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South Milwaukee loses battle over historic building

The South Milwaukee Historical Society’s attempt to save the historic Lawson Continental building for a new museum has failed.
On Monday, the city’s Community Development Authority agreed with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s plans to photograph the building at 909 Menomonee Ave. before demolition, preserve its architectural components and construct a monument in its memory, said John Lange, chairman of the South Milwaukee Community Development Authority.
If the Common Council ratifies the agreement Tuesday, it will be official.
Lois Schreiter, president of the city’s historical society, and her husband, Stephen, tried to round up federal money to convert the building into a museum for the society to display its artifacts.
The building is historic for two reasons. It is where Alfred Lawson in 1921 built the Midnight Airliner, the country’s first passenger airplane. From 1928 until around 1940, it was where Continental Faience and Tile Co. made its artistic tiles, which were a popular item for building projects of the era.
Now it’s a mostly empty building with a cracked brick exterior and holes where freight doors were added. There is a large hole in the building where the last owner took out the wall and roof to store a large boat.
The most obvious evidence of history inside the building is an ornately tiled office in the front, some railroad ties that were part of Continental’s kilns and what appears to be the original lights that illuminated Lawson’s production floor, the Schreiters said.
Lois Schreiter said although Continental’s kilns are long gone, the building is still important because “this is the place where (history) happened.”
The city and its historical society reached an agreement that would have the society decide which of the building’s architectural elements are historically significant and then request the city salvage them. The details of how this process will work has not yet been determined, said CDA Executive Director Danielle Devlin.
Stephen Schreiter said he doesn’t agree with the city’s decision to tear down the building just because no developer wanted to shoulder the cost of renovating it. He said rather than looking at its value only in terms of dollars and cents, he considers its worth as a piece of history.
“If you want to do everything based on column A and column B, you would probably never save a historic property,” he said.
Lange said redeveloping the property took longer than the CDA originally expected, since it took a long time to relocate its previous owner. He said the city probably won’t collect demolition bids until the end of the year and will issue a request for development proposals once the building has been torn down.
Before then, it may hold a design contest to encourage local artists to come up with designs for the monument the CDA will build, Lange said.
“Until we know the extent of the monument,” he said, “it’s nearly impossible to come up with a price for that.”

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