Garver Feed Mill reopens after decades of decay

Chris Hubbuch
Wisconsin State Journal
Meg Lahti packages up growlers of NessAlla Kombucha in their production space at the newly renovated Garver Feed Mill on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - After nearly two decades of neglect and decay, a relic of Madison's blue-collar past has been reborn as a hub for local food and wellness businesses that reflect the new vibe of the city's East Side.

With restoration of the 113-year-old Garver Feed Mill nearing completion, Ian's Pizza planned to start serving food last week in the onetime sugar factory behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens at 3241 Garver Green.

Ian's will be the second of 11 contracted tenants — and the first retail business — to open in the 60,000-square-foot space, where workers continued to add finishing touches earlier this month as passersby peered through the windows.

Inside, exposed steel trusses soar nearly 40 feet above a 13,500-square-foot atrium lit by 29 historic windows and flanked by a new mezzanine that runs nearly the length of a football field.

Part of a $19.8 million project — including more than $10 million in public funding — that could eventually include an adjacent hotel, Garver Feed Mill will be home to an event center run by the Chicago-based developer Baum Revision and Underground Kitchen founder Jonny Hunter.

A 13,500-square-foot atrium will serve as an event center in the rebirth of the old Garver Feed Mill on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Baum Revision is preparing to reopen the former sugar factory and feed mill this week after an 18-month, $15.5 million renovation.

With an outdoor patio, Garver can accommodate more than 800 guests, though Hunter expects most events will have only about 100.

Hunter plans to start catering events in September from an off-site kitchen and eventually plans to add a kitchen and bar to the space, which he shares with Ian's.

Other tenants include a coffee roaster, florist, photography studio, spa, yoga studio, vegan cafe and a fish distributor. NessAlla Kombucha, which began brewing at Garver earlier this year, was the first tenant to move in.

"We wanted to create a platform for local food businesses," said Bryant Moroder, project manager for Baum. "It evolved to include wellness. We're still focused on businesses that are authentic in what they do."

In addition to the restoration — which according to Baum's proposal is estimated to cost about $15.5 million — Baum's proposal includes about 50 small, free-standing hotel rooms on five acres to the northeast.

Moroder said the "microlodges" are still part of the plan, but he declined to offer a timeline. Baum has until March 5 to close on the second phase.

For its tenants, Garver offers an opportunity to start, relocate or grow businesses in a symbiotic environment.

Staci Fritz, co-owner of Calliope Ice Cream, makes jalapeño corn bread ice cream in the kitchen space at the newly renovated Garver Feed Mill on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Fritz is opening her first retail store in the space shared with Ian's Pizza, where she also works.

After eight years with Ian's Pizza, Adam Nagy had risen to general manager and was looking to open his own shop in Milwaukee when Calliope Ice Cream co-owner Staci Fritz told him about Garver.

Fritz, who also works for Ian's, had been looking to open a retail site for her business, but knew she couldn't afford to do it on her own. So they decided to share a space.

Megan Grace had just expanded her Perennial Yoga studio in Fitchburg when one of her clients mentioned she was opening an Ayurvedic spa in "a really cool building" on the East Side.

Grace wandered down, and after one look decided she needed to be part of it.

"I was really attracted to being on this side of town," she said. "This is Yogaville."

She plans to open her second studio later this summer, along with a second location for her vegan restaurant, Surya Cafe.

For Sitka Salmon Shares, which sells sustainably-caught Alaskan salmon direct to consumers, Garver offered a space for offices as well as a distribution center to serve its Wisconsin and Minnesota customers, more than 1,000 of whom live in Madison.

Co-founder Nicholass Mink said the re-purposed building and community of local food producers made it a perfect fit.

"Those are close to our heart," he told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Moroder said the goal was to create a "world-class destination" that honors Madison's history of agriculture and manufacturing while embracing the city's burgeoning appetites for wellness and sustainability.

"These businesses are trying to create the industries of the future," he said.

A painter puts finishing touches on signs at Ian's Pizza's new location in the Garver Feed Mill on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, July 17, 2019. The renovated former mill will host a dozen local food and wellness businesses.

Completed in 1906, the Garver building began life as a factory and headquarters for the United States Sugar Co., which used it to refine beets into sugar.

The 200,000-square-foot factory cost about $600,000 and was the largest factory ever built in Madison at that point, according to David Mollenhoff's book "Madison: A History of the Formative Years." With its Romanesque arches and four-story tower, it was known as the "sugar castle."

According to Mollenhoff, the plant was profitable operating just four months a year because of tariffs on Caribbean sugar. Ads offered farmers $5 a ton for beets, plus the opportunity for off-season employment.

The plant operated around the clock between October and January, with up to 250 workers churning out 50 tons of sugar per day. But after World War I, a combination of circumstances forced the company into bankruptcy, and the plant closed its doors in 1924.

James Garver purchased the site in 1929 and established the Garver Feed and Supply Co., one of four feed mills operating in the city at that time. He removed the upper two stories, turning it into a "state of the art" mill to produce feed in an era when farmers were replacing traditional practices with modern technology.

"His master's degree in animal husbandry and his subsequent career experience gave him the knowledge needed to formulate the research-based products his clientele demanded," according to a 1994 landmark application.

At its peak, the company supplied feed across a 40-county region of Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

"We probably had 300 boxcars in there a year," said Don Hocking, who started work at the mill from the time he left the Navy in 1958 until it closed in 1997.

Don Frank worked there for about 28 years, starting as a teenager. His father worked there, and so did two of his brothers.

"So many things happened at that business over the years there," said Frank, who went on to work for a feed industry insurer in Iowa. "It's so hard to summarize it."

The Olbrich Botanical Society purchased the building and grounds for $700,000 shortly before the mill closed and turned it over to the city with the idea that it be used to expand the adjacent Olbrich gardens.

Meanwhile the building, given city landmark status in 1994, was used for storage. In 2001, four kids accidentally set fire to it, causing about $200,000 in damage.

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz began pushing for reuse of the site in 2003, but deed restrictions tied to state funds used to purchase it hindered development, and over time the mill fell into disrepair.

City voters in 2009 endorsed a nonprofit's idea to turn it into an "arts incubator," but the developer pulled out two years later.

A year later, the city investigated the building's condition. It wasn't good.

"Time has taken its toll," the report found. "Roofing systems have failed, structural systems are compromised, masonry is deteriorated, fenestration is obliterated or absent, and vandals frequent the building. The building stands essentially vacant and without meaningful purpose."

Cieslewicz said when he left office in 2011 he feared the building was done for.

In April 2015, the city selected Baum over three other companies that proposed a range of reuses at costs ranging from $19.8 million to $39.8 million.

After nearly three years of negotiation and delays, the city sold the building to Baum for $1 and contributed $3.4 million to the project, which received another $6.75 million in state and federal tax dollars.

From left, Ryan Ramig and his kids, Ariana, 11, and Rocket, 10, with 1-year-old, Oliver, in stroller, peer through a door to check out the newly renovated Garver Feed Mill during a bike ride on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

In addition to the subsidies, the city spent $3.1 million on replacement parkland in order to clear the deed restrictions.

Those costs don't include the hours of staff time.

"Agencies across the city spent an enormous amount of time," said Dan Rolfs, a community development project manager who's spent more than 13 years overseeing the Garver project. "Everybody but the zoo committee helped out with this."

Former Ald. David Ahrens, the sole council member to vote against the deal, said he objected to the public funding as well as the loss of green space.

"I think what they're doing there is great," Ahrens said. "Did we have to pay millions of dollars for that to happen? Did we have to clear all that ... land?"

Ald. Marsha Rummel, who represents the neighborhood around the mill, said the investment was worthwhile, noting that some of the funds put toward the restoration would have had to be spent on demolition.

"It's part of our history," she said. "I think that we owe it to ourselves to honor our history."

Critics note the city is partly to blame for creating the problem.

"The city was not following the standards . . . that they apply to private (owners)," said John Martens, a Madison architect and preservationist. "They let the building fall apart when small amounts of upkeep would have prevented damage."

The building was in rough shape when Baum took it over, with trees growing in an open courtyard created years earlier when the mill hoppers were ripped out and sold for scrap.

Year of cascading waterfalls had "decimated the brick," Moroder said.

He said Baum tried to preserve whatever parts of the building it could. Crumbling walls were rebuilt with some 70,000 bricks salvaged from the former French Battery factory, which was built the same year as the sugar plant.

Baum plans to incorporate art and artifacts — like a set of rusty feed scales — to help connect visitors to the past. A bike rack on the patio is constructed of old train rails.

The newly renovated Garver Feed Mill on the East Side in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

There are nods to the more recent past as well.

Situated at the other end of the atrium, Ian's third Madison location features a free-standing kitchen surrounded by a bar and tables.

Two artists (Teel and C3PO) of Madison's Momentum Art Tech painted the duct work, visible from the mezzanine, in an homage to the building's most recent incarnation, when it was a destination for graffiti artists.

"Garver was . . . the main hub in Madison over the years," said Momentum owner James Gubbins. "That's what we wanted to capture."

Moroder said the project has been successful because the city laid out clear and consistent goals while allowing Baum freedom to be creative.

"This project represents the best of what can happen when a community and developer work toward a public-private partnership," Moroder said.

Despite the removal of its top two stories and the years of neglect and decay, the building retained enough architectural integrity to make it a rare remnant of the city's agricultural and manufacturing past, said Charlie Quagliana, a preservation architect who consulted on the city report.

"There isn't a tremendous amount left," Quagliana said. "We don't have the heritage and old buildings like Milwaukee."

But Garver is not just the best remaining example of a pre-World War II feed mill, said Martens, who began studying it during the 1990s when he was restoring the former Madison Candy Company building: It's part of the story of Madison.

The sugar beet factory was part of a wave of manufacturing businesses that sprang up around the turn of the 20th century along Madison's rail corridor.

"That brought in an influx of immigrants," Martens said. "The immigrants brought their traditions."

Modest homes sprung up in the neighborhoods around the factories, while the owners built grand houses along the lake fronts.

"It gives you a whole sense of who we are, where we came from and maybe even where we're going," Martens said. "All from an old brick building."