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Downtown Developers with an Eye to Preservation: Manitowoc County

Anton and Michelle Doneff are trying to revive downtown Manitowoc.

Anton and Michelle Doneff

The building that Anton and Michelle Doneff decided to buy at a sheriff’s auction is a little more ambitious than the average fixer-upper.

It stands as a landmark in downtown Manitowoc, encloses 35,000 square feet, and holds more than 100 years of history within its elaborate brick arches and paned-glass windows.

The building, which is just blocks from the Manitowoc River and Lake Michigan, once added to a vibrant downtown as the Schuette Brothers Department Store. But after the business closed in the 1990s, other tenants were scarce, and it finally sat empty.

But even empty, it stirred imaginations.

“My wife and I had our eyes on it,” Anton says. “We wanted to make something happen.”

And so, in one large moment for Manitowoc and the Doneffs, they became the building’s owners — somewhat of a departure from the Doneff family business, which focused on building and managing new residential apartment buildings.

I’m grateful for UW–Madison and all the others who have offered support. The community interest in this project is tremendous.

To forge ahead, they reached out to the local community and also partnered with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which led Tom Landgraf at the business school to bring UW–Madison students to the site.

“Tom saw how well the building was preserved in many respects, and he was a wealth of knowledge and expertise,” Anton says. “And the students came through with fresh eyes and saw a lot of potential.”

Plans for the building — which include a mix of retail, office, and residential space — have gone through approvals with both state and federal historical preservation boards at the National Park Service and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“Even with our real-estate experience and background, it’s taken a tremendous amount of effort and learning,” Anton says. “I’m grateful for UW–Madison and all the others who have offered support. The community interest in this project is tremendous.”

When it was a department store, the building had one of the more elaborate pneumatic tube systems in operation. It was used to collect payments and send them to a central accounting room, which still stands largely as it was. It was one detail among many that captivated the students and drove ideas to make the project special.

“I think with the younger generation,” Anton says, “there’s as much interest as ever in historic preservation.”

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