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Planned expansion of state Historical Museum could be city's biggest project ever

Wisconsin Historical Museum exterior

The Wisconsin Historical Museum currently occupies the site of a former hardware store on a corner of Capitol Square. The Wisconsin Historical Society is launching a campaign to raise $50 million for a much larger facility that would take up most of the same block, with a commitment from the state to provide $70 million more. Commercial uses and housing would fill out the proposed $240 million project.

Determined to fulfill a two-decade-long dream, the Wisconsin Historical Society and developers are pursuing a striking new history museum with commercial and residential space above it on Capitol Square that could be the city’s biggest project ever.

The state, the Historical Society, Hovde Properties and landowner Fred Mohs have long eyed part of the block that fronts the Square and holds the current, undersized museum and surrounding properties for a joint redevelopment. The cost could approach $240 million.

The society is pursuing a $120 million, 100,000-square-foot museum that would more than double exhibition space, and provide learning, meeting and flexible spaces with state-of-the-art technology. It would be topped by the Hovde-Mohs $80 million to $120 million private development bringing 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of commercial and residential space.

Wisconsin history museum redevelopment map

The building could create a new icon where State Street meets the Square and, down West Mifflin Street, complete the revitalization of an intersection that features the Overture Center, the new Madison Central Library and the redeveloped 100 blocks of State and North Fairchild streets.

“It needs to scream, ‘Welcome, come to me,’ ” said new Historical Society director Christian Overland, who started last Monday after serving as executive vice president and chief historian of The Henry Ford, an internationally recognized history destination in Dearborn, Michigan.

The project had been stalled, but recently the state Department of Administration sent a letter to the Historical Society saying that if it could raise $50 million, the state would deliver the remaining $70 million for the $120 million museum.

“If this level of private commitment is achieved, the administration will support an enumeration of the project in the next biennial budget,” the Jan. 22 letter from outgoing DOA Secretary Scott Neitzel says. The fundraising commitments should be in hand by Sept. 30 to meet the state’s budget timeline, it says.

With the lead state commitment, the Historical Foundation is launching a bid to raise the $50 million with former Govs. Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — serving as campaign co-chairs.

Interactive: State history museum site

“It was my dream to build a new Wisconsin History Museum, and it still is,” Thompson said in a statement. “It’s just an absolute necessity.”

Doyle said the project holds a “really deep personal commitment from me.”

“We have the opportunity now to do something really special,” Doyle said. “It has been a good, strong, bipartisan really Wisconsin commitment.”

Hovde and Mohs, who own eight of nine buildings — but not the Silver Dollar Tavern — around the existing museum on North Carroll, West Mifflin and North Fairchild streets, are working with the society to maximize the site’s potential.

Under one scenerio, the partners would demolish all buildings on the block except the landmark Grace Episcopal Church and historic Hovde tower along West Washington Avenue to build a single structure that would feature the new museum on the bottom floors topped by housing and offices with underground parking.

“This is a project that’s been considered and contemplated, really, for about 20 years now,” Hovde president Mike Slavish said. “We’ve had a lot of development opportunities for the site. But we’ve tried to stay true to the vision.”

Questions for 1915 entity

The proposal, however, may ignite debate over historic preservation.

Historical Museum - chairs

Chairs for visitors at the museum crowd a third floor hallway. Art galleries and museums prefer to spread seating out to provide respite, but the current facility lacks space.

Hovde’s nine-story Churchill Building, 16 N. Carroll St., and Mohs’ three-story buildings at 20 and 24 N. Carroll St., all are listed as potential landmarks and part of a Commercial Preservation Review Area in the city’s Historic Preservation Plan of 1998.

No one has ever pursued local landmark status for the Churchill Building until last month, when the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation submitted a 16-page nomination for the neoclassical revival-style Churchill Building, built in 1915.

The trust offered the nomination because it learned that the block could be redeveloped and wanted to act before planning got too far along, president Kurt Stege said.

But the nomination was made before the trust became aware that it could cause significant complications for the museum, and the organization intends to gather more information and may re-evaluate its position, Stege said.

Woefully inadequate

The Historical Society, created in 1846, is both a state agency and a membership organization, and has one of the nation’s largest collections of North American historical assets. It’s governed by a 34-member Board of Curators and had a $25.7 million budget for 2017, including 40 percent supported by gifts, grants and earned income.

Yet its museum, which draws 77,000 visitors annually, including 23,000 school children, is both dated and woefully inadequate for its use, society officials said.

The state acquired the 42,000-square-foot, former Wolff Kubly hardware store building at 30 N. Carroll St. in 1979, and the society opened its state museum there in 1984.

But the small front lobby can be jammed when hundreds of school children are coming and leaving at the same time, museum director Michael Hollander said. A 1,200-square-foot area behind the main desk serves as exhibit, luncheon and programming space, while a large column in the middle of the room blocks views when a movie screen is used, he said.

Historical Museum - children

Visiting schoolchildren crowd a small first floor space used for exhibits, lunches and programming at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

The building has two small and slow elevators, meaning able children usually use the stairs. There are just four bathrooms with a total of eight stalls. “When kids have been sitting on a bus for an hour, you get them queuing up at the bathrooms,” Hollander said.

The cramped facility has only 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and 10-foot ceilings, which is half the desired height. It has no loading dock, meaning whatever artifacts or exhibits come in do so through the front door, which severely limits the number and scale of exhibits and traveling shows, Hollander said.

The museum, for example, can’t display Madison’s treasured Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, he said.

“We do great history, but we don’t do great experiences,” he said.

The lack of space limits large-scale exhibits, such as the walk-in replica lead mine cave, that are especially appealing to children, and the museum needs technology to share media and provide interactive exhibits. The building lacks wide, open vistas, a priority in modern museums. Seating space is inadequate, while few windows offer a view of the Capitol across the street.

Historical Musem- window

Wisconsin Historical Museum deputy director Michael Hollander, left, and new Wisconsin Historical Society director Christian Overland, near a third floor display of a classic Harley Davidson motorcycle. The window is one of the few upper-floor windows at the current museum that look out over Capitol Square.

All schoolchildren learn about state history in fourth grade, and the museum can be an invaluable resource, but the lack of capacity sometimes forces the museum to turn school groups away, officials said.

The building, which needs $50,000 in annual maintenance and has about $2.5 million in deferred maintenance, is uninviting from the street and pales next to those in other states such as Minnesota, Indiana and North Dakota, officials said.

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“Visitors expect certain amenities,” said society chief operating officer Wes Mosman Block. “We’re not competitive.”

The state, society officials said, deserves a museum that can share the society’s world-class artifacts in an appropriate setting.

The new museum, they said, would attract more than 150,000 visitors annually, double the number of students served to more than 50,000, and have space to display large artifacts and offer interactive experiences. It would feature learning labs, a demonstration kitchen, private rental space, a restaurant and museum store.

The facility would use technology to reach students and history partners in all 72 counties and dramatically enhance the museum’s capabilities, making possible loans from the National Archives and presentations of treasures such as the Emancipation Proclamation, Overland said.

Project years in making

For years, the state and the operators of the Historic and Veterans museums envisioned a new joint facility.

Historical Museum - staircase

Visiting schoolchildren make their way up a staircase at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Many visitors who are able use the stairs instead of waiting for the two old, slow elevators.

In 2001, $131 million in state borrowing and gifts was budgeted for a Wisconsin History Center, but the project fell through and most of the budgeted money was rescinded.

Efforts resumed in 2007, and $2.8 million for preliminary planning was spent from 2010 through 2014, Block said.

In 2011, the state again budgeted significant funds for the project, Block said. At the time, the Department of Administration convened a task force to explore sites, financing and other issues, and it identified the current site as the preferred one.

Meanwhile, the state approved funds for a $46.7 million, 188,000-square-foot, State Archive Preservation Facility — a precursor to closing and building a new museum — near Williamson Street and the Yahara River on Madison’s Near East Side that will open this year.

In 2015, the state zeroed out all the money for the museum, but the society engaged the administration resulting in the latest commitment, Block said.

The Veterans Museum currently is not part of the redevelopment, but the Department of Veterans Affairs “looks forward to engaging with this project moving forward,” Department of Administration spokesman Steve Michels said.

‘A collaborative effort’

The Department of Administration letter lets the Historical Society begin fundraising and outreach to supporters across the state who have long sought a new museum. The daunting task of raising $50 million in eight months is beginning with a quiet campaign that will then go public.

“We’ve received significant contributions in recent weeks and we’re confident we’re going to achieve the goal,” Block said.

Historical Museum - tech

A small, interactive media kiosk inside the Wisconsin Historical Museum. The facility largely lacks technology for more immersive experiences common in newer museums.

For its project manager, the Historical Foundation has engaged consultant and former city planning department director George Austin, who has guided big projects including Monona Terrace, the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and Judge Doyle Square.

The museum interior will be done by Gallagher & Associates, an internationally recognized cultural institution design firm whose clients include the Smithsonian Institution, the Gettysburg Museum and the National World War II Museum. The architect, SmithGroup JJR, has worked with Gallagher and done significant cultural and other buildings across the nation.

The partnership with Hovde and Mohs allows the museum to expand horizontally, a preference for modern museum facilities.

“It’s great to have a two-floor museum,” Overland said. “That’s the goal. Perhaps have a rooftop space, too.”

The museum design, he said, should feature broad windows that allow display of significant artifacts and sweeping vistas of the Capitol.

The partners are discussing concepts that would locate the museum on the ground floor along with retail including a museum store; housing and/or offices above; and four or five levels of underground parking with up to 600 spaces, Slavish said. The large structure would likely rise to the Capitol view limit, which is about 180 feet.

The museum and private uses could share underground parking, a loading dock, elevators, outdoor rooftop spaces and more, he said.

The design must respect the Capitol, Grace Episcopal Church and nearby flatiron buildings at the top of State Street, he said.

“We see the design as being a collaborative effort,” Slavish said. “We want to make sure the museum has an identity and we want the private elements to have an identity as well.”

City’s first ‘skyscraper’

A big factor in the look and shape of the redevelopment is the outcome of the trust’s landmark nomination.

The Churchill Building, originally called the Gay Building after real estate developer Leonard W. Gay, was Madison’s first “skyscraper.” It was designed by James and Edward Law, who later became one of the city’s most accomplished architecture firms of the 1920s and 1930s. When built, it was the tallest commercial building in the state outside of Milwaukee and helped prompt passage of local and state legislation to preserve views of the state Capitol.

The Hovde family bought the 134-foot-tall building in 1974 and renamed it the Churchill Building.

Historical Museum - aerial

Museum officials and developers hope to incorporate most of the block where the current museum sits into the redevelopment. The landmark Grace Episcopal Church, upper left, and the Hovde tower, center rear, would be preserved, but the nine-story Churchill Building next to Grace could be demolished.

“We’ll look at it,” Slavish said of the landmark nomination, adding that landmark status would affect the project design. “This (museum) is going to be a facility that is going to be with us for 100 years. Ultimately, we’re going to do what we feel is best for the interest of the development, the city of Madison and the state of Wisconsin.”

Stege was encouraged, saying, “It sounds like our voices will be heard.

“We’re trying to pursue historic preservation interests in Madison, but we’re trying to do it in a way that is not inconsistent with Madison’s growth and vitality,” he said.

The partners must also deal with acquisition of the Silver Dollar Tavern, 117 W. Mifflin St. The building owner could not be reached.

If all goes as planned, the partners could break ground in 2021 with the project opening in 2023, Austin said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct spelling of the name of the Wolff Kubly hardware store building.

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