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

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