The J.L. Burnham Building is one of the oldest buildings still standing in historic Walker’s Point. This beautiful Italianate commercial building was erected in 1871 for Johnathon Burnham of the Burnham Brothers’ brick-making empire. At one time, the Burnham Bros ran the largest brickyard in the world right here in Milwaukee, thanks to their Cream City Brick business.
The historic and cultural significance of the J.L. Burnham Building was first noted by the federal government, who added it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, followed locally by the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission‘s designation in 2004. In fact, their own Study Report states: “The J.L. Burnham Building is a classic and irreplaceable example of a now rare Italianate form of commercial building.”
Well, apparently “irreplaceable” includes the caveat “unless it makes a prominent businessman a lot of money in replacing it.”
Karl Kopp, of the Kopp’s Frozen Custard and Elsa’s empire, has owned the building since the 1980s. When Walker’s Point became a hot-spot for foot traffic bleeding over from the Third Ward, he finally decided to develop the space into something higher-end and money-making. Unfortunately for Kopp, when a building is designated as a local historic landmark, the only realistic ways to raze it are through imminent domain or condemnation of the building. Stuck with the building as-is, Kopp revealed plans to renovate J.L. Burnham’s Building into a new pizza restaurant in 2013. Renovation work began, but never completed.
Fast forward to fall 2015: Kopp calls on the condemnation and commercial division of the Department of Neighborhood Services to officially condemn the building and allow for demolition. They inspect the building and agree. In fact, by law Kopp only has 30 days to tear the 144-year-old structure down. How did a building protected by city and federal historic designations get approval to be demolished?
Though Kopp seems to be disappointed he lost some money in renovation and can’t rehab the building, it’s hard to ignore the questionable history surrounding the whole situation:
- In 2003, immediately prior to Milwaukee’s historic designation, Kopp first attempted to demolish the building to put up condominiums. The historic designation was sought in part to prevent this.
- Under the pretense of “renovation,” Kopp removed the roof of an already structurally-questionable 1800s building…then stopped work and left it to crumble under the elements for two years.
- The Journal-Sentinel article linked to above notes that Kopp indicated “a revival of a residential and office structure, such as the one thwarted by the historic designation, is a possibility”.
Lemonade out of lemons, right?
Kopp is an enterprising businessman: if a building cannot be razed as long as it stands, he’d simply have to ensure it can no longer stand.
I’m not angry that Kopp wants to build condos on prime riverfront real estate he owns – I’m sure it will add to the vibrancy of downtown. I am disappointed that a historically-significant building will be lost, and that it appears our city government that is tasked with protecting such landmarks can be easily manipulated. It all seems too coincidental to me.
I encourage you to visit the historic J.L. Burnham Building in Walker’s Point before it’s lost forever, and to stay vigilant in holding our business and government leaders responsible for protecting our local landmarks when at all possible.