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Wright house hamstrings Madison development

Paul Snyder

A Madison development firm is willing to design a house-sized pocket in the middle of a new apartment building to preserve a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home on the site.
That won’t do much for the neighboring houses that could have a date with a wrecking ball.

“The thing is, Frank Lloyd Wright designed that house to be surrounded,” said Jim Steakley, chairman of the James Madison Park District of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. “The homes surrounding it were built in the 1880s and 1890s, and it gives it important historical context.”

Wright’s Lamp House was built in 1903 and placed in the center of a downtown Madison block to be enclosed by the houses fronting the surrounding streets.

Apex Enterprises owns the Wright house and several others in the 200 block of East Mifflin Street and now wants to build a luxury apartment building. The company has proposed four designs that would preserve the Lamp House.

Two designs involve framing the house with the new building. A third would create a residential tower on Webster Street and relocate the Lamp House so it fronts Mifflin Street. In each case, Apex is proposing restoring the house and turning it into a museum or visitors center.

Alderwoman Bridget Maniaci, who represents the neighborhood, said the neighborhood, the city, the state and historic preservationists will oppose any plan that upsets the house or the context in which it was built.

“You’ve got national Frank Lloyd Wright groups that will be interested in what happens,” she said. “If anyone sees it as potentially negative in any way, there will be a fight.”

Steve Yoder, Apex president, said he knows the proposals will be a tough sell, which is why the company prepared a fourth, less controversial option. Instead of building on the same block as the Lamp House, Apex would build four stories of luxury apartments and one level of parking above the Capitol Square North Parking Ramp across Mifflin Street.

The city built the ramp with the intention of one day building residential units above it, Yoder said, and early discussions with the city have been positive.

But because the city owns the garage, Madison would be required to request proposals from developers and not just take the Apex offer.

Apex, Yoder said, has the Lamp House and can still renovate it for public access as part of its deal with the city.

“We just think we have something up our sleeve that other developers don’t,” he said.

Maniaci said that does not guarantee the city would choose Apex.

“Nothing’s on paper,” she said. “Right now, we have some basic ideas and renderings. We’re still a long ways, I think, from city review.”

Apex will select one option in the next three months, Yoder said, and file its proposal with the city in early 2010. He said he knows neighborhood criticism will be sharp no matter which option is selected.

“Communication is going to be the biggest challenge,” he said. “You have to let people here express their wants and desires, and they’re going to come up with 50 things they want, and you’ve got to get that down to two or three.”

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