Thursday, January 29, 2015


It was around eleven in the morning, a time when Sixth Avenue would normally be filled with white-collar workers hustling off to martini lunches and tourists with their necks bent in forty-five degree angles as their eyes scanned the tops of the towering skyscrapers hugging Avenue of the Americas. The blizzard of 1996 had ground the city to a halt. It arrived just after the New Year. Christmas still clung to the city's facades; the Rockettes were still kicking their legs above their heads in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City.
I had a scheduled lunch with a client at The Peninsula Hotel on Fifty-fifth Street where Deborah was staying. The storm had dropped over twenty inches of snow the night before and the city was ill prepared to deal with it. Most everything was closed but the restaurant at the Peninsula was still serving to its guests. Cabs were out of the question. It would take days before a meager army of municipal plows could clear the streets. The weather wasn't about to help either. The temperatures remained below freezing.
There was magic in the air when quiet covered the canyons of midtown. There were only a few brave souls sinking their Hunter boots into the snow-covered sidewalks stomping down a trail for those of us to follow. Some of the subways were running on limited schedules. I was lucky enough to find an F train that took me as far as Fiftieth Street. I could feel the silence as I climbed out the subway exit from below ground my boots trying to find their footing on the exit steps that had yet to be shoveled. I still had to walk the five blocks north to Fifty-fifth before I could turn east and get to the hotel. That crunch of untouched snow was the only sound singing in my ears. My eyes had been focused on my feet. The iced over sidewalks were treacherous requiring focused attention to keep me from falling. Then through the crunch of my boots and the whisper of the wind came an added element to the song of the storm. Walking down the middle of Sixth Avenue from the direction of Central Park came a woman dressed in a red parka a burlap bag over her shoulder. She was leading a reindeer down the middle of the avenue. She led the reindeer on a rope leash. As she got closer the crunch of my snow steps began to play melody blending with the cords coming from the ring of bells around the reindeer's neck. Magic.

The airlines started notifying fliers the Sunday before the storm was to hit that they could change their tickets without any added fees to avoid canceled flights. I was ticketed on a flight scheduled to leave Milwaukee for New York at 11:10am on the Monday the storm was supposed to start. I had several meetings I didn't want to miss. I decided my best bet would be to grab the earlier flight and hope I could make it in before the storm hit. I had to set the alarm for 3:30 so I could make the drive to Milwaukee and get on the 6:40. The flight was almost empty; there weren't many people interested in flying into the eye of the storm. We left Milwaukee without a problem and arrived in New York twenty-five minutes early. It was the last flight to make it out of Milwaukee. All the flights after that were canceled.
As soon as I got off the plane I fell into blizzard fever along with most of the rest of the city. Forty-five minutes in line at the grocery store to stock up on food to get me through the next few days. Off to get my errands out of the way before the city shut down all forms of transportation and started handing out fines for anyone out and in the way.
There was a dusting by Wisconsin standards, maybe five or six inches before the snow stopped. The local TV stations had preempted regular scheduled program with storm coverage. The biggest part of the storm was supposed to hit after midnight Monday and then hold on through most of the following day. I kept trying to stay awake although it was now approaching twenty hours since I had gotten up that morning. I fell asleep to Lonny Quinn insisting the storm was on its way: it was cold enough, it was wet enough, and the only possible glitch was how the storm tracked.
When I woke up at 6:30 Tuesday morning the TV still broadcasting storm news there wasn't a flake more I could see outside my window then had been there when I fell asleep. The ban on travel was still in effect and the parks were still closed. I squeezed into my jeans, but on my ultra-thin down vest, grabbed my quilted corduroy jacket and rubber boots, and walked out the door to the park. The same crunch of boots on virgin snow I had listened to nineteen years ago was back. It was a sweet illegal walk into the park and then down the middle of Central Park West before I turned around at Sixty-sixth and headed back home. For an hour or two the streets stayed empty until the rest of New York started waking up and joining in the freedom of walking in the middle of Avenues that would soon turn back into arteries packed with yellow cabs, Asian delivery boys on bicycles, and New Jersey drivers thinking it's legal to turn on right. I missed the magic.


The Upper Westside of Manhattan, Tuesday morning, January 27, 2015
Lee Melahn, photographer

Friday, January 23, 2015


Snow starts falling as early as October and as late as April in Madison. There's a incredible beauty in the soft slow decent of huge snowflakes, their slow-motion drift. The beauty in those big flakes, the kind of flakes little kids try to catch on their tongues. After the beauty of the fall color has faded there's a gap filled with decay and browness. It's the snow that takes away the decay, covering it up like icing on a cake. So before we get to April and the snow has outlasted its beauty or comfort I want to wrap this post in a white envelope and like a tiny time capsule send it to myself as reminder of how beautiful white can be.





Pulled from Pinterest and my own files

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Unlike cities in the south and northeast Madison never identified itself as a manufacturing mecca. Other than the huge Oscar Mayer complex Madison never possessed the industrial architectural districts you find in the mill towns of the northeast or warehouses of the south. It's impossible to create a Third Ward or a Soho in Madison.
Madison's architectural heritage is centered more around government and educational structures and the beautiful residential areas that grew out of those white-collar industries. The scarcity of a large industrial and retail heritage makes what remains all the more significant. What industrial architecture we have in Madison is minimal and therefore all the more important to preserve.
One of the few remaining pieces of that architectural history is the crumbling but salvageable Garver Feed Mill.
Built in 1905 as the United States Sugar Beet Company and then renovated in 1929 by James Garver as the Garver Feed Mill, the mill remains in immediate need of some tender loving care.
I have my own history surrounding the mill. I grew up blocks away. Walking the railroad tracks that run directly in front of the mill was the path I took almost every evening during the winter, my ice skates draped over my shoulder. The city still freezes over the park and maintains a warming shelter for skaters. It used to have a well-worn wooden ramp that took you from the wood stove inside the warming house out onto the ice.
In the early part of the twentieth century Michael Balthzar Olbrich, a Madison lawyer, headed two fund raising initiatives along with the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association to develop an extension of the Madison parks system running along the east shore of Lake Monona. The park was meant to service the laborers who worked in the factories that lined the route from Williamson to Atwood. A municipal flower garden was to be its crowning jewel. Olbrich Botanical Gardens was what resulted from the plan. The city has developed the garden into one of the most prominent public gardens in the nation. Currently a quarter of a million visitors a year visit the gardens.
These gardens are adjacent to the Garver Mill. The only part of the mill to have been brought into the Botanical Gardens family of structures is the former Garver Cottage. It was restored in 2001 and now houses the Gardens horticultural staff.
The mill affords Madison an opportunity to broaden the Garden's reputation as well as the city's.
In December four proposals for redevelopment of the mill were presented giving four very different ideas for reuse of the building. Here is a list of criteria I've come up with for choosing a direction for a proposed use and renovation for the building.
1.   Does the proposed rehabilitation preserve the building's historic heritage
2.   Is the proposal architecturally significant
3.   Does it generate monies for the city through tax revenue
4. Does it generate monies for the community through jobs and expenditures from entities outside the immediate community
5. Does it benefit the general population of the city
There have been many successful transformations of large scale manufacturing buildings into income generating enterprises that benefit their respective cities enhancing their appeal on a national basis. One organization to look to and at the forefront of historic renovation and management is the Atlanta firm of Jamestown Properties. Through the buildings they have either restored or manage they have successfully changed formerly depressed areas into vibrant coveted urban hubs.
Their transformations and or management include Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Chelsea Market in New York City and Warehouse Row in Chattanooga a city equivalent in size to Madison and a city on the rise to becoming a major American city.
All of these conversions have met all five points set out above and all of them have been very successful. First, they have all paid attention to the buildings heritage. Ghiradelli Square still makes chocolate and Chelsea Market continues to focus as a food market in the former National Biscuit building. Although it is not essential that building recreate its former use it helps to recognize the connection.
The transformations of these buildings haven't tried to contrast the structures with additions inappropriate to its original use but instead updated what needed to be repaired.
Mechanisms intrinsic to the building were saved and incorporated into the new designs.
Added décor usually reflects the historic era of the buildings inception. If you're rebuilding history it's helpful to keep that history in mind. This doesn't require a literal incorporation but a reference to materials and construction adds to its success
Each of these endeavors has used some form of retail to promote it. They are all thematic mini-malls using local boutique manufacturers and vendors.
Chelsea market not only sells locally produced goods but manufactures them on the premises as well. Open windows allow the public to watch as breads are baked and cupcakes are iced.
Warehouse Row in Chattanooga has positioned itself as a retail design center with high-end clothiers and home décor stores that draw clientele from surrounding metropolises like Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis and Atlanta. Their mission statement includes respect for history, sustainability, a green philosophy, and a return for its investors.
All of these industrial architecture conversions have added restaurants to their mix of tenants. It seems almost necessary for their success. Tupelo Honey in Warehouse Row is one of the finest biscuit restaurants around bringing fresh, made-from-scratch southern comfort food to their appreciative diners.
Each of these saved industrial architectural pieces has helped their respective communities and in some cases has helped to save those communities from dissolving into complete obscurity.
Madison is a city with its own unique clientele and shopping patterns. It is a difficult task to get westsiders to come east and eastsiders to go west. Design and home décor vendors have a rough go of it. Restaurants proliferate almost as fast as rabbits. If food is not an integral part of the mill project I don't see it succeeding.
I hope Madison will look at these success stories when evaluating what will happen with one of its few remaining pieces of its industrial history. Madison can't produce a Third Ward or a Soho. We've either destroyed or never had that heritage. It'd be a shame to loose what little we do have.

As a little boy every Fourth of July I'd get in the backseat of the family car along with a couple of quilts and a picnic basket filled with dinner. We'd drive from the eastside over to Vilas to watch the fireworks. The route of anticipation went across Gorham and University Avenue, a left onto Park Street. Traffic would start to grow heavy as we approached the zoo. There was a brick building with this great neon you had to pass on the way to the fireworks. The red neon unabashedly screamed, "The Ideal Body Shop". It was such a comfort to me. At five or six I was secretly contemplating my first plastic surgery should I decide I needed it. It was a great building, a building with potential for uses that might have gone beyond a clever doctor's office.
The building was torn down in 2013 and now - well its replacement is not quite so comforting

Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, 1920
Lewis Hine, photographer
Represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC