Historic preservation advocacy ain’t all glamor, kids. Just ask Dawn McCarthy, president of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) and recent winner of the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission’s Cream of Cream City award.
"It was really gratifying to be recognized for the work we’re doing," she said of the award, which she won on May 15. Acknowledging that MPA is often "a little bit under the radar," McCarthy told OnMilwaukee.com that "the advocacy work that we’re doing means going to endless meetings, testifying before government boards, supplying factual information, writing comments...that’s not sexy stuff, necessarily!"
So it makes the award – and MPA’s recent success stories – all the more meaningful.
"I’m really grateful that we’re being recognized for doing that work, because it’s really keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone kind of work," she said. "(We) just keep plugging along and try to find solutions for all interested parties."
In April it was announced that the historic Soldiers Home at the VA Hospital, which McCarthy and MPA waged a campaign in defense of, would be named a National Historic Landmark. The outlook on another MPA project, the historic Eschweiler buildings in Wauwatosa, also seems promising; the buildings are now being considered by the Forest Exploration Center for reuse as a charter school.
"Things are still going through the municipal process in Wauwatosa for the Eschweiler buildings, but there seems to be a really good opportunity for saving the buildings," she said. She called it "a happy coincidence" that the Forest Exploration Center was looking for a school at the same time as the Mandel Group was applying to develop the buildings into residential units. "That (school) restoration is much less costly and much more feasible, so we’re really hoping that that solution will ultimately go through all the approval processes in Wauwatosa and work to save those buildings."
Because what many people don’t realize, McCarthy said, is that historic preservation isn’t just about saving a piece of the past for the sake of sentiment.
It is also an economically and environmentally significant choice.
"Preservationists are sometimes accused of wanting to put buildings under glass, to be treated like museum pieces," she said. "Our belief is that buildings must be occupied to be saved and to endure...(but) always we work to educate about the economic benefits of historic preservation, knowing that the emotional argument doesn’t cut it in the political arena."
McCarthy points to research showing that the benefits of historic preservation include the creation of local jobs as well as the increase in tourism. "People who travel to historic districts tend to stay longer and spend more money," she said. She also works to raise public awareness of the fact that preservation has shown to create more revenue than new construction does.
And preservation is also the original form of recycling. "The greenest building is the building that already exists. When you consider the landfill of razing a historic building and all the construction materials (involved in) restoring a building – and frankly older buildings are more airtight than most people think."
McCarthy herself has lived in a historic home in the Water Tower neighborhood since 2001. Any alterations made the exterior of her house must be approved by the city, the experience gives her perspective on the process and insight into the responsibilities – and benefits – of historic property ownership.
"Really, I didn’t know very much about historic designations before that, but I was excited about moving into a historic house," she recalled. "I didn’t understand – like most property owners – all the implications. So I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed involved is because I’ve personally experienced that learning curve and the more I got involved the more I understood the economic benefits that accrue to historic preservation."
She points out that Wisconsin homeowners are entitled to a 25 percent state income tax credit to fund the rehabilitation of a historic personal residence if the residence meets the requirements of and receives approval from the State Historic Preservation Office. Similar incentives exist for commercial properties as well.
Part of MPA’s mission, in fact, is to encourage responsible and conscientious ownership of historically significant properties and buildings. Many instances of demolition are caused by neglect, McCarthy said.
"(Often) it’s the property owner’s own neglect that created the economic issue," she said. "I think often people have trouble seeing that process…when we’re saying ‘Yeah, tear that building down for a parking lot,’ that we’re kind of rewarding a property owner that maybe hasn’t done what he should be doing for the community – where the property was historic or not….by the time (the building is dilapidated) it is hard for the city and the community to see that there is historic value in the building."
The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and McCarthy hopes that, buoyed by their recent successes, in the future the organization can continue to focus on proactively obtaining local historic landmark designation.
"It’s the local designation that really protects historic buildings from threats of destruction. You would think that being designated as a nationally historic building would be protection, but it’s really when the city itself says this is an important historic building or an important historic district," she said. "That’s when anyone who then pulls a building permit on that property needs to go the one extra step to go to the historic preservation commission and make sure that they’re not doing damage to the character of the district. Generally, that’s a pretty easy process, but I think again people don’t understand that it’s easy to do."
"It’s easy to do" pretty well sums up McCarthy’s whole mission – and that of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance: preserving the past is not as hard as you would think.
"It’s not just for our own community. It’s for the future community as well. I think a lot of us feel strongly that these historic buildings have been very meaningful to our lives and meaning for us in Milwaukee and there’s responsibility to the future generations to do what we can," she said. "And frankly, since we can find a current economic benefit to do that work, it just makes sense."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.