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Main Streets thrive with historic preservation

Main Streets thrive with  historic preservation Main Streets thrive with  historic preservation

ELLSWORTH -- Once you tear a historic building down, you can never bring it back. Not only is it a testament to the past, but the construction quality is rarely rivaled in today’s world. There’s a reason those buildings can last more than 100 years.

The Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce virtually hosted speaker Joe Lawniczak, a downtown design specialist with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, on Thursday, April 22. Lawniczak has been with Wisconsin Main Street since 2001 and works with building owners, businesses, city officials and volunteers in Wisconsin’s Main Street communities. He provides schematic façade design assistance, proper restoration principles, preservation and design education, and helps communities establish local preservation tools such as design guidelines, reviews and ordinances.

In the Design Ellsworth initiative in 2018, creating vibrant business districts on West Main, in the Midway district and East Ellsworth areas was identified as important to residents. One way to do that, Lawniczak said, is to restore historic buildings, presenting a unified image. Restoration can result in drawing in more customers, higher rents and less vacant buildings, and increased


Photos by Sarah Nigbor activity drawing people to the area.

He also lamented the upper floors of buildings being severely underused, when they could provide solutions to communities’ housing shortages.

“So many of our upper floors in our Main Street buildings are sitting vacant or underutilized,” Lawniczak said.

Why should I restore?

Restoring a building to its historic glory not only helps the building look better, it can protect an owner’s investment. If you take care of a building, it will last, Lawniczak said. Historic building tax credits may also be available.

While no one likes “Big Brother” telling them what to do, he acknowledged, coming together as a unified business district with identified goals and rules about building facades can benefit everyone. And, he said, inappropriate alterations to buildings can negatively affect everyone’s property values.

Lawniczak blew up the misconception that building new is always less expensive. Demolition costs alone can be daunting.

“Historic buildings are already here, with original elements,” Lawniczak said. “Modest improvements can make a huge difference.”

They are already serviced by utilities, which can be a huge upfront cost. A new build will not have the same level of quality because materials are much more expensive than they once were, he said. Restoring an older building consumes less resources than new construction.

And did you know that historic buildings were designed to be energy efficient? Makes sense, since air conditioning and central heating were not in use a century or two ago.

Lawniczak laid out his energy efficiency reasoning: •The large glass windows let in more natural light and solar heat, requiring less electricity for lighting and gas for heating.

•Most historic buildings have double-hung windows. It’s not usually the windows that need replacing, but the caulking and glazing.

•High ceilings provide for better air circulation, especially when combined with ceiling fans.

It’s also more environmentally friendly to repair and reuse, Lawniczak said. He often hears the argument that buildings are beyond repair; he counters that that is rarely the case.

“Sometimes it takes some inventiveness,” Lawniczak said. “If it doesn’t meet energy efficiency standards, there are tools out there that can help.”

Stabilizing a building and providing cosmetic improvements is most often less expensive than starting from scratch, Lawniczak said. Even if a building has been vacant for a time, don’t write it off until it’s inspected.

“Don’t jump the gun and tear it down,” Lawniczak said.

This can result in downtowns looking like they have missing teeth, which is true in Ellsworth and other surrounding communities. While those vacant spaces can be used as parks or green space, it goes back to the fact that once a building is gone, it’s history is lost too.

Another myth he hears is historic downtowns can’t succeed without tons of parking. Not true, he said.

“No one goes downtown because they have ample parking,” Lawniczak said. “They go for the character, the experience, the restaurants.”

Standards for building rehab

The Secretary of the Interior has standards for building rehabilitation.

•A property shall be used for its historic purpose or for a new one that requires minimal change. For example, making a depot into a restaurant is an acceptable repurposing.

•The historical character of a property shall be retained and preserved. Do not remove historical features that characterize the property.

•Changes that create a false sense of history shall be avoided. Don’t add elements from other buildings or other styles, which is more detrimental than good.

•Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced, where possible. If not, replacement should match the original in size, design, color and texture. Usually, elements in a building are hidden, not gone.

•The surface cleaning of structures shall be done using the gentlest means possible. Sandblasting brick is a big no-no, said Lawniczak. It will deteriorate and crumble the brick, significantly shortening its lifespan.

Many buildings in the preceding decades underwent unflattering renovations, Lawniczak said.

“Historic elements were downsized, covered or in-filled, giving buildings a drab, unappealing appearance,” Lawniczak said.

The results can be seen in once large, arched windows filled in with plywood and smaller windows; stucco, steel siding, wood siding or paneling applied over brick storefronts; drop ceilings installed and transom windows covered up, hardwood floors hidden under carpet; shingled mansards overwhelming business facades; or extended canopies hiding the architecture above. Many of these changes can be reversed fairly easily.

“For some reason, many of these changes happened in taverns and restaurants,” Lawniczak said. “It’s important to have light spilling out onto the street, inviting people inside.”

Privacy can be achieved with etched glass or café curtains. Service businesses who prefer client privacy but crave natural light can do this as well, to make their spaces inviting. An inviting display in the storefront window can achieve this.

Lawniczak also advised against painting brick with waterproof paint, as brick needs to breathe. Trendy colors should be avoided, because they will look out-of-date in a few years. Logos and signage can provide pops of attractive color rather than painting a business one bright, solid hue.

Using quality materials is key in restoration, plus making sure the proper proportions are followed. Never cover up historic details, such as transom windows, arches or brickwork. Matching original masonry and not painting unpainted bricks are also recommended.

Signage & exterior

The signs on a business portray the quality of products and/or services provided inside, Lawniczak said. Signage is especially important in downtown areas due to more pedestrian traffic.

“A shabby looking sign is going to negatively affect your business,” Lawniczak said.

Too many signs in business windows or plastered on the building can make it look like a bargain basement nightmare. Bars on windows can make people think the neighborhood is not safe and full of crime. Well-lit facades and cameras can provide more attractive protection.

Businesses should have a variety of signs, but make sure they’re cohesive, fit the neighborhood well, and are properly sized, Lawniczak said. Having a good sign ordinance in place can help everyone be on the same page, he added.

Awnings and canopies can be attractive and protect the storefront from the elements, but they too should not conceal historic elements. Each window bay and door area should have its own awning, with the building material showing between each bay. Maintenance is huge, because a faded, flapping awning screams “stay away,” not “come on in.”

Vacant buildings need to be attractive as well, Lawniczak said, to attract tenants and/or buyers. He often hears building owners say they can’t make building improvements until they get a new tenant. It should be reversed.

“You’re not going to find a good tenant unless you make the changes,” Lawniczak said.

A vacant building’s windows can be filled by local art, historical displays, or before and after renovation photos, to make a good impression.

And one last bit of parting advice: If you have a way to have outdoor seating, whether it’s on the sidewalk, in the alley, on the vacant lot next door, do it, he said. Providing pet-friendly patios, ADA improvements and outdoor activities also draws customers.

At the close of the presentation, area business owners chatted about ideas for their buildings.

Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce Executive Team Member Kim Beebe said Ellsworth’s business districts will get there slowly, but surely.

“We’re taking incremental steps to bring back the character of the downtown,” she said.

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