Essen Haus properties

A rendering of a proposed building slated for the Essen Haus properties. McGrath Property Group is the developer behind the project, seen here from Williamson St. facing East Wilson St. 

Madison's McGrath Property Group has proposed a mixed-use building that would bring apartments and commercial space to a site on the corner of East Wilson and South Blair streets, much of which is currently a surface parking lot.

But part of the site falls within a local historic district, and city staff say the proposal, as it stands, doesn't meet the district’s standards for new development. Residents of several historic districts around the city have expressed their concerns about the project and worries about the precedent its approval would set.

After a lengthy discussion and a lot of public comment at a Monday night Landmarks Commission meeting, the commission voted to refer the request for certificates.  


The “East End” development proposal by McGrath Property Group would redevelop the Essen Haus German restaurant and surrounding properties in downtown Madison.

The development site includes a large surface parking lot, Essen Haus Restaurant and Bar at 514 E. Wilson St., Come Back In bar at 508 E. Wilson St., and four rental houses on Blair Street.

The project would create a five-story building with 153 apartments, 11,000 square-feet of commercial space and 220 structured parking stalls.

The northern portion of the site, including the four rental houses on Blair Street and the surface parking lot, lay in Madison’s First Settlement Historic District and the properties fronting East Wilson Street are in a national historic district.

Because of its place in the First Settlement Historic District, the proposal will appear before the Landmarks Commission Monday night seeking two Certificates of Appropriateness, one for land combination and one to construct a “new principal structure.” McGrath’s project would combine eight lots, and three of those are in the First Settlement district.

The certificates are required for the development to move forward, said Heather Bailey, the city’s preservation planner.

A staff report by Bailey found that under the current proposal, standards are not met for either certificate. The report recommended referring both requests.

According to city ordinance, in order to receive a certificate of appropriateness, a proposed lot size in a historic district must be compatible with adjacent lot sizes and maintain a “general lot size pattern of the historic district.” To grant a certificate to build a new principal structure, the proposed building should be of similar height, scale, rhythm and proportion of buildings within 200 feet.

The city’s report notes that the proposed McGrath building would fill most of its parcel and would be taller than many nearby buildings, most of which are two to three stories. The proposed facade design is contemporary and “does not have the same architectural vocabulary as the First Settlement Historic District,” it says.

“The proposed new structure would read as the largest building in the vicinity due to its height, scale, and proportions,” the report says.

The developer's letter of intent argues the opposite, saying the project “takes the cues and qualities of the buildings found within 200 feet of the site” and is “sympathetic to its context without mimicking it.” It notes that the height is comparable to the nearby Cardinal Hotel at 416 E. Wilson St., MGE buildings at 133 S. Blair St., and 115 S. Franklin St. Condominiums.

The city’s report notes that the Cardinal Hotel and condominiums have “substantially smaller footprints and therefore convey a smaller scale,” while part of the MGE complex “is substantially set back from S. Blair, so it does not dominate the street frontage.”

The commission said the current submission didn’t meet the standards for either certificate but “provided quite a bit of feedback about ways in which both of those elements could be amended,” Bailey said. The current design conveys a very large mass, she said, and there will need to be “some element of redesign in order to address this.” 

At the earliest, the project will return to the Landmarks Commission on July 8, Bailey said. The commission is also seeking an opinion from the city attorney as to whether it can issue a certificate of appropriateness for the large land combination in a way that upholds the intent of the ordinance.


In June, neighbors in the First Settlement district submitted an analysis to the city, arguing that the standards for the certificate of appropriateness for a new structure were not met, taking issue with the height and scale of the building.

In a statement, the Mansion Hill Historic District listed concerns with the scale of the building and size of the lot combination. It also brought up concern with precedent, saying a decision to approval the current proposal “would harm not only the First Settlement Historic District but would also pave the way for the desecration of other Madison historic districts.”

“Once damaged or destroyed there is no cure. We strongly urge you to protect the integrity of our historic districts,” the statement from Mansion Hill says.

The Marquette Neighborhood Association wrote a letter “upholding support for First Settlement and Third Lake Ridge Local Historic Districts,” and asked city commissions to defer decisions on the project to “allow time for thorough analysis and review.”

The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation submitted a letter to the city stating that while it did not have enough time to “thoroughly review” the proposal, the current plan “clearly does not meet various required standards.”

Combining three lots in the First Settlement district would create a lot over ten times the median lot size in the district, the Trust’s letter said. The letter also takes issue with the plans to demolish 518 E. Wilton St. building, which it deems a “historical resource,” and replacing the buildings at 510, 514 and 516 E. Wilson St., which its says would “decimate the center portion of the East Wilson Street National Historic District.”


The buildings between the Come Back In and Hotel Ruby Marie, which include 510, 514, 516 and 518 E. Wilson St. and make up the Essen Haus, would be demolished. The building at 518 E. Wilson is a “contributing” building for the National Historic District, but according to the developer, it is “beyond the point of feasibly being able to restore,” with problems like a collapsing foundation.

The proposal does not include renovation plans for the four houses on S. Blair St., and the Come Back In building would be restored on a “a separate track.”

The Hotel Ruby Marie and two empty lots fronting East Wilson Street, 502 and 504 E. Wilson St. — occupied by O'Cayz Corral and Cay'z Comic Strip until a 2001 fire destroyed the buildings — are not part of the proposal.

According to the developer’s letter of intent, assuming city approvals, McGrath would start construction in October 2019 with the building ready for occupancy by April 2021.

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