Preserving the Past

Petrie, Bob. The Sheboygan Press. August 12, 2009, page A1.

There is plenty of style in the simplicity of the design of the two-story house at 2728 Highland Terrace, a cream city brick Federalist completed in 1939 on Sheboygan's northeast side.

"It's square, it's cut and dried, there's not a lot added to it, and we kind of like that," said Travis Gross, 38, who lives in the home with his wife, Kris, and 6-year-old daughter, Lily.

"We like the plain (style), it's very square, every room in the house is square," Gross said. "We like it."

The house also, over the years, underwent little change to its exterior, retaining virtually the same look as it had when it was constructed 70 years ago. And now, it is among the first properties in Sheboygan that have been approved for city landmark status, a program in which city officials are trying to rekindle interest to save and preserve as many old, original structures as they can - before they either are remodeled or torn down.

"Sheboygan has never had any real historic preservation initiative in the city," Mayor Bob Ryan said. "Eighth Street is a good example. Eighth Street has some of the older buildings that survived by chance, and in between they've all been knocked down and a lot of them replaced with brick-type structures...there's not a lot of historic feel."

City development officials have worked with Jennifer Lehrke, an architect, to chronicle buildings that could qualify for the national and state historic registers.

On the list are more than 1,600 potential properties; at least 51 years old, with exteriors that have remained largely intact from the year they were built. They include homes, businesses, municipal buildings and churches.

In 2007, several buildings were chosen for city landmark status, including City Hall, built in 1915-16, the first city fire station, built in 1907, and The Sheboygan Press, built in 1924.

Since then, a few more have been added, including the Gross home, and in July, the city succeeded in winning approval for its first ever state historic district - called the Downtown Churches Historic District.

The district is bordered by Erie Avenue, Ontario Avenue and Sixth and Seventh streets. Within the block square area are four churches; Grace Episcopal Church, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Hope Reformed Church and St. Luke's Methodist Church.

"This is monumental for the city, to have its first district on the state register," said Paulette Enders, city development director.

Elizabeth Potter, 62, of Sheboygan Falls, a member of Grace Episcopal and the church's archivist for many years, said she's extremely excited about the state designation. Her church has been in existence since 1847, more than 160 years ago.

"It was very moving at the hearing of the State Historical Society in Madison," Potter said. "When Jennifer Lehrke was doing this presentation and she was talking about the history that I'm so familiar with and my particular church but to hear somebody else talking about it and emphasizing the importance of it, it was very moving."

Even with the designation, the city has had little success in generating interest in getting people interested in gaining landmark status. More than 450 letters were mailed out to people with eligible properties, only 10 came back.

"I think if people understand the significance of it and really show interest in preserving their properties for future generations, then more people will come on," said Chad Pelishek, economic development manager.

Part of the skepticism, officials said, comes from people's perceptions on how much control the city has over the exterior appearance of the property, to maintain the character and integrity of the look. Exterior changes for houses are reviewed first by the Historic Preservation Commission; for commercial buildings, the architectural review board needs to look over the change proposals.

"That's the whole idea," Ryan said. "You want to keep some of your character, and we haven't done a very good job of that in the city."

Ryan himself lives in a house that is better than 150 years old, but underwent major exterior changes in the 1930s and again in the 1960s that exclude it from qualifying for historical significance. Ryan said he tried to make it look more like its original Federalist style, "but the historic value of it is gone."

Properties that are selected for historic designation receive a plaque that can be placed on the building. The plaques are stainless steel, cost about $50 apiece, and are paid for from federal community block grant funds.

Ryan believes that homeowners would see some increase in the value of their properties if they can group with their neighbors and qualify for historic status.

"It's trying to get people to take a little pride in the history of the city," he said.

Gross said he's glad he took the steps to have his home earn city landmark status, and thinks such efforts add a lot of character to a community.

"Anything that preserves history has value," he said. "I've seen way too many photos of the old buildings of downtown (Sheboygan) that are no longer there, and that's a shame."