WisBusiness: Potential Landmark Could Complicate Plans for $375 Million Research Center

By Brian E. Clark

Tear it down.

That’s what Steven Skolaski, president of the Rennebohm Foundation,
will tell the Madison Landmarks Commission when it meets June 20 to
consider preserving an 80-year-old former pharmacy at University and
Randall avenues.

“I don’t know how I can be more plain than that,” said Skolaski.

Skolaski, who once worked in the Rennebohm drugstore and office
building at the site, said he isn’t opposed to historic
preservation.  It’s just that he and UW-Madison officials believe
keeping this edifice would complicate plans to build the proposed $375
million Institute for Discovery.

“History and a sense of place are vital to a growing community,” he
wrote in a letter to the Landmarks Commission. “We must have visual
reminders, the very places where our predecessors worked to build the
futures we now enjoy.

“That said, (the Rennebohm Building) does not in our minds, rise to the
level of landmark designation. The history for this site is yet to be

The university hopes to break ground on the first phase of the cluster
of research buildings that will make up the institute by 2007. The
structures, totaling 750,000 square feet, would be home to numerous
multi-disciplinary labs and cover two wedge-shaped blocks owned by the

Not so fast, says Joe Lusson, president of the Madison Trust for
Historic Places.

In a letter to the city, he has proposed saving the three-story
neo-classical/Mediterranean-style building for its history,
architecture and connection to former Gov. Oscar Rennebohm.

Lusson has an ally in Katherine Rankin, the Madison historic
preservation planner who runs the city’s Landmarks Commission.

“The university has two long blocks to work with,” she said. “So it
doesn’t seem outlandish that they could keep an historic building and
still do the center.

“Trust officials have made it clear they are not trying to stop the
institute from going forward, they just think the Rennebohm Building
should be saved. I think they have a point,” she said.  

The Law, Law and Porter architectural firm designed the former
pharmacy, which once housed a 12- to 15-stool soda fountain.

It cost $150,000 to build was considered the showplace for the growing
Rennebohm drug store chain, according to reports in Madison newspapers
from the 1920s and ’30s.  Rennebohm, who built his small empire
based on personal service, eventually owned 30 stores in and around
Madison.  He died in 1968.

The building served as a drug store until 1980 and its marble soda
fountain was popular with students for decades. A year after Walgreens
bought the Rennebohm pharmacy chain, the University and Randall drug
store was closed. The university purchased the building in 1981 and has
used it for offices since then.

Rennebohm, a Badger State native and long-time Madison resident, was
elected lieutenant governor in 1944 and served as governor from 1947 to

He was also a long-time member of the UW Board of Regents. The
UW-Madison pharmacy school bears his family’s name and his foundation
recently gave $15 million for the medical school’s $134 million
Interdisciplinary Research Center. The library at Edgewood College is
also named after him, as is a park on Madison’s west side.

Alan Fish, a university vice chancellor for facilities and planning,
said including the Rennebohm Building in the modernistic Institute
would reduce the first phase of building by up to as much as 10

“It would also be dysfunctional and architecturally absurd,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we would have a small building next to a large
research institute and the two would have no relation to each other.”

Fish said the university respects the Rennebohm legacy and appreciates
the backing of its position by Skolaski and the foundation.

“The irony is that the university is a strong believer in historic
preservation and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars renovating
historic buildings on campus, including the Washburn Observatory,
Chamberlain Hall and Sterling Hall, among others,” he said.

“We are the most aggressive preservers of historic places in the city
of Madison, but the Rennebohm Building does not warrant saving,” he

Fish said the university is considering putting a soda fountain in the
institute and naming it after Oscar Rennebohm as a way to honor him.

“Preserving that old drug store would be an impediment to research,” he
said. “I don’t think Oscar Rennebohm would approve of that.”

Skolaski, who said the Rennebohm Foundation might donate money to the
institute, was an officer in the Rennebohm chain from 1965 to 1980 and
was an assistant president when the pharmacies were sold to Walgreens.

Since 1949, Skolaski said the Rennebohm Foundation has given away
nearly $50 million to the city and UW-Madison. The philanthropy’s
principal now stands at $60 million, he said.

He said he has conferred with several other retired employees, all of
whom support tearing down the building for the research institute.

In a letter to the city, Lenore Zeeh – the oldest living board member –

“If there is any significance to this building, it is overshadowed by
the importance of what will be built here.

“Oscar was all about the future – he would want to see the Wisconsin
Institute for Discovery on this site.”

Rankin said she is looking forward to the public hearing on June 20.

“I want to hear what the university and the public have to say,” she

The commission will meet at 4:30 p.m. in Room LL130 of the Madison
Municipal Building, 215 Martin Luther King Blvd.

If the Rennebohm Building were designated a landmark, Rankin said the
Landmarks Commission would have a say over any plans to demolish or
change it. However, a commission decision could be overruled by a
two-thirds majority of the city council.

George Twigg, a spokesman for Madison Mayor Dave Mayor Cieslewicz, said
the city has a good working relationship with the university.

Though Twigg said the mayor has not taken a position on the Rennebohm
Building, he said Cieslewicz is “confident” some sort of compromise can
be reached.

“We know this institute is important to the city and the university and
the state,” he said. “We also respect the position of the Rennebohm
Foundation and know that landmark designation could affect the
university’s plans.”