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Silo in the city goes against the grain

Kristofer Nonn stands with about 700 bricks outside of his residence in Madison. He plans to use those bricks to erect a farm-style silo on the property. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

A Madison architect is testing the city’s threshold for preserving historic districts.

Kristofer Nonn in 2009 bought a dilapidated house on Madison’s near east side with intentions of remodeling it into a new home for himself and his wife, Helen.

Nonn couldn’t resist an opportunity to make an artistic statement. He and his father disassembled a glazed-tile silo on a defunct farm near Columbus and planned to rebuild it brick-by-brick on his new property.

“There was a silo just standing there among a bunch of rubble,” Nonn said. “Growing up in Cross Plains, I always thought the silo was a unique form. It really has some character and some depth to it, so it’s not a sheer, ominous thing.”

The 72-square-foot silo, Nonn said, would add character to his property and the neighborhood. While many of Nonn’s new neighbors support his decision — and especially his effort to remodel an old house — the silo miffed a few city planners, who argue it is inappropriate for the Third Lake Ridge Historic District.

Madison architect Kristofer Nonn stands in front of his house on the city's near east side.

“I don’t see how we can say, ‘It’s funky, it’s the east side, it will be cool,'” said Stuart Levitan, a member of the city’s Landmarks Commission. “This is a silo in the middle of an urban historic district. Intellectually, I just can’t find it meets the terms.”

Historic districts are meant to preserve a neighborhood’s style as it existed at the time of designation. The Third Lake Ridge Historic District was designated in 1979, when there certainly were not silos lining city streets.

Carl DuRocher, a board member for the Marquette Neighborhood Association, wrote a letter to the city expressing support on behalf of the neighborhood. DuRocher said the Nonns’ plans are “very well thought out in detail and will add value to the Near East Side.”

Alderwoman Marsha Rummel, whose district includes the Nonns’ house, also has advocated on behalf of the couple, saying the silo “adds an unusual postmodern twist to a historic farmhouse,” while acknowledging her position might run counter to city protocol.

“If you’re going to follow the letter of the law, maybe you don’t” allow the silo, Rummel said. “I know we’ve grappled with this — you really want to do it right.

“On the other hand,” Rummel added, “it’s an evolving neighborhood. (The silo) could be a landmark at some future day. I think I could live with this, and I think the neighborhood could.”

Levitan said Rummel’s argument nullifies the concept of a historic district.

“It’s not supposed to be an evolving neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a historic district. You’re supposed to be able to walk through those blocks and say, ‘This is what that neighborhood looked like at the time we were memorializing it.'”

Nonn counters no one should want the neighborhood kept exactly as it was in the late 1970s.

“That neighborhood was basically falling-down houses in 1978,” Nonn said. “Is that really the standard you want to go with?”

Nonn knows the neighborhood’s history better than most people do. He researched the property, going back to 1868, because he said it was important to him to understand its past. The silo, Nonn said, is meant to honor the neighborhood, not detract from it.

The city’s Landmarks Commission agreed to allow the silo, but only if it’s set toward the back of the property. The Nonns still have to get zoning approval.

“I wanted to celebrate it, but I think where it is now is a good compromise of the different forces at play,” Nonn said. “People wanted to preserve the street elevation, but we’re also not totally hiding it, so it’s sort of like getting glimpses of it.”

Going through the city’s process has only been possible because of Nonn’s profession, he said. If he had to hire others to navigate the approval process for him, Nonn said “we’d be broke.” He also joked Rummel’s support of the silo marked “probably the most effort per square foot she’s ever put into a project.”

But, the Nonns said they are excited to be one step closer to starting the remodeling work and piecing back together their silo.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric and a lot of talk that goes on, but it all comes down to what a few people (with the city) want to do,” Nonn said, “for better or for worse.”

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