In a meeting that stretched past midnight, the Landmarks Commission heard hours of comments on the proposal for the 100 block of State Street, but put off deciding on the project's most controversial aspect: whether to allow demolition of the historic Schubert building, 120 W. Mifflin St., and its treasured neighbor, the Fairchild/Stark building, at the corner of Mifflin and Fairchild Streets.
Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland -- benefactors of the Overture Center -- have been buying up the buildings across from Overture for the past decade. They have proposed a $10 million project that would involve razing five buildings and renovating another. A four-story office building and private plaza would be constructed on Fairchild Street facing the Overture Center. The faades on State Street would be re-created. The historic landmark the Castle & Doyle Building, 125 State St., would be slightly altered but largely preserved.
Preservationists, led by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, have been strongly critical of the proposal. Several people criticized the plan at Monday night's meeting, saying it destroyed the historic character of the block and would fail to do what its developers intended: reinvigorate a core urban area.
Henry Doane, who has been involved with several downtown businesses in historic buildings, including the Blue Marlin, the Tornado Room and the Orpheum Theatre, told the commission, "This project is the wrong kind of urban renewal. It's an attempt to sterilize an urban environment." He compared the historic neighborhood to an ecosystem, saying when you demolish enough old buildings "the ecosystem dies."
The Overture Center, he added, was built within an urban "forest." "Now they want to cut down the trees for a view."
Madison resident Joe Lusson echoed those comments, saying, "Overture was plunked down in the middle of an urban area. It needs to respect that."
Others supported the project, saying that the Fairchild and Mifflin Street sides of the block in particular need help and that cities are always evolving. Maria Milsted, whose family owns the other half of the 100 block, including the iconic Teddywedgers building, told the commission, "I'm tired of living in blight... I don't know why we have to be stuck on one [historic style]."
The commission also heard from a member of the Frautschi family, which has been the silent, driving force behind the plans. Grant Frautschi sounded a defensive note. "I keep hearing people call State Street a historic district, and I don't understand this," he said, echoing comments from architects and planners that the street does not have official historic designation, although it has been determined to qualify for it. "State Street is not a historic district."
Two of the buildings on the 100 block are historic landmarks, however, including the Schubert building, which the Frautschis want to demolish. "When people say 'what gives them the right to tear down the Schubert building?' they don't realize that the Frautschi family owned the building for six years before it was a landmark," Grant Frautschi said.
Commission chairman Stu Levitan asked Frautschi why the family didn't let the city know, when the building was landmarked in 2006, that it had plans for the block. Frautschi said he believed the family had, through realtor Marty Rifken.
City staff have recommended against tearing the Schubert building down. The developers made a point-by-point rebuttal (PDF) and argued that the Schubert building, built by Ferdinand Kronenberg in 1908, isn't all that significant, either of Queen Anne buildings or the architect. "This building is not the only [Queen Anne style] example on State Street," said project architect Eric Lawson. The window, which the developers plan to save and reuse on the project, is the building's most significant feature, he said.
Project manager George Austin asked the commission to decide on the fate of the Schubert building Monday night, so the developers could assess its next step. But Levitan said it needed more time.
"This is the most important decision facing downtown since the construction of the Overture Center and the State Street pedestrian mall," Levitan told Austin. "You've been working on it for years. We need more than one night."
The Landmarks Commission will take up the matter again in two weeks. The commission did agree Monday night that the proposed four-story construction was visually intrusive to the historic Castle & Doyle Building. That recommendation, though not binding, will be sent to the Plan and Urban Design Commissions.
After the meeting, Austin told reporters that he didn't know what would happen if the city refused to allow demolition of the Schubert and Fairchild buildings. "I'm not prepared to say it's a deal breaker," he said. "The applicants will have the opportunity to reassess whether to amend, appeal or drop the project."