For the first time, the city of Madison is using a law that can force landlords to maintain landmark buildings or face having the city do the work and bill for it, or initiate condemnation proceedings to acquire the property.
Despite a plea from the owner of the landmark Suhr House, 121 Langdon St., for a delay because he’s starting repairs, the city’s Landmarks Commission on Monday voted unanimously to declare that the home is undergoing demolition by neglect, a provision added to the city Landmarks Ordinance in 2015.
The commission, which had already referred the matter multiple times, will report its decision to the building inspector, city attorney and City Council, with a recommendation that the finding supports actions to remediate the physical condition of the structure. The building needs repairs to its front, side and rear porches, tuckpointing of damaged masonry, and replacement of an arched storm window.
The finding is evidence for administrative or court actions and constitutes a determination that a public nuisance exists under city ordinances.
“This was an important step to show we take the ordinance seriously,” commission chairman Stuart Levitan said after the vote. “This is the point we reached tonight.”
The Suhr House, built in 1883-85 in the French Victorian style, is one of the few examples of that mode in the city and was built by John J. Suhr, a German immigrant who came to Madison in 1856 and founded what came to be called the American Exchange Bank.
The house was designated a city landmark in 1974 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The city’s Building Inspection Division has been trying to persuade the owner of the building, Harold Langhammer, to do much-needed maintenance for more than two years, and a case was referred to the city attorney’s office for prosecution in July 2017.
As the case was pursued, Langhammer negotiated an agreement with the city attorney to achieve compliance by Aug. 1. If he complies by that date, he will be penalized $50,461, while missing the deadline will result in a penalty of $237,180. The property is assessed at $1.32 million for 2019.
Despite efforts by the Building Inspection Division and City Attorney’s Office, Langhammer did not move forward with the repairs and is only now starting some of the work.
The Landmarks Commission issued a notice of demolition by neglect in August 2018, held an initial public hearing the following month, and approved a certificate of appropriateness for necessary work to stabilize the building in December 2018.
The finding of demolition by neglect adds pressure to the owner to get the work done and creates a point at which a property can’t be redeveloped in the future because an owner says a structure can’t be salvaged.
Under the ordinance, the city building inspector can proceed to repair a landmark with the cost paid by the owner or imposed as a special charge against the property, or the City Council can authorize the city to acquire the property through condemnation proceedings.
“I certainly hope we don’t get to that point,” Levitan said.
“Multiple paths can be taken,” said Kyle Bunnow, a plan review and inspection supervisor who has been handling the case for the Building Inspection Division. Although Langhammer is beginning to initiate some of the repairs, city staff estimated it’s not possible to complete the work by the Aug. 1 deadline.
On Monday, Langhammer said he wished he could have proceeded in a different way, but stressed that he is now moving forward, is committed to completing the repairs and that the house remains structurally sound. He asked that the finding of demolition by neglect be delayed.
“It’s not a question of neglect,” he said. “It’s a question of age, weather and things like that.” He said he intends to use whatever resources are necessary to do the repair work.
Langhammer has 10 days to file an appeal.