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How Do Historic Milwaukee Buildings Get That Designation?

Earlier this summer about a thousand Shorewood residents tried to protect a historic home from being torn down. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele bought the Eschweiler mansion last year and maintained that it had to be razed because of poor conditions.

During the same time this was making headlines, a listener wrote in to Bubbler Talkwith this question:

How does a historic building get that designation? And when the buildings are privately owned, what can we do to protect them?

In the case of the Abele’s home, critics were not able to stop the demolition. And that’s because in Shorewood if your home is not on the national or state historic registry, there are no legal protections against demolition.

Here are pictures before and after the demolition:

The National Registry of Historic Placesis the highest level of historic designation in the United States. Federal inspectors make sure that both the interior and exterior of the home meet certain historic requirements.

A task that may seem onerous, but Andrew Parker says it’s something he’s grateful for. He owns a 19th century Queen Anne mansion in Milwaukee.

"We embrace that. That's why we bought it. We want a house that is protected in some ways. We don't want a wreck it. I mean, it's been around for 100 years. We want to, you know, make sure that we take good care of it," Parker says.

Parker’s historic home is also his business — Manderley Bed and Breakfast. Located 2 miles west of downtown Milwaukee on W. Wells Street, the four-story building is outfitted with carved wooden Portuguese cabinets, almost floor to ceiling mirrors, and an eclectic array of Victorian antiques.

Credit Alesandra Tejeda
The Manderley Bed & Breakfast Inn is in the Historic Concordia District. The inside was restored by the current owners.

But how does a home get a historic designation? City of Milwaukee historic preservation planner Carlen Hatala says it's a process. People usually think how long a building has been around means it's historic. But there's more to it than that.

“Historic is actually a legal status that a property achieves by going through the process that’s outlined in the city of Milwaukee’s ordinance," Hatala explains.

Aside from the national registry, there are many local tiers of historic designation: state, county, and city. Each level has different criteria, restrictions, and benefits.

Here in the city of Milwaukee’s historic preservation office, they oversee exterior changes. "We don’t care if you change your toilet and sink and put in fancier sinks and that kind of thing, but exterior we want to make sure the building maintains its key historical features," Hatala says.

Credit Alesandra Tejeda
Not everyone gets the chance to see the inside of historic homes. The Manderley Inn has a Victorian-era decorated interior.

Andrew Parker who owns the bed and breakfast on Wells Street, put just as much effort into the inside of the home as the outside. He’s happy that his home is on the National Historic Registry and believes historic preservation is incredibly important.

"We don't do enough of that and we should," he says. "They're great touchstones to history."

There are more than 100 nationally designated historic places in Milwaukee County.

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.


Angelina Mosher Salazar joined WUWM in 2018 as the Eric Von Broadcast Fellow. She was then a reporter with the station until 2021.
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