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Façade Grant to Restore Historic Appearance of Commercial Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Facade Grants and Historic Commercial Buildings

Façade Grant to Restore Historic Appearance of Commercial Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you plan to restore a historic commercial building, you may be able to get financial assistance to restore the historic facade of your building—the front of your building facing the street. Many Wisconsin communities have programs to encourage the restoration of building facades as part of an effort to revitalize their downtown commercial historic districts. The intent of these facade grant programs is to encourage building owners to restore the historic and architectural character of their downtown buildings and improve the overall downtown streetscape. Any restoration or historic rehabilitation you make to your commercial building’s facade will benefit your downtown commercial district as well as your entire community.

Facade Grant Program Elements

Communities of many different sizes across the state have successfully used facade grant programs to improve their historic commercial downtowns. These programs typically award facade grants for these two types of projects:

  • Restoring the original appearance of a historic building
  • Updating the facade of a historic building with new awnings, signs and other features

Facade grants are often used for these types of work:

  • Removing non-historic materials added to a building facade
  • Repairing windows
  • Rebuilding a traditional storefront
  • Adding new awnings and signs

Facade grant amounts vary widely, typically ranging from several hundred dollars up to $25,000. A facade grant may be awarded with few restrictions, or it may require the building owner to match the grant with personal funds.

Check with your local municipal offices to find out if a facade grant program is available in your community. If your community has a facade grant program, it might be sponsored by your municipal government, a nonprofit organization or a local foundation or agency.

Example: Facade Improvements in the City of Madison

EnlargeCommerical building

Menges Pharmacies Store Building, 1914

Madison, Wisconsin. Building owners applied for a facade grant from the City of Madison. Source:  WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 110339

EnlargeCommercial building

Menges Pharmacies Store Building, 1914

Madison, Wisconsin. Neuhauser Pharmacy post rehabilitation. Source: Phil Thomason. View the property record: AHI 110339

Madison’s Facade Improvement Grant Program is a representative example of a facade grant program. This program provides grants for exterior renovations to the owners of income-producing commercial or commercial/mixed-use buildings located within the boundaries of the target area. Building tenants with leases of more than one year in length are also eligible for funding. The owner or tenant must match the city's grant with private funds.

The Madison program provides grants to restore or substantially improve the entire front facade of a commercial building. Eligible work includes uncovering and restoring historical facades, removing non-historic facade materials added to a building and replacing them with more appropriate and attractive designs and materials, and other detailing that leads to a substantially improved appearance. Comprehensive facade improvements can also include new windows, doors, exterior cleaning, tuckpointing, painting, exterior lighting, shutters, gutters, awnings and historical architectural reproductions. Design and permit fees associated with the construction are also eligible project costs.

If you think your rehabilitation work could be eligible for a facade grant, you must submit an application with the Economic Development Division. Your plans and drawings must be approved by the Urban Design Commission. Grants are provided in an amount up to 50% of the total project cost, to a maximum of $10,000 per street-facing facade.

Main Street Program’s Influence on Facade Improvements

Many communities that participate in the Wisconsin Main Street Program have developed facade grant programs. The River Falls Facade Grant Program was established in 2000 by the Downtown Business Improvement District. This grant program encourages building owners to make critical improvements to the exterior of their buildings, including awnings, signs, windows and facades. Proposed improvements must follow all city ordinances and meet with the design criteria of the River Falls Main Street Bid Board. The Downtown Business Improvement District also established a Sign Grant Program to help businesses offset the cost of new signage for their businesses and buildings. Grants range from a maximum of $2,500 for signage and a maximum of $12,000 for all other approved improvements. These grants do not require matching funds.

Facade Grants Big and Small in Milwaukee

The City of Milwaukee has two successful facade grant programs:

  • The City's Downtown Facade Grant program provides financial and business assistance to businesses and commercial property owners to renovate the fronts of their buildings. The city reimburses up to 30% of the total cost of eligible improvements, not to exceed $50,000 per building.
  • The City-Wide Facade Grant Program offers one-to-one matching grants for projects ranging from $2,000 to $5,000. These grants are available to business and property owners in a number of designated commercial districts to help improve the exterior facade of their properties. Funds can be used for awnings, signs, special window treatments and historic restoration. Larger buildings with more than one storefront and buildings with more than one side visible (on a corner lot) may be considered for a larger grant on a case-by-case basis by the city’s Facade Grant Committee.

Facade Grant Programs: Not Just for the Big Cities

Facade grant programs are not just for the big cities. Facade grants are available in many of Wisconsin’s

EnlargeSlipcovered building

German American Savings Bank, 1873

Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Left: Slip-covered historic building prior to rehabilitation. Right: Using a facade improvement grant from the City of Fond du Lac, the owners were able to restore this building's facade. Source: Carol Cartwright. View the property record: AHI 54257

smaller communities as well. The city of Fond du Lac’s Facade Grant Program was established to reinforce the historic character of downtown using the city’s design guidelines. The program is administered by the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. It provides 50% matching grants to the owners of existing commercial buildings for preservation, restoration and maintenance projects on building exteriors. Grants are made up to $2,000. Since funding sources are limited, priority is given to projects that will make the most substantial impact on the building and neighborhood appearance. Eligible activities include the following:

  • Design and maintenance improvements to the front facade, rear building elevation or side building elevation
  • Cleaning of exterior building surfaces
  • Tuckpointing and masonry repair
  • Exterior painting

Like many of similar programs, the Fond du Lac Facade Grant Program does not pay for roof repairs, new building construction, structural additions to existing buildings or property purchases.

A facade project on the commercial building at 28 N. Main Street in Fond du Lac was partially funded by the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership Facade Grant program. The building, built in 1873 as a bank, housed many other businesses over the years.  In the 1960s, its original Italianate design was concealed beneath an aluminum slipcover. When the building was purchased in 2008, its new owner removed the slipcover to reveal the original facade. The renovation included rebuilding the cornice, repairing the masonry, replicating the windows and doors and installing an awning.