Pressures, challenge of historic preservation

Money, space, sentiment and progress all have a role – from bit player to star – in our quest to preserve, hide or discard the past.

It is easy to appreciate and favor the architectural beauty of a well-preserved building that has historical value, unless you must reach into your own pocketbook to maintain it.

Here are examples of how Wisconsin entities, cultural to religious, are struggling and dealing with these issues.

Dozens of bed and breakfasts throughout Wisconsin (10 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places) are open for tours Sunday, an effort to showcase this part of the lodging industry.

“Converting a historic property or old home to a bed and breakfast inn represents the largest amount of private money that is put into historic preservation,” says Kris Ullmer, administrator of the Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association, which encompasses 246 properties.

One of the bigger challenges, she says, is to introduce modern amenities yet respect history. “Closets used to be taxed as additional rooms in these old houses, so there weren’t a lot of them to begin with,” Ullmer says. Those that did exist likely have become bathrooms, because guests want that in-room convenience.

Interior tinkering does not necessarily affect a property’s National Registry status, but exterior remodeling is another story.

Richard Cox, owner of the Phipps Inn, Hudson, notes that the outside of his 1884 property contains beautiful, ornate scrollwork. “I don’t know of anyone who does this kind of hand carving,” he says. “If I found someone, it probably would be too expensive to reproduce.”

Merely repainting the 8,000 square foot building, which is three stories and contains a turret, will be $15,000 to $70,000, depending on whether Cox hires college students or a specialty painting firm.

Nancy Jorgensen, owner of Four Gables Bed and Breakfast, La Crosse, says her family has lived in the building for 20 years. It’s been a B&B for about five, since her children left home.

The 1906 Victorian Queen Anne has been on the National Register since 1994. “When we bought the property, everybody thought we’d just tear it down” because of its poor condition, Jorgensen says.

“This was a farmhouse, not ornate but big,” she explains. “If we were full every night for the next 40 years, we might pay for our investment. That’s how my husband (Gerald) looks at it.

“But for us, it’s a pride in what we have. Everyone wants to see this house.”

Since they were open for tours last Christmas, as a fund-raiser for an organization, Four Gables won’t have an open house this weekend. For info about places statewide that will be open Sunday, go to or call (715) 539-9222.

An 1874 bank building in downtown Racine has had many lives. Its latest is attracting nationwide attention because of new architectural packaging.

The Racine Art Museum, 441 Main St., earned acclaim months before its opening, which is this weekend. It and the Calatrava-inspired Milwaukee Art Museum were among the 41 winners of the 2002 American Architecture Awards.

The $6.5 million Racine project pretty much gutted the interior of the building that had been donated by M&I Bank. Ceilings have been lifted and light has been used strategically to create a Zen-like and airy atmosphere. There is subdued lighting, recessed lighting, skylights and huge windows with dynamic Lake Michigan views.

Also notable is the exterior lighting, a “continuous wrapper of translucent acrylic panels” that will make the museum glow until 10 p.m. each night.

“We’re trying to treat the building as a sculpture,” says Bruce Pepich, museum executive director, of Brininstool + Lynch’s architectural work.

The unusual siding – similar to what is used in skylights and roofs of greenhouses – covers “a brutal limestone facade put up in the 1960s,” Pepich says. The approach is both theatrical and practical, given budget limits.

The Racine museum houses significant collections of contemporary crafts (ceramics, fibers, glass, metals, wood). New are 10 Dale Chihuly glass baskets, blown specifically for the museum, in shades of brilliant red-orange. They will be here through June 2004.

The building’s 46,000 square feet includes 10,000 square feet for exhibits. That means 30 percent of its collections can be on displayed, instead of the prior limit of 10 percent.

Items were moved from the Charles A. Wustum Museum, which will continue to operate, but with an emphasis on outreach programs and regional artwork.

For more, go to or call (262) 638-8300.

Admission to eight of Wisconsin’s nine historic sites will be reduced to $2 on June 8, the same day as free admission to all state parks.

Visitor Appreciation Day is an attempt to introduce more people to history and heritage. Dwindling attendance has been one of many challenges for the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has drastically slashed its budget and staff at the direction of the governor.

That is happening as responsibilities have increased. The society cares for 114 historic buildings, for example, compared to 71 in 1982. Library collections total 3.8 million, compared to 1.9 million in 1982.

The Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation has included all nine state historic sites on its annual list of most endangered properties. For more about the historic sites, go to or call (866) 944-7483.

Admission is not being reduced June 8 at the Circus World Museum, Baraboo, which is operated by a nonprofit foundation. Circus performances there no longer are self-produced. Instead, the work of Vidbel’s Olde Tyme Circus, New York, is showcased, which will cut costs by one-third.

Janesville’s 26-room Lincoln-Tallman House is among the dozens of other historic buildings in Wisconsin that are open for public tours. Repeat business is a challenge, says Anamari Golf, education curator and acting executive director.

“I want everybody to come through annually,” she says. So special events have included a raffle in which the winner was able to watch July 4 fireworks from the tiny cupola on the building’s fourth story.

“Education through preservation is our mission,” Golf explains. It is typical for fourth graders to see grand buildings such as these during school field trips. That coincides nicely with the study of state history; a goal is to also lure students’ parents there.

For more, go to or call (800) 577-1859.

I am a member of First Unitarian Society in Madison, and our Unitarian Meeting House is a 1951 Frank Lloyd Wright structure that has been on the National Register since 1973. It has been called one of the most important works of 20th century church architecture; Wright was a member of the church.

It’s a wonderful building, and our congregation of is one of the denomination’s largest in the United States. Ten years ago, membership was 800; including children, that total has come close to doubling.

So we have growing pains and standing room only during some worship services. Next weekend, members will vote on how to deal with growth. It is the culmination of passionate debates that have lasted months.

Options have ranged from starting a new congregation elsewhere, to building a $5 million addition. Early on, church leaders rejected the idea of selling the current site and moving everybody someplace new.

Meeting House stewards say an addition “will destroy the distinctive character of the historic building.” There is an effort to elevate the site to National Historic Landmark status; major structural modifications “will likely jeopardize this goal.”

For info about guided tours of the building, call (608) 233-9774 or go to