Historic Structure Demolished

by Doug E. L. Haynes

Coast Guard Station in 2001
Coast Guard station was proposed site for Wisconsin art forum and Gallery 

This spring the Milwaukee Coast Guard station was demolished.  Since 1916 this gem of a building graced the shores of Lake Michigan about a mile north of the Milwaukee art museum.   The building served the purpose of ensuring the safety of seamen until 1970 when it was decommissioned.   Soon after that it was briefly occupied by a group of native American activists.   Since that time, the building has been unused and had fallen into disrepair.  
About 6 years ago the county of Milwaukee put out a request for proposals for the use of the building.   At that time a coalition of visual artists presented a proposal to renovate and use the facility as a forum and gallery for the contemporary visual arts of Wisconsin.  The county received several proposals and after some deliberation, chose the proposal of a native American group seeking to establish a museum documenting native American culture of the region.    Unfortunately that group failed to raise the money required to renovate the building by the July 2007 deadline.   In addition, a fire in 2005 had done further damage to the already deteriorating structure.   And so in the spring of this year demolition of the structure was initiated.  
It is regrettable that a building such as this one would be demolished.  It was designated as a local landmark and listed on the National Register of historic places.    One of the lessons to be learned is that efforts to preserve our architectural history should be initiated long before a building falls into disrepair.   Once the rot and crumble reach a certain stage, the effort needed to restore an aging structure reach heroic proportions.
On a positive note, the visual artists involved in the effort to reclaim this building have moved on to focus their energies on some very fruitful activities.  The most visible result of this refocused energy is the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards.   The formation of that organization was spearheaded by Gary John Gresl, who was also at the forefront of the coastguard project.   It would be fair to say that the organizing effort that went into the coastguard project allowed Gary to use those same connections to put together WVALAA.    In the interim the Museum of Wisconsin Art also laid plans for their proposed museum expansion.   In some ways the health of art in Wisconsin could not be stronger. The roles which the proposed art forum and gallery were to fill have been or will soon be taken up by other means.   The Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achivement Awards has heighted awareness of the amazing heritage of this state.  This publication has assisted in being a forum for the visual arts of the state and the expanded Museum of Wisconsin Art will serve further to promote the art of the state.
Editors note: In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that this author was quite active in the coastguard project.   The project fueled my desire to promote the visual arts and has shaped my vision as editor of this magazine, a post I have held since 2003.