Building an Inclusive Preservation Plan in Madison, Wisconsin

By Special Contributor posted 09-10-2020 13:44


By Heather L. Bailey  and Amy Loewenstein Scanlon

The preservation program in Madison, Wisconsin, began in 1971 after a failed grassroots effort to save an 1853 mansion on the west side of the city. The galvanized new Landmarks Commission set out designating the most iconic architecture and began an effort to survey the city for properties that were architecturally, historically, and culturally significant. The city and the Landmarks Commission expanded its historic preservation program and areas of research over time, but it wasn’t until recently that we created a citywide preservation plan. 

This undertaking coincided with the update of the City Comprehensive Plan and the early phases of the City of Madison’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative (RESJI). In evaluating the inventory of Madison’s landmark properties and previous survey information through a racial equity lens, we found that the stories and places we preserved were overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Madison has a diverse and rich heritage, and it was important for this new preservation plan to tell the full story of Madison. 

The City of Madison’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Program has a variety of publicly available tools. | Credit: City of Madison

In order to accomplish that task, city planning staff decided to have a survey of resources associated with underrepresented communities serve as the foundation for the preservation plan. The City hired the consultant team of Legacy Architecture, Ce Planning Studio, and Archetype Historic Property Consultant to complete both the survey and preservation plan. 

Both city staff involved in the project and the consultant team completed the City of Madison RESJI training, and the project team evaluated the community and public engagement process using the RESJI Equity Analysis Tool before initiating outreach activities. This multi-faceted project began with a kick-off meeting in September 2017 and held 21 additional public meetings, which included 11 meetings of the diverse 13-member Historic Preservation Plan Advisory Committee, and featured a number of outreach pieces (media interviews, short videos, a selfie contest, and a community survey with 755 respondents). The planning process also included specific outreach to stakeholder groups that served Madison’s underrepresented communities. 

The Common Council adopted the Madison Historic Preservation Plan in May 2020. 

City Staff in Madison kick off meeting for preservation plan.
Public meetings for the preservation plan included traditional public outreach activities like adding sticky notes to boards | Credit: City of Madison

Underrepresented Histories

What truly set this planning process apart is the Underrepresented Communities Historic Resource Survey  Planning staff approached the survey as a starting point and decided to begin with documenting the histories of 6 underserved communities: African Americans, Hmong, First Nations, Latinos/as, LGBTQ, and Women. Much like other municipalities completing these surveys, the project team found these communities were also underrepresented in the archival record, so collaborating with stakeholder groups and conducting interviews with leaders of these communities was critical. We were also fortunate that the Wisconsin Historical Society Press  had recently published some statewide and some local histories about these communities. One of the more creative collaborations resulted in the Madison Public Library creating the Madison Living History Project to document our diverse stories as an oral history collection. 

The resulting survey identified 117 resources of historical interest, with 98 currently eligible as Madison Landmarks, 9 individually eligible to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The survey found that there were 39 landmarks with significant histories related to these underrepresented communities, which were not documented in the landmark designations. We have added these additional stories to the preservation files for these properties, but need to take action to amend the existing landmark nominations to include these histories so that they are officially a part of the recorded significance of these places. 

African American Resource Map
The groupings of resources by demographic group showed where historic neighborhoods were located, but also highlighted the displacement from urban renewal for areas where we should have seen groupings, but those buildings are now gone. | Credit: City of Madison

For example, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church was originally designated as a landmark for both its Romanesque Revival architecture using Madison sandstone, but also for its association with the early German immigrant population in the city. The survey included additional context on the more recent significance of this property for the Latino/a community. Starting in the 1980s, this church became the primary Catholic church in the city to have services in Spanish and a key location for social services related to our Spanish-speaking community. This additional layer is important for understanding the evolving significance of this property. 

The campus of Holy Redeemer includes both the historic school building and the church.
The campus of Holy Redeemer includes both the historic school building and the church. | Credit: City of Madison

Lessons Learned

Our goal in creating the preservation plan was to create a guide for how preservation will be practiced in Madison, Wisconsin. The feedback we received from our local communities might differ from feedback received in other places. The lessons we learned: 

Make it accessible. The community response to both the process and the resulting survey report has been enthusiastic and encouraging, but not everyone is enthusiastic about preserving heritage, especially when their culture is not currently represented. It was important to engage the general public and stakeholder groups with the initial research and vetting the final document. For example, in addition to in-person meetings, we provided our meeting notices and agendas in Spanish and Hmong, we had interpreters at each public meeting. Recognizing that our meetings weren’t necessarily convenient for all members of the public to attend, we made our materials for each step of the process available on our project website. We also made the final drafts of both the preservation plan and survey publicly available on the city’s website

Listen to stakeholders. One of the surprising results was the name we used for the Latino/a community. We were going to utilize “Latinx.” In sending the survey and plan out for comment, we heard back that the term was popular with outside or Anglo communities, but was not a term they would necessarily apply to themselves because it did not fit within a Spanish language framework. After conferring with our Office of Civil Rights, they confirmed that while there was not a consensus for what people wanted to be called, Latinx was not well received. While there were a variety of other options, we settled on the recommendation to utilize the “Latino/a” form to encompass multiple genders. Given the colonialist legacy of a dominant structure imposing an outsider name to an underrepresented community, it was important to listen to that feedback. 

View of one of the City of Madison's Public Meetings
Public meetings included small group break out activities for better dialogue. | Credit: City of Madison

Keep it grassroots and diverse. A shift from focusing on high-styled architecture to a more story-based preservation approach made some of our longtime partners uncomfortable. One comment was that our process was “too grassroots” and we should stick with best practices from recent preservation plans from elsewhere in the country. While preservation practice is always changing, it is currently undergoing some significant and needed transformation. We understood that change is hard and can be scary. City staff was inspired by the 2017 Forum blog post entitled When Does It Become Social Justice? Thoughts on Intersectional Preservation Practice.” We took those insights to heart and it was imperative that our preservation program represented all Madisonians and the uniqueness of our city. 

We held meetings throughout the city, to meet with people in their neighborhoods. This meeting was in South Madison, which is home to many of our underrepresented communities.
We held meetings throughout the city, to meet with people in their neighborhoods. This meeting was in South Madison, which is home to many of our underrepresented communities.| Credit: City of Madison

Call to action. We continually heard from our community partners that they were grateful to be included and to have their stories told, but that they hoped this resulted in action on the part of the City. It matters for local preservation programs to tell the full story of their community. People need to know that their story matters (because it does!). But this cannot be a token or one-time effort. We have our preservation plan in place with a host of action items. With COVID-19, there are a number of new hurdles for implementing those recommendations, but we remain committed to taking action. 

Heather L. Bailey is the Preservation Planner for the City of Madison, Wisconsin. Her Ph.D. is in Public History from Middle Tennessee State University, and she has spent her career in preservation planning as an advocate for resources from the Recent Past and collaborating with underrepresented communities. 

Amy Loewenstein Scanlon, AIA, previously served as the City’s Preservation Planner and is now serving as an architect in the City’s Engineering Division. After receiving her Bachelor of Architecture from Kansas State University and her Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, Amy has focused her career on historic preservation, working in private practice and in public service.


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