Protect the authenticity of State Street

[ 0 ] September 28, 2011 |

State St. is the most important street in Madison – economically, culturally and in terms of placemaking. And the 100 block is the most prominent and intact section of State Street.

The 100 block of State St, in 1929. Some of these buildings were over 60 years old in this photo

State Street is the literal and symbolic connection between the state capitol and the state university – the two institutions that have had the greatest impact on the city’s development since its founding.  It is the one place in the city where we can a get a true sense of Madison’s evolution in the 19th and 20th centuries, and where we can get a true sense of the architectural and planning values of previous generations. And it still thrives today with buildings that date to the 1850s through the 1930s. It is the core of downtown’s vitality, and the unique flavor of the Madison experience. Virtually every visitor to the city finds their way to the Capitol Square and is naturally drawn to the authentic urban experience of State Street.  It is to Madison what Bourbon St. is to New Orleans, what Beale St. is to Memphis, and what Olvera Street is to Los Angeles.  The malls and freeways all look the same, but these are the special places people seek out.

The same view of the 100 block in 2006. Very few places in Madison convey such a rich sense of place and of our city's history and development over the last 150 years as State St.

State Street offers an authenticity that is rare  in American cities, and that is absolutely irreplaceable. That authenticity comes from being able to see and touch the stone, brick,  metal cornices, prism-glass transoms, bay windows, and terra cotta of century-old buildings. It comes from experiencing 150 years of design ideas and construction technology from Italianate to Post-Modernism, from load-bearing masonry to steel framing – it’s all there if you look up above the modern storefronts. State Street is a carnival of authentic Madison architecture and history.

In 2003, Donovan Rypkema, an international expert on the economics of historic preservation , visited Madison for a 2-day summit on preservation in the downtown area.  He consulted with Mayor Cieslewicz, Kathleen Falk, W. Jerome Frautschi, and  Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison, Inc. on what is important to the character of downtown.  He concluded, “You have the authentic of what most people are building fake all across America.” (see Wisconsin State Journal, July 11, 2003, B1)

So we are concerned about the buying up of buildings on the 100 block of State Street by the Overture Foundation and its agent Central Focus LLC.  The 100 block is a triangular block consisting of about nine parcels, three of which are designated Madison Landmarks.  Central Focus has purchased most of the buildings on the 100 block, many at prices far above their assessed value. In 2009, for example, Central Focus purchased 125 State St., assessed at around $260,000,  for $1,000,000. And in 2004 Central Focus purchased 121 State St. for $1,900,000.

Last November, the motive behind the purchases was made public in a Wisconsin State Journal article by Dean Mosiman.  A key revelation in Mosiman’s article was a study commissioned by the Overture Foundation that shows a redevelopment of the block that would “preserve State Street facades, combine some interiors and improve buildings,” and demolish two buildings on West Mifflin Street for a plaza.

This sounds like very rough treatment for a block that is the transition zone from the Square to the commercial, arts and entertainment district, a block that has been functioning quite well for well over 100 years, and contributes a great deal to the sense of place at the core of the downtown district.  The demolition, according to the sketch map, would include one of the Landmarks. That is not acceptable. “Preserving State Street facades and combining interiors” sounds like an angle toward facadectomy of one of the most architecturally distinct, intact, and important blocks in the city.  That is not acceptable. The facadectomies of the Capitol Theater and Yost’s (Kessenich’s) Department Store and their integration into the otherwise successful Overture Center, are failures, negotiated at a time when this treatment was considered an acceptable compromise for destroying actual historic architecture.

The authenticity of State Street as a historic commercial district is absolutely critical to the cultivation of a rich sense of place in downtown Madison.  And a rich sense of place is critical to a thriving 21st-century city. We hope that the Overture Foundation and Central Focus LLC elect to treat this block in a way that retains its historic character and its architectural integrity. If either of those are lost, and we sacrifice State Street’s authenticity with demolitions and more facadectomies, we will be sacrificing real history for a mockery of it, and we will not get it back.

Category: Executive Director's Blog, Madison's Historic Places

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