For decades the city of Madison has owned three houses on prime real estate on Lake Mendota. These houses are beautiful and historic, but they've been steadily deteriorating. Here's an idea to save and restore them, create more usable parkland and form a more coherent city streetscape.
The three houses are located along the 600 block of East Gorham Street with backyards that face the lake. They were acquired by the city four decades ago as part of a plan to expand James Madison Park. Beautiful homes just like them once lined the rest of Gorham, but the city decided to acquire them and tear them down to create the park. As hard as it must have been to destroy great houses in the downtown, the benefit of James Madison Park probably outweighs that sacrifice.
But in the early 1970s, the burgeoning historic preservation movement ran straight into the green space movement, and the fault line runs right through these houses. At that time, Mayor Bill Dyke, in a nod to preservationists, stopped the city from demolishing the three houses. What's left is an incoherent urban streetscape and an incomplete park, the unsatisfying result of the collision of two irresistible movements. Because no one can agree on what should be done next, the houses have sat in limbo with the city reluctant to put more money into maintaining them.
What to do? Sell them and move them.
The streetscape that exists right now on that block of Gorham makes no sense. You have a park, two homes, a vacant lot, a street end and another house. Years ago, I proposed moving the two houses furthest west a few hundred feet and turning them to front on the stub end of Blount Street facing the Collins House. This would form a coherent cluster of related houses and, because two of the homes would no longer face Gorham, it would provide a quieter setting for the new owners.
At the same time, the land vacated by the houses could be used to expand James Madison Park and provide a coherent edge for the park.
So, what's not to like? Some historic preservationists argue that the location of the houses is important to their historic character. For a lot of other properties I'd agree, but in this case the historic context of the related homes on the street was destroyed decades ago. What's left is the urban street equivalent of a toothless smile. Also, we've had some success in the relocation of historic buildings. The Gates of Heaven temple at the other end of the park is a perfect example.
The other problem is that the city wouldn't get much of anything for the houses due to the cost of moving them. But Madison is unlikely to get a very good price for them anyway, because the real value is not in the homes but in the land, and the city won't and shouldn't sell lakefront parcels.
So, essentially the current proposal is to sell three run-down houses in a beautiful lake front setting for far below potential market value on the hope that some day they'll burn down or be destroyed by a tornado so that the city can then use the land it owns underneath them to expand the park. Does this make any sense to anybody?