County Supervisor Chris Abele’s tone-deaf decision to buy and destroy a historically important lakefront home in Shorewood was tragic and awful. He, of all people, should know that a key ingredient in competent governance is enthusiastic stewardship of important local assets: the art, architecture and natural environments that define our culture.
However, it is important that we do not allow our anger at Abele to create a system that punishes the very stewardship that most of us agree we want.
Stewardship is not a product of special oversight placed on historic homes. It comes, instead, from a shared commitment to storytelling, passed between generations and among neighbors.
Historic homes begin with a mark against them. As evidence, consider that the Elizabeth Murphy house languished unsold in a hot market once it had been identified as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, precisely because prospective buyers were concerned that they would not be able to afford the basic upkeep, given its significance. They were worried about regulation creating downward pressure on value and upward pressure on upkeep. Their worries were not without merit.
Old homes require special care, time and money to keep them safe and useful. Old historically-important homes, like Abele’s now pulverized Eschweiler-designed mansion, require a deeper level of care: sensitivity to the architectural DNA and the importance of the artifact, a respect for former caretakers, and a willingness to spend the time to understand and share context. Abele didn’t have the patience for any of these things. He just wanted a view.
However, we have seen firsthand that many, if not most village residents understand that stewardship flourishes in communities that reward the care-taking of all of the homes in a neighborhood.
Shorewoodian families enthusiastically care for homes and apartments ranging from Art Deco to Tudor, Mid-Century-Modern to Prairie, and of course, the Milwaukee-flat and Milwaukee-bungalow, and together, these gems form the priceless portfolio of real estate that is our shared village, a place that many see as a cultural beacon in Wisconsin and the Midwest.
In response to the Abele catastrophe, the village would do well to promote the concept of the preservation easement, which would provide owners and sellers of historic homes with the support to ensure that their important properties are protected by carrying forward both the burden and the benefits of pedigree. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a preservation easement binds future buyers to protect the historic elements and the spirit of the home in return for modest qualified tax relief. There might be fewer buyers of a home that has an easement, but those who are willing begin their shift understanding their role in historic preservation. This is something we plan to do with the Elizabeth Murphy House whether the village steps up or not.
Programs and people who value culture, not reactive ordinances, are what foster a dynamic and sustained environment of care-taking.