Located at 1617 Sherman Avenue near Tenney Park, the nondescript building is known as the Filene House. It’s named for Edward Filene, founder of the Credit Union National Association, or CUNA.
Built in 1950, the property was once the headquarters for the credit union movement. President Harry Truman even gave a dedication speech there when construction was completed.
The future of the Filene House, though, has become a flashpoint for how to balance historic preservation with Madison’s complex housing crisis. Those seeking to prevent the demolition of the property say the albeit nondescript building is still an important piece of history – and one physical reminder of a place Madison made its mark nationally. Others say that historic status shouldn’t impede a plan to raze the building, adding more housing supply to the isthmus as the city grapples to provide enough affordable homes to residents.
The issue has been brewing since last month, when the city’s Landmarks Commission unanimously voted to recommend designating the building a historic landmark. That decision befuddled some, who say the building does not contain characteristics that make the building itself unique or like other buildings that have received historic status.
That comes as Chicago-based developer Vermilion Development seeks to demolish the building, and in its place add over 300 apartments to the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood. . Vermilion first introduced their plans to the city back in October, and the landmark designation was proposed just two months later, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
Some neighbors have called for Vermilion to incorporate the existing Filene House into the housing development. But the developers say that building on top of the two-story building isn’t possible, and there would be numerous obstacles to turning what stands now into housing.
“They deemed that less than 50% of the physical building would remain in the instance of a rehab,” Darrin Jolas with Vermilion says. “What does that mean? That means that the existing systems in the building, whether that’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, would all need to be removed because they aren’t suitable for residential use. The existing windows, as much as we might like them visibly, are not usable for residential use, they need to be operable in order to be appropriate for residence. The structure cannot support additional floors, so you have a two-story building that cannot be built upon and is rather inefficient for an 8-acre site to be restrained in that manner.”
Vermilion has proposed a community meeting space to commemorate the historic nature of the property. They also point out that the most recent neighborhood plan suggests that the property should be used for housing, and that the current property has led to increased flooding for neighbors.
But, those in favor of preserving the Filene House – and designating it as a landmark – were in force last night, with about an hour of heated public comment.
Larry Nesper is a member of the Sherman Terrace Neighborhood Association. He says the Filene House is an important fixture of the neighborhood.
“This building is already a landmark for us,” Nesper says. “We use it to give directions to family and friends visiting the terrace. We admire its unpretentious mid-20th century style. The 34 glass windows on the two-story facade reflect the light of the sky in the evening, and mirror the clouds at sunset. Its brown and cream brick not only evoke other buildings in Madison of the same era, but add to the beauty of the natural color palette, all flamed by the mature maples and pines.”
Others took aim at the developers themselves.
“Clearly, Chicago is now trying to retaliate for a decision made 94 years ago to put the Filene House in Madison rather than in Chicago,” Kurt Stieg says. “I think it’s obvious.”
But still some spoke against the historic designation and in favor of adding more housing to the city, which is experiencing a housing crisis.
“There has always been, and always will be, speeches by important people commemorating the work done by good organizations,” Eric Hamilton says. “What makes these organizations special is not where they do the work, but the work that they do. Let’s not confuse these two and start arbitrarily preserving buildings just to stand in the way of other worthy goals. In this case, the other worthy goal is housing people.”
The council did not outright deny the landmark designation. Instead, they placed the designation on file, meaning that they could take it up again in the future. The vote to place it on file without prejudice passed on a 14 to 5 vote.
Alder Patrick Heck of District 2, who voted in favor of placing the nomination on file, says that the unanimous recommendation from the Landmarks Commission is just that, a recommendation.
“I really think it’s a judgment call,” Heck says. “The language of the ordinance includes a lot of words that are subject to interpretation and it includes that council may, and landmarks may, declare something a landmark based on a nomination. It doesn’t say that we must. I also believe that the historical significance standard is subjective, and I judge that this property is not particularly significant compared to others that we’ve declared landmarks.”
Vermillion submitted their plans for the site last month. Even if the Filene house was designated as a historic landmark, there would still be a path forward for the property to be redeveloped.
Vermilion’s proposal will go before the Plan Commission next month.
Meanwhile last night,the council approved the rezoning of the former Market Square Theatre, a discount cinema on Odana Road that shuttered its doors last year. That property is slated for a six-story apartment building project, amidst objections from some residents at a neighboring senior living facility.
And, the council rejected several proposals to use unspent dollars that would have gone to increase alder pay. They also pushed along but did not decide several proposals, which would up the number of allowable backyard chickens, repeal laws prohibiting bicycle trick riding and bikes on footbridges, and a plan to dissolve a public safety committee.
Photo courtesy: John Rolling via Landmarks Nomination