Preservation Commission Recommends Permanent Historic Status for Marcus Center and Kiley Grove
On April 1, 2019, the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), in a four-to-one vote, recommended permanent historic designation for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and its grounds, including Dan Kiley’s grove of 36 horse chestnut trees. The commission also voted to allow four of the trees, recently determined to be in bad health, to be replaced within the period of one year. The Marcus Center then moved quickly—too quickly, in fact—to cut down the four trees in question. The HPC’s decision will eventually come before the Milwaukee Common Council, which may yet veto the historic designation.
The full-to-capacity meeting began with a report by Carlen Hatala, the City’s senior preservation planner, who told the HPC that local historic designation was recommended based on four criteria (see below). Among those who testified in favor of historic designation were landscape architect Jennifer Current and architect Mark Debrauske, who jointly filed the original application for historic designation in January 2019. Also speaking in favor of the designation was Dawn McCarthy of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, and Whitney Gould, a member of Milwaukee’s City Plan Commission and the former architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. TCLF also formally backed the historic designation, submitting a letter of support to the HPC prior to the meeting.
Representatives from the Marcus Center spoke against the designation, citing alterations to the building, including the replacement of its travertine cladding with limestone in the mid-1990s, as sufficient reasons to deny it historical status. But as the preservation staff report had also indicated, several Milwaukee structures have received local historic designation despite significant alterations to their building fabric.
Alderman Robert Bauman, who co-chairs the HPC, moved to confer permanent historic status and chided the arguments put forth by the Marcus Center: “If it is true that this building is so utterly worthless from a historical or architectural standpoint, as your argument basically says, we should tear that building down and start over…You really made the argument that this building is utterly worthless.”
While the Marcus Center now claims that removing four trees from the grove is an urgent matter—one that even threatens public safety—it is unclear when the Center began to monitor the trees’ condition, or, indeed, if it had done so at all, prior to formulating plans to destroy the grove. Hoppe Tree Service, the firm hired by the Center in January 2019 to assess the health of the trees, had not been retained to perform regular maintenance on the grove prior to that time. In the summer of 2016, the Center touted itself as “a facility with virtually no deferred maintenance.”
More than 4,000 individuals and organizations contributed financially to the building and grounds of the Marcus Center (then the Performing Arts Center of Milwaukee), which opened to the public in September 1969. The horse chestnut grove was originally supported by a $7,500 donation from the Green Tree Garden Club, which remains active in Milwaukee. The Center is the result of a collaboration between celebrated landscape architect Dan Kiley and the equally accomplished architect Harry Weese.
The historic designation conferred by the HPC may yet be overturned by the Milwaukee Common Council. The matter will next be taken up at a meeting of the Zoning, Neighborhoods, and Development Committee of the Common Council on Tuesday April 30, 2019. TCLF added the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to its Landslide program in December 2018, just days after plans were unveiled for a reimagined campus, which called for the Dan Kiley landscape to be obliterated.
"TCLF applauds the Historic Preservation Commission’s vote,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s president & CEO. "As was clear in the comments by the commissioners and those who testified, this decision reinforces the reality that significant works of landscape archictecture, such as Kiley’s grove at the Marcus Center, can be sympathetically managed without destroying the unique qualities that reflect their design."
The four criteria for the permanent historic designation of the Marcus Center were as follows: The Center (1) exemplifies the development of the cultural, economic, social, or historic heritage of the City of Milwaukee, State of Wisconsin or the United States; (2) embodies the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type or specimen; (3) is the work of an artist, architect, craftsman, or master builder whose individual works have influenced the development of the City of Milwaukee; and (4) is uniquely located as a singular physical characteristic, which represents an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood, community or the City of Milwaukee.