Helping Local Governments Save Municipal Buildings in Wisconsin

It Works! Success Stories in Preservation


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Municipalities and local governments are responsible for a wide array of historic buildings, many of which are landmarks that contribute to the architectural legacy of the community and are a source of civic pride. As these buildings age, however, and the needs of the community change, local governments are faced with decisions about what to do with these historic properties. Unfortunately, many municipal leaders assume that rehabilitation is too expensive and opt for constructing a new courthouse, library, or school instead. Moreover, when officials decide on new construction, little thought is given to what to do with the older building that is left behind. Many are demolished or simply vacated and left to deteriorate.

This has been a problem in Wisconsin, where many communities are struggling with how to manage historic properties they own or that they have acquired through tax foreclosure. To address this, the National Trust’s Midwest Office, in conjunction with the Jeffris Family Foundation of Janesville, Wis., decided that it would be helpful to provide local governments with a publication on the rehabilitation and reuse of such properties. Using a grant from the foundation, the office commissioned The 106 Group Ltd. to conduct a study of municipal buildings in Wisconsin. The results of this research have been compiled in a new publication, Preserving Wisconsin’s Civic Legacy: A Guide to Rehabilitating and Reusing Local Government Properties. The publication is targeted to those interested in saving a historic building owned by a government body, including city and county managers, city clerks, historic preservation commission members, and local preservation advocacy groups.

Making the Case for Preservation

The study identifies many reasons for city and town leaders to take a fresh look at their historic municipal buildings and to speak out in support of their preservation. While the research focused exclusively on Wisconsin, the findings provide a useful lesson for civic leaders across the country.

The report outlines many of the already well-documented reasons for saving historic buildings. But it also points out the specific benefits of having a well-preserved historic courthouse, library, or other public facility centrally located in the community. By investing in older core areas of historic cities or towns, communities promote environmental sustainability by being more walkable and by maximizing efficient use of existing public transit. Also many of these buildings were created to represent the hopes and dreams of the community. Over time, these facilities have hosted events, such as social and political gatherings, that are part of the shared history of the community. The preservation of these government and institutional buildings reinforces cultural continuity from generation to generation.

The report includes 12 case studies to show how municipalities have put historic buildings, even seemingly lost causes, back into productive use. For example, the story of the City Hall and Opera House in Independence, Wis., demonstrates that a preservation approach can be less expensive and more successful than demolishing an old facility and building new. The case study of the Potosi Brewery in Potosi, Wis., describes how a very small community came together to put a white elephant building back into use, becoming the catalyst for revitalizing the community.

Each story portrays the community’s victories and challenges, along with the essential elements that led to the project’s success, the benefits to the public, and the financial details.

Lessons Learned

The case studies illustrate several key steps for the successful rehabilitation and reuse of historic municipally owned buildings:

  • Assess the potential of the building to be rehabilitated and expanded if needed for ongoing public use or for conversion to a new use.
  • Get the public involved. Build awareness so that more of the community will get behind the project, making it easier to raise funds and to identify and use the professional skills of volunteers.
  • Form an effective project team that has a variety of skills and experience to make the project a success and to finish it in a timely manner. Team members should include architects, fundraisers, project and construction managers, potential users, community members, and political and business leaders.
  • Develop a plan that sets out an intended use for the building and that demonstrates how the project will benefit the community.
  • Prepare for the long haul. It can take several years to explore options and reach a decision. The building may need to be stabilized, mothballed, and secured during the process.
  • Be strategic about fundraising and seek out a variety of funding sources. If the project will need public financing, demonstrate to citizens how the money will be used and how the project will benefit the community.
  • Consider doing the project in phases, starting with the most critical items first, such as addressing structural problems and life-safety issues. Consider rehabilitating any income-generating portions of the building first (such as an auditorium) to help provide an income stream.

Getting the Word Out 

The Midwest Office chose to create a high-end publication, with good design and professional photography. Genell Scheurell, senior program officer, explained, “We wanted this document to be a tool that municipal building owners can go back to again and again. It was our feeling that a well-designed and -executed booklet would be more likely to be saved and used, and not filed away to be forgotten or thrown in the trash.”

The Midwest office hopes to get Preserving Wisconsin’s Civic Legacy: A Guide to Rehabilitating and Reusing Local Government Properties into as many Wisconsin communities as possible. An article about it was published in the January League of Wisconsin Municipalities newsletter. Announcements about the availability of the booklet, both in print form and as a PDF download, are being made across Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest region as well.

The publication is currently posted on the website of the National Trust’s Midwest Office. Links to it are on various listservs and on Facebook.

The response to the offer of the booklet has been overwhelming. According to Scheurell, “E-mail and phone requests for print copies are coming in daily. Everyone who’s seen a copy feels that it is very well done and will be useful. Last week, the mayor of Lancaster, Wis., called requesting a copy. He’d had breakfast with a neighboring mayor who had a copy of the booklet. The mayor of Lancaster felt that the quality of the publication was so good that he’d be able to use it as a marketing tool in his community.”

A Targeted Approach

Thanks to today’s technology, there are many ways to get information out. To choose the right one, you must consider your audience. In this case, project staff were not preaching to the choir of fellow preservation-minded colleagues. Instead they are hoping to reach government leaders who may be new to preservation and provide them with ideas, examples, and tools they might not be aware of. A well-illustrated guide that can be passed around the office, lunch room, or coffee shop may be the just the thing to encourage civic leaders to understand the importance of saving their irreplaceable historic resources.

A free PDF of Preserving Wisconsin’s Civic Legacy: A Guide to Rehabilitating and Reusing Local Government Properties can be downloaded here.