Once a “high class shopping district,” four nearly century-old buildings with distinctive, terra cotta facades just off Capitol Square and State Street are best known these days for being rundown and mostly empty for decades.

But that may soon change.

The city is ordering Hovde Properties to make exterior repairs to the series of adjoining, one-story buildings from 119 to 125 W. Mifflin St. But Hovde is seeking to raze the buildings and landscape the area until a long-sought, much larger redevelopment, including a new Wisconsin Historical Society Museum and private development, occurs in coming years.

The strip of buildings, acquired by Hovde more than 20 years ago and long held vacant for redevelopment, have made the area uninviting as a pedestrian thoroughfare, especially at night. The buildings are near areas at the top of State Street plagued by negative and criminal behavior.

“They’re at the end of their life,” said Randy Guenther, Hovde’s chief operating and financial officer. “Now is the time to take the buildings down.”

The buildings, built in 1923, are part of a prime Downtown intersection that features the $205 million Overture Center, the renovated Central Library, and W. Jerome Frautschi’s $11.6 million redevelopment on the 100 blocks of State and West Mifflin streets that brought new storefronts, restaurant and office space in a mix of new construction and historic preservation.

The Hovde buildings, assessed at roughly $1 million, are also part of the preferred site for a new Historical Society Museum and private development by Hovde and landowner Fred Mohs that could cost a combined $255 million.

But that will take time.

The new state budget includes $70 million for the museum, but the Historical Society must still raise $30 million before the State Building Commission will approve a site, OK the development plan and authorize construction. The total museum project cost is estimated at $120 million, including an endowment for operations. If the preferred location is selected, the new museum and private development must still go through a city plan review process before ground is broken as soon as 2021.

In the meantime, the city is demanding repairs be done to the existing buildings that Hovde wants to raze. Hovde does not own an adjoining building at 117 W. Mifflin St. that houses the Silver Dollar Tavern, established in 1933. Plans call for that property, which is still an active business and has not been ordered to undergo repairs, to eventually be folded into the Historical Society project.

Hovde will likely submit a formal demolition application in August, which triggers a review by the Plan Commission. Two decades ago, the city denied Hovde’s request to raze the buildings for a temporary parking lot in anticipation of future redevelopment.

Doubts expressed

Kurt Stege, president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, said the buildings are a clear impediment to the massive project being discussed for the block, but said the trust is unaware of circumstances that would require demolition now.

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“It’s one thing to tear a building down because it is being replaced by a well-conceived and already approved structure,” he said. “It is another thing to simply tear something down.”

Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who lamented the lack of investment in the buildings, also has reservations about razing the structures now.

“I’m never excited about demolishing buildings with no real permanent use,” he said. “But I’m keeping an open mind.”

The interim use, Guenther said, would be an enclosed space with a mix of landscaping and hard surfaces suitable for art displays, performances and other programming. “It will be a substantial investment,” he said. “This isn’t going to become a challenge for the city and the police.”

‘Mifflin Arcade’

If the buildings are torn down, Stege said, the trust hopes to explore whether the creme-colored terra cotta on the buildings’ facades can be salvaged for reuse. Hovde is interested in salvaging and reusing the facades, Guenther said.

The neo-classical revival terra cotta buildings, designed by architect Philip Homer, were known as the “Mifflin Arcade” and home to a variety of commercial uses in their early years. They were intended to create “a high class shopping district for women and to make the Mifflin Arcade one of the best known business blocks in the city,” according to a newspaper account of the time.

The buildings are not landmarks or in a local historic district. But they were considered as contributing to a potential State Street National Register Historic District that ultimately wasn’t approved due to objections of owners.

On Monday, the Landmarks Commission, which advises the Plan Commission on the historic value of all properties eyed for demolition, approved a resolution to recommend that the buildings have historic value.

In limbo

Hovde has been covering costs associated with the property, paying taxes and doing basic maintenance in order to preserve the site for the larger, redevelopment involving the museum, which has been discussed for decades, Guenther said. In the meantime, significant investment hasn’t made sense and it’s been hard to rent the spaces because they’re not set up for modern retail. Tenants also want certainty that the spaces will be there in the future, he said.

In April, a city building inspector found problems with the buildings and issued repair notices for 119, 123 and 125 W. Mifflin St.

“Our biggest concern is 125 W. Mifflin St.,” city building inspector George Hank said. “The masonry on the rear and the right side is in poor condition. We have asked for an engineer’s report detailing the extent of the problem and how to repair it.”

Hovde will comply with the orders, even while pursuing demolition before the end of the year, Guenther said.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said.

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