After having granted temporary historic designation to the former Forest Home Library branch, 1432 W. Forest Home Ave., at its meeting on Nov. 2, the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission last week voted unanimously to make that designation permanent.
However, on Tuesday, the City of Milwaukee Zoning and Neighborhood Development Committee declined Ald. Bob Bauman's motion to uphold that decision in a 3-2 vote. A motion brought by Ald. Jose Perez to reject the historic designation passed unanimously.
Ald. Bob Bauman made a motion for the committee to approve the designation and he, or another council member, could still bring the issue to the full Common Council when it next meets.
The designation could have stymied a Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin plan to tear down the 1966 library – valued for its importance as a Midcentury Modern building, but vacant since it was replaced by the nearby Mitchell Street Library branch a few years ago – to build a $5.4 million health clinic.
As part of the plan, a developer would buy the former library from the city for $450,000, tear down the library and replace it with a single-story clinic building that would be leased to the hospital.
The sale of the building was also approved unanimously at Tuesday's committee meeting. Tuesday's committee recommendations will move to the full Common Council.
In October, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Ebersole suggested that Children’s Hospital consider keeping the building as part of its plan, though it's unclear if the developers would consider that option.
"We do very much support the use of the property for a health center but believe there can be a win-win where the health center and building coexist," said Ebersole.
According to Ebersole, while the HPC considers whether or not a property meets the criteria for historic designation, the Zoning committee can weigh the balance between the public benefit of preservation versus the building owner’s rights to do as they please with their property.
Ultimately, the Common Council will be the final arbiter of designation, and the property owner has the right to appeal any decision to prevent razing the building, which was designed by Milwaukee’s Robert Van Lanen of von Grossmann, Burroughs, Van Lanen and Associates.
In addition to its striking design, the building is also notable among city structures in its use of exposed Corten steel structure, which was designed to take on a rusty appearance and eliminate the need for regular painting.
The year after it was built, the library earned a number of design awards.
“As an incredibly intact, innovative, and significant example of Modernist library architecture in Milwaukee, the Forest Home Library is eminently deserving of protection, and we are pleased that the Commission voted unanimously to grant it permanent historic designation,” said Ebersole.
”The Forest Home Library, as a beautiful example of mid-century library architecture designed by a significant architect and demonstrating innovation in architectural design, is the right building to serve as the city’s first individually designated Modernist building.”
Recently, Kelsey Kuehn and Eric Vogel of Vogel Design Group – who submitted the application seeking historic designation for the building – launched a website called Save The Forest Home Library, seeking public support for preserving the library and its reuse.
It also sought memories from branch library users, like K. Kenealy, who was at the library the day it opened. (As a former neighborhood resident, I submitted a memory to the site, too.)
“Inside was beautiful. Light and airy. It was so spacious and bright, and it smelled new! I remember picking out my stack of books and heading up to the desk to check them out.”
“It’s not necessarily a famous building by a famous architect from Milwaukee,” wrote Krisann R. “It’s not a corporate headquarters or a museum on the lakefront or something that we all recognize immediately as iconic. ... But people in Milwaukee really do identify with that more populist image.
“Von Grossmann, the architect, also designed the Kohl’s grocery store where my dad worked for most of his career. ... My parents met at a Kohl’s grocery store so it has a really deep, personal meaning for me ... and for a lot of other people in Milwaukee, I think.”
The website also lists some potential nearby locations that some believe could be better suited for the proposed development.
"The applicants, MPA and a group of others have been working hard on win-win solutions that would encourage the medical center to relocate to a City-owned, underutilized parking lot just a few blocks away," said Ebersole. "We've also identified a number of alternative uses for the library building and a historic preservation architect is preparing a report showing the viability of reuse."
"This would really create a win-win where the building can be reused to meet community needs, excess parking can be put to a better use, and the medical center can still locate in the area and fulfill all its space, program and parking needs."
The library was listed for sale by the city and Voces de la Frontera had sought to purchase it, but later backed away, opting instead to move into a recently renovation building near at 733 W. Mitchell St.
“Buildings from the recent past have always faced challenges to preservation based on changing tastes,” said Ebersole. “Victorian architecture of the late 1800s was demeaned as Art Deco came into vogue in the 1920s.
“Art Deco itself suffered at the hands of Modernism in the 1960s. Modernism has already too often suffered the same fate as its predecessors. The time is right for Milwaukee to protect our Modernist resources.”
The Save the Forest Home Library website also has a petition, which you can find here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.