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Explained: Why did Madison consider preserving lake view from the Lamp House?

Explained: Why did Madison consider preserving lake view from the Lamp House?

Lamp House (copy) (copy)

The Robert Lamp House, set in the center of a Downtown block, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1903. The City Council rejected making a change that would limit building heights to preserve views of the lake from the Lamp House. 

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Few people walking by the block bounded by North Butler, East Mifflin and North Webster streets and East Washington Avenue may realize there’s a historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house tucked in the center of it. 

Wright chose the site and designed the house to “optimize” views of the Capitol Building and Lakes Monona and Mendota for his childhood friend Robert Lamp, who wanted to watch sailboat races on the lakes. 

Today, only part of Lake Mendota can be seen from a third-floor penthouse that was added in 1913. 

Preserving that view was questioned Tuesday by Madison’s City Council, which ultimately voted 14-4 against a measure that would have limited the height of buildings surrounding the privately-owned Lamp House located at 22 N. Butler St. and built in 1903. 

Here's what the proposal would have done and why some want to make sure the lakes are still visible from Lamp House. 

What was voted on by the City Council?  

The Council voted on changing the city’s downtown height map to limit how tall adjacent properties to the three-story Lamp House can be.  

It would have reduced the allowable height of adjacent properties on East Mifflin and North Butler streets from six to three stories. Across the street, building heights on part of the block that includes a city parking garage would have been reduced from eight to three stories.   

Alds. Patrick Heck, District 2; Brian Benford, District 6; Lindsay Lemmer, District 3; and Mike Verveer, District 4, voted to change the height map. 

Why do supporters want the view preserved?  

Ald. Patrick Heck, whose District 2 includes the Lamp House, sponsored the measure to change the height map based on the recommendation of a special committee in 2014 that convened to create development guidelines for the Lamp House block. 

That committee aimed to balance historic preservation and economic development values by encouraging “appropriate development” around the block. It also wanted to protect Wright’s design for the Lamp House on its original site, including the views to the house from the street and from the house to Lake Mendota in addition to the distance from surrounding buildings. 

“We have dozens and dozens of landmarked buildings, local historic districts, etc., that I think our responsibility is to protect those,” Heck said. “We should respect the plan and enact this change. It doesn’t preclude future development of these parcels.”

Heather Stouder said that the location is “awkward” but that’s what contributes to its importance.

“Part of its landmark status is related to its unique siting in the middle of the block,” she said.  

For that reason, relocating the house likely wouldn’t gain approval from the Landmarks Commission. 

What does the owner of the property want?  

Apex Property Management has owned the Lamp House since 2005. Chairman Bruce Bosben said Apex started purchasing properties along Mifflin Street 18 years ago and has contemplated redevelopment over the years. 

About five months ago, Bosben said the nonprofit Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy approached him about preservation of the Lamp House. He told the City Council that Apex is deciding whether or not to bring a proposal to the city for the site. 

“This blindsided us where this (special committee report) had been setting aside for seven years and now all of a sudden it’s in front of us,” Bosben said. 

Bosben said their redevelopment options wouldn’t work if the city restricted height in the area. 

“The central business district is the place where there should be some tall buildings,” Bosben said. “To curtail these to three stories … would cost the city at least a half a million dollars a year in potential property tax revenue.”  

What do other opponents say? 

Ald. Juliana Bennett, who represents the largely college student-dominated District 8, spoke strongly against the council approving — and even spending time discussing — the proposal. 

“Preserving the view of a dead rich white man, so he could see his lake house two miles away that has since been demolished anyways is a top priority for us — not the current housing prices, lack of housing stock and housing affordability,” Bennett said. 

Bennett said her constituents are more concerned about living in decent, affordable housing units. 

“We should not stifle development in the downtown area for the Lamp House,” Bennett said. 

What’s next?  

The City Council’s decision kept the existing rules in place. At this point, the owner of the property could bring forward any possible proposals. 

"Nothing will change related to the allowable building heights in that area," Stouder said. 

Stouder said she expects to learn more from Apex Properties in the coming months about any potential changes. 

Because the Lamp House is a local landmark building, the city’s Landmarks Commission would need to review any changes to the building, any proposal to remove or relocate the building and any proposed development on property next to it.

Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said in an email that the ongoing goal for the building will be “finding a sustainable use that supports restoration and continued preservation in an area of ever-increasing density.”  

A future plan for the Lamp House should balance the “preservation and economic viability of the house and surrounding properties,” Gordon said. 

“Our priority is to chart a sustainable long-term path towards its preservation,” Gordon said. 

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