, the Madison Common Council shot down a proposal to preserve a unique lake view for an early Frank Lloyd Wright building.
It’s Wright’s earliest surviving work in Madison. Built more than a century ago for his childhood friend Robert Lamp, the house provided expansive views of the downtown area, and of Lakes Mendota and Monona.
The house now sits secluded from street view, behind houses and apartment buildings and bounded by North Webster, East Mifflin and North Butler Streets.
The Lamp House is currently an apartment building, surrounded by new developments — and sightlines to Lake Monona and the Capitol have been cut off. Only Lake Mendota is partially visible from the third floor of the house.
Whether to protect that existing view has been an ongoing issue. In 2013, an ad hoc committee on the Lamp House sought to balance historic preservation with economic development.
That came as two developers sought to build a 10-story hotel and a six-story apartment building on the block. Those developments were eventually built, but the issue of the Lamp House has arisen again.
Last night, the Council shot down a proposal to adjust city building height policies to preserve sightlines from the Lamp House to Lake Mendota. Under the failed measure, allowable building heights adjacent to the Lamp House would have been dropped.
Alder Juliana Bennett, who represents the UW-Madison campus on the council, says that stifling future developments just to preserve the view is a flawed strategy.
“Preserving the view of the Lamp House should come as a backburner issue, given the significant need and calls by the Downtown Plan for increased density,” Bennett argues. “Preserving the view of the Lamp House has become an important issue to the sponsor or to Plan Commision because a few white, elite preservationists who have the privilege and the means to make a fuss have made preserving the view a paramount issue.”
Alder Patrick Heck pushed back on that argument. Heck, the lone sponsor of the proposal, says it’s the council’s duty to balance the need for more downtown housing with preservation of the city’s historical sites.
“Can we give occasionally, and for the greater good go against the recommendations of preservationists? Possibly,” Heck says. “Those are legitimate questions. But historic preservation is something that the city values, and I think the majority of residents do too.”
The house has been owned by Apex Property Management since 2005.
Ron Scherubel is the former Executive Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and a current board member for the group. He says that Apex and the Conservancy have been in discussions about the future of the property.
Scherubel urged the council to table the building height recommendations — for the time being.
“Passing it now wouldn’t really help the Lamp House all that much, especially if the sole reason is preservation of the view of the lake, which we all agree was substantially lost many years ago. Passing this measure now could solidify the owner’s development options without considering and discussing all of the possible options for this house,” he says.
The recommendation to adjust allowable downtown building heights failed 14 to 4 — with alders Patrick Heck, Brian Benford, Lindsey Lemmer and Michael Verveer in favor.
While the view from the Robert Lamp House may soon be totally obscured, the building itself will remain in place. Apex and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy are currently weighing the future of the house — including a potential relocation.
Also last night the city council approved a resolution endorsing tribal rights and clean water. That proposal is in response to the ongoing protests against Enbdridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which is currently under construction in northern Minnesota.
Alders also approved a measure to add Juneteenth as a paid holiday for city employees and officially recognize the day after Thanksgiving as Ho-Chunk Day.
Feature image by Chali Pittman