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State shifts site for proposed $120 million Wisconsin Historical Society museum
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TELLING WISCONSIN’S STORY | NEW LOCATION

State shifts site for proposed $120 million Wisconsin Historical Society museum

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GEF 1 Building

The state's GEF 1 office building, as seen from the intersection of South Butler Street and East Main Street. The block — but not the building — is now the preferred site for redevelopment that could include a new Wisconsin Historical Society museum and state offices.

In a surprise shift, the state is moving the preferred site of the proposed $120 million, 100,000-square-foot Wisconsin Historical Society museum from the top of State Street to a full block that now features a massive, half-century-old state office building near Capitol Square.

Madison Youth Arts Center under construction at the corner of Mifflin and Ingersoll Streets

The new site, which holds the four-story, 271,493-square-foot General Executive Facility, or GEF 1, is bounded by the 200 blocks of East Washington Avenue and East Main Street, and 10 blocks of South Butler and Webster streets.

GEF 1, which would be demolished, built in 1971-72 in the Brutalist style, is widely unloved for its uninspiring design and concrete, windowless first-floor walls that deaden the streetscape on all sides. It currently houses the state departments of Children and Families and Workforce Development and a parking garage.

In the coming weeks, the state Department of Administration will begin a selection process for an architect and engineering team to design a potential new museum and office building redevelopment on that block, Historical Society officials said. Approval of the site will depend on several next steps in a multi-stage state review process.

Historical Society museum site shifts

“This new site is an opportunity to connect Madison’s cultural corridor to East Washington Avenue,” said Christian Overland, Ruth and Hartley Barker director and CEO of the Historical Society. “It simplifies the development and project delivery plan for the new museum, offers an outstanding opportunity to design an iconic, modern museum facility and it will allow the society to continue education and programming at the existing Wisconsin Historical Museum through the construction process.”

The project is in the very early stages of the formal state building process, meaning many big decisions have not yet been made, such as whether a project will combine museum and office space, what state agencies may be housed in the building, and the future of the existing museum property if the Historical Society moves, DOA spokeswoman Molly Dillman Vidal said.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum, now located in leased space in a building at 30 W. Mifflin St., at the top of State Street, is not part of initial planning for a redevelopment of the GEF 1 building block, she said.

Gov. Tony Evers could provide more details when he releases his 2021-22 budget in about a month.

Previously, the preferred site had been part of the block at the top of State Street that holds the current, undersized museum and surrounding properties owned by Hovde Properties and Fred Mohs. The previous concept envisioned a joint redevelopment that could have been the largest project in city history with total costs approaching $255 million.

Under that plan, the museum, which would more than double current exhibition space and provide learning, meeting and gathering spaces, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology, would have occupied the lower floors of the redevelopment. The $90 million to $135 million Hovde-Mohs private project would have offered 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of commercial space and housing and risen over part of the site to the state Capitol height limit.

The change in sites disappointed Hovde and Mohs and makes the shape and timing for private development of their properties at the top of State Street uncertain.

“The Hovde-Mohs team has been cooperating with and waiting for the Historical Society to be ready to build,” Mohs said, adding that he believes it remains the best location for a museum. “To have them pull the plug to this is a surprise. We’ve waited for a long time. This would have been good to know 10 years ago.”

Eric Hovde also voiced disappointment, noting the push for a new museum began more than two decades.

“Certainly disappointed, but you move on,” he said, adding that a joint redevelopment of private properties is still likely. “Fred and I continue to have a good relationship. Whatever we do will probably be in partnership with Fred. We still have the best site in the city of Madison, if not the state. At the right time, we’ll move forward with the redevelopment. When the right time is, I don’t know yet.”

Less complex, more control

The Historical Society, established in 1846, has one of the nation’s largest collections of North American historical assets and operates 12 museums and sites. But its flagship museum has been housed in the undersized, 42,000-square-foot former Wolff Kubly hardware store building at 30 N. Carroll St. since 1984.

A new museum has been envisioned for more than two decades, but the project had been stalled. In early 2018, the DOA notified the Historical Society that if it could raise $30 million, the state would deliver the remaining $70 million for the museum. Gov. Tony Evers put $70 million for the project in the proposed 2019-20 capital budget and the Legislature approved it.

In March and April 2020, the Historical Society worked with DOA to consider potential sites, society officials said. The team analyzed responses from interested parties as well as the existing museum site and the GEF 1 site.

GEF 1 is approaching the point where its functionality and future use need to be considered and addressed, Historical Society officials said. The site became a clear contender that could address multiple state facility needs and locate the museum within a block of the Capitol. Recognizing the site’s attractiveness and potential, the society’s Board of Curators voted in July to work with DOA to do further analysis, they said.

The Board of Curators voted on Dec. 11 to move forward with plans for the new museum at the new preferred site, they said.

The state's GEF 1 building block

The four-story, 271,493-square-foot General Executive Facility, called GEF 1, built in 1971-1972, houses the state departments of Workforce Development and Children and Families.

“The use of a state-owned site would reduce complexity and risk for the museum providing increased control over planning, design and timeline,” Overland said. “This year has shown us the importance of historians, history centers and museums as stewards of state and national history and we look forward to creating a new regional destination in Wisconsin.”

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the former and new preferred sites, said the new location avoids complexities of a public-private partnership and historic preservation challenges. If the original plan went forward, the historic, nine-story Churchill Building, 16 N. Carroll St., owned by Hovde, the city’s first “skyscraper” built in the neoclassical revival style in 1915, would likely have been razed.

“I believe the new site is an exciting location for the new Historical Society museum and perhaps even a new Veterans Museum,” Verveer said. “It’s as close as you can get to Capitol Square without being on Capitol Square. I don’t see any controversy in redeveloping the GEF 1 building, especially for a significant public project.”

Wisconsin Historical Museum exterior

The current, undersized Wisconsin Historical Society at the top of State Street and surrounding properties had been the preferred site for a new museum and private redevelopment. 

Former Govs. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who serve as co-chairs for the private fundraising campaign, endorsed the new preferred site.

“This project has come a long way since I first put it in the state budget and I still believe this is a top priority,” Thompson said. “Wisconsin deserves an engaging and inspiring state history museum that tells our wonderful diverse statewide stories. This new site, with its straightforward and transparent development process, is incredibly exciting.”

World-class building

In 2017, the Historical Society launched a $50 million fundraising campaign, including $20 million for endowment and transition costs, for the new museum. In 2018, the society completed a museum exhibit concept with Gallagher and Associates — a world-renowned exhibit design firm — and held more than 60 community engagement, information and feedback sessions throughout Wisconsin in 2018 and 2019.

The Historical Society will announce fundraising progress later in 2021, officials said.

Of the $120 million, $100 million would be for building the museum with the rest for an endowment and transitioning from the existing to new facility. It is expected to attract about 150,000 people and double student visits to more than 50,000 annually, finally showcase the society’s biggest artifacts and world-class collections and allow for real-time distance learning from around the state through new digital tools.

After a design team is selected, the state will explore more specific program and space needs and preliminary cost estimates. After that, there are still multiple stages to the review process before a final design emerges and a construction contractor is selected.

The fate of the existing museum building is unclear.

The building, Hovde and Mohs said, is obsolete but alone would not be a good candidate for redevelopment due to access and parking challenges. It would make sense if it were part of a project that involved the adjacent properties, Hovde said.

“Does it fit into what we have? Yes,” Hovde said. “We’re the only logical developer, unless the state has a special use for the building. Who knows what the state will do?”

RENDERINGS FROM INSIDE THE PLANNED WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY MUSEUM

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