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Hide House history prompts split decision

The Hide House in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood is pictured June 9. A hearing will be held in the next three months to determine whether or not to grant permanent historic protection to the structure.  Photo by Corey Hengen

The Hide House in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood is pictured June 9. A hearing will be held in the next three months to determine whether or not to grant permanent historic protection to the structure. Photo by Corey Hengen

Sean Ryan
[email protected]

State and Milwaukee preservation experts disagree over whether the Hide House in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood has any historic significance.

The Hide House is a 200,000-square-foot complex that started out as a metal stove and bed factory in 1898 and was slowly built up by a rotating cast of industrial tenants. The last major construction occurred in the mid-1940s when J. Greenebaum Tanning Co. built the Hide House addition on the north end of the complex.

The Wisconsin Historical Society, at the request of building owner General Capital Group LLP, Fox Point, reviewed the building’s history and deemed it not historic by state and federal standards. But Milwaukee city staff Monday said otherwise, arguing all but the newest portions of the building are historic by city standards.

“Differences of opinion can come up,” said Jim Draeger, deputy state historic preservation officer in the state historical society. “But, in the end, there’s always an arbiter.”

In the case of the Hide House, the arbiter was the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, which gave the building temporary historic protection. Of the entire complex, only the Greenebaum addition is threatened by demolition in General Capital Group’s plan to build low-income apartments, condominiums and offices on the property.

“We’re trying to take care of an eyesore at the very north end that has been declared nondescript,” said Steve Schnoll, executive vice president of General Capital, which can appeal the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to the Milwaukee Common Council.

Draeger said the state judges a building’s historic importance by comparing it to similar buildings that are still standing.

“That’s the way you try to assess,” he said, “because every building has a history and, if they’ve stuck around long enough, that history becomes significant, or they accumulate a story of their own.”

In the case of the Hide House, which was a tannery from 1912 to 1955, the state compared it to other Wisconsin tanneries, Draeger said. The Hide House, he said, did not stand out as exceptional or having a unique affect on history.

The Amity Leather Products Co. tannery in West Bend, for instance, featured state-of-the-art building design and fireproofing for its time and, by the 1930s, was the largest U.S. producer of leather billfolds. The Hide House, just in terms of its scale of operation as a tannery, was modest compared to the Pfister and Vogel or the Gallun tanneries in Milwaukee, Draeger said.

City staff and more than 40 Bay View residents Monday argued that because the Hide House was built over many decades, the building represents multiple generations of working-class Milwaukeeans. As such, they said, the building should have historic protection.

“Preservation tells us about working-class people, tells us stories about how do we do manufacturing, how did we do transportation,” said Carlen Hatala, city of Milwaukee historic preservation planner.

Draeger said his opinion may differ from that of the city Historic Preservation Commission because he works without any influence beyond historical evidence. It’s not bad that arbiters such as the commission consider other factors, he said, but it can lead to different conclusions.

“I think that part of it is that we make decisions in kind of a political vacuum,” he said, “in that people from the neighborhood and those kind of influences, they are not people advocating one way or another when we make a decision.”

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