For three decades, Katherine Rankin's job has placed her amid the tension between Madison's impetus to build more new homes and businesses and its desire to preserve history.

Now, as Rankin, 59, retires as the city's preservation planner, she said the tensions are as strong as ever.

The potential redevelopment on part of the 10 block of North Pinckney Street on Capitol Square, a coming proposal to remake the historic Edgewater Hotel and efforts to demolish houses for larger buildings off Langdon Street near UW-Madison could embellish or destroy part of the fabric of the city's history, Rankin said.

"I think the Downtown is still very vulnerable," she said. "Everyone, including me, wants to see more development Downtown. But you have to do this very carefully."

Sometimes, people will look at a historic building being demolished or a site stripped for redevelopment and ask, "How can you let that happen?" she said. "I say, 'Where were you? We really, really need public support.'"

History student, steward\Born in Milwaukee and raised in nearby Thiensville, Rankin - known as Kitty - developed an early appreciation for architecture as her father noted historic buildings and "my parents dragged us to every demolition."

"I thought they were very nice buildings," she said. "It seemed like a waste."

Rankin earned a bachelor's degree in art history from UW-Madison and attended graduate school at the University of Delaware before taking a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1975, and in 1979 was hired as Madison's preservation planner.

By then, the city had put in place a landmarks ordinance and commission, but a preservation mind-set hadn't fully taken hold, she said.

"There was very little in the way of public involvement," she said. "Things would happen between the bigwigs and politicians behind closed doors."

In the early years, she had to make sure building inspection respected the preservation ordinance and two local historic districts. Her mission, she said, "was doing a lot of public education."

Now, "very little slips through by accident."

Among highlights of her tenure, which ended on Tuesday, Rankin helped complete an almost two-decade effort to survey the city's architectural resources, including 5,700 buildings; helped create the Downtown Historic Preservation Plan, three more historic districts, 14 walking tours; staffed the Landmarks Commission; and gave voice to how to handle countless historic buildings under threat, including city Parks Division treasures from the fireplaces at Hoyt Park to Breese Stevens Field.

She joined the boards of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Madison.

Earlier this year, the trust gave Rankin its award for preservation advocacy.

"It's got to be an extremely tough job," said Joe Lusson, a trust board member and past president. "She takes the approach of having very professional and high standards. She's worked to preserve the best of Madison's history and architecture."

"She's had a very realistic take on the nature of preservation in a growing city like Madison," city Planning and Development Director Mark Olinger said. "The legacy of someone like Kitty will be felt in the next decade, three decades, five decades."

Striking a balance\The legacy, Rankin said, has both achievements and frustrations.

In 29 years, the city has designated 120 landmarks, and many buildings have been saved, including Orpheum Theatre and the old Gisholt factory, now known as the Marquip Building, on East Washington Avenue.

"The city is really, really going to miss her extensive knowledge of Madison's history and people and architecture," said Ledell Zellers, former president of Capital Neighborhoods Inc. "She would give candid opinions."

Tom Neujahr, a principal of Urban Land Interests, which specializes in the redevelopment of older buildings, worked with Rankin in the full-block redevelopment on the southeast corner of the Square, called Block 89, remaking old tobacco warehouses into condominiums in the Bassett neighborhood, and on a still-evolving proposal to redevelop part of the 10 block on North Pinckney Street on Capitol Square.

At Block 89, ULI tried to save a landmark building but eventually won permission to demolish it and replaced it with a structure that mirrored the original's Italianate architectural style - including some of the original materials. The block is now a mix of office towers and pedestrian-scale buildings, blending modern and historic design.

ULI's effort at Block 89, which presents the feel of a group of buildings rather than a megablock, "was the best thing to happen to Downtown since the 1920s," Rankin said.

"The thing she's pretty good at is striking a balance between competing interests," Neujahr said.

But Rankin regrets the loss of historic buildings, like a row of stores demolished for redevelopment on the 10 block of East Mifflin Street on Capitol Square, the Rennebohm drugstore building torn down for the university's $375 million Institutes of Discovery on University Avenue and how the former Union Transfer warehouse was converted to condos at the foot of King Street.

"What gives life and vitality to a Downtown are its buildings - its human-scale buildings," she said. "(Historic preservation) is always an uphill battle because money talks."

Rankin declined to name people who undermine historic preservation, but said she was frustrated by past newspaper editorials that promote development while dismissing other factors or those who ignored facts, or a "scare campaign" that derailed an effort to register State Street as a national landmark, which would have brought tax credits, not regulation.

"I'm really glad they're doing the Downtown Plan, she said of an effort that's now under way), she said. "Hopefully, they will look at all these issues."

She's also encouraged that her 70 percent position will be filled by a full-time preservation planner in the spring.

Looking ahead\The community must be attentive as proposals are forwarded for North Pinckney Street on Capitol Square, the Edgewater, the Langdon Street neighborhood and other historic places and neighborhoods, she said.

It would be a "travesty" to tear down historic buildings on the 100 block of State Street, Rankin said. She is hopeful the city can have "the best of both worlds" on North Pinckney Street. The Edgewater remake, she said, must delicately balance economic realties and neighborhood interests. And the neighborhood off Langdon Street is "a very unique area - something that's Madison," she said.

When the economics are right, ULI will proceed with a redevelopment on North Pinckney Street on Capitol Square, where Rankin and the trust secured landmark status for three buildings this year, Neujahr said.

"A development will have to be respectful of the significant historical elements and the scale of the block face," he said.

Public involvement will be critical to protect all the important buildings, Rankin said.

"A lot of people believe in preservation, but not enough to get involved," she said.\

Go to: and click on the related link in this story.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.