Historic preservation encourages creating a context by which to evaluate properties or groups of properties within a community in order to determine which are indeed valuable and worthy of retaining. By this means, it is possible to conserve the historic fabric and prevent the tragic and irreplaceable loss of buildings which are important to a city’s historic identity.

A sensible historic preservation program is important and advantageous to any community. The benefits of preservation are far-reaching and include economic, aesthetic, civic and cultural rewards. Well-preserved structures are a sign of economic stability and reflect a community’s long term concern for its resources. In commercial areas, the rehabilitation and maintenance of significant structures can result in areas which are alluring to shoppers and to prospective merchants and other businesses. A city with a well-preserved historic fabric is also attractive to tourists. Moreover, an active and comprehensive preservation program encourages a community to be aware of its architectural and historical legacy and inherently fosters civic pride, appreciation, cultural development and environmental concern. The cultivation of respect for the built environment is of value to an entire community.

Wausau’s unique history is extremely important to our sense of community. Many grand buildings in the City - homes, businesses, and government structures - were lost to a wrecking ball in the 1950s and 1960s. Recognizing the need to reduce these losses, the City commissioned a very detailed study of the community’s remaining architecturally and historically significant properties. The report, entitled, Final Report Intensive Historic Survey, City of Wausau, Wisconsin, (1984) provides extensive information about the City’s historical growth and development and an identification of the most significant structures remaining in the community. This study is a valuable reference for the City’s historical development and its architectural heritage.

City Government’s first organized efforts at historic preservation were initiated in 1975 when the Wausau Common Council adopted an ordinance establishing the Historic Landmarks Commission (Chapter 2.82 of the Wausau Municipal Code).  From its inception until 1993, the Commission’s activities centered on designating certain buildings as historic landmarks; however, the Commission lacked the authority to protect historic and architecturally significant buildings from destruction or to regulate changes to the exterior appearance of these buildings. Thus, the demolition of landmarks continued. Then, in 1993, following public hearings, a great deal of public debate and numerous revisions to the initial proposal, a new Historic Landmarks Commission Ordinance was adopted. This new ordinance maintained the authority of the Landmarks Commission to designate certain properties as landmarks and groups of properties as historic districts but it also provided a new and powerful historic preservation tool - the authority to formally review and act accordingly on requests by property owners to alter or demolish designated landmarks and buildings within historic districts.

This expanded authority and responsibility of the Landmarks Commission was established by the Common Council in an attempt to reduce the loss of significant structures in the community and to enhance efforts to improve the remaining stock of historic and architecturally significant buildings. The Landmarks Commission Ordinance is quite clear in its purpose and intent: "It is declared a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of buildings of special architectural character or special historical interest or value is a public necessity and is required in the interest of the health, prosperity, safety and welfare of the people. The purpose of this chapter is to:

  1. Effect and accomplish the protection, enhancement and perpetuation of such buildings and of districts which represent or reflect elements of the city’s cultural, social, economic, political, and architectural history.
  2. Safeguard the city’s historic and cultural heritage, as embodied and reflected in such landmarks and historic districts.
  3. Stabilize and improve property values.
  4. Foster civic pride in the notable accomplishments of the past.
  5. Protect and enhance the city’s attractions to residents, tourists and visitors, and serve as a support and stimulus to business and industry.
  6. Strengthen the economy of the city.
  7. Promote the use of historic districts and landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the city. 
  8. Aid and assist individuals, public entities and other property owners in the nomination of their properties to the National Register of Historic Places.

During its first several years of meetings and deliberations, the "new" Landmarks Commission formally designated six local historic landmarks and established one local historic district - the Downtown Historic District. Currently, the properties designated under the Landmarks Commission Ordinance as local landmarks included:

  • Wausau Club (A National Register Property)
    309 McClellan Street;
  • Yawkey, Cyrus House (A National Register Property)
    403 McIndoe Street;
  • Old Engine No. 4 Fire House
    215 West Thomas Street;
  • Stone Hearth Bakery (currently Jeannie's Coffee on Third)
    529 North Third Street;
  • Elmergreen Building
    114 Grand Avenue;
  • U.S. Federal Building
    317 First Street.
  • Lyman Thayer House
    812 Grant Street
  • St. James Catholic Church
    621 North Second Street
  • St. Mary’s Catholic Church
    408 Seymour Street
  • Athletic Park Granite Wall and Front Entrance
    324 East Wausau Avenue
  • 1936 Portion of Wausau East High School
    708 Fulton Street
  • Former Chicago Northwestern Railroad Depot
    209 Washington Street
  • Former Milaukee Road Depot
    720 Grant Street
  • St. Stephen Lutheran Church
    502 McClellan Street
  • Oak Island Park Field House (Shelter) 
    500 River Drive
  • Duey Wright House 
    904 Grand Avenue
  • Charles Manson House 
    1224 Highland Park Boulevard
  • Exhibition Building, Judging Pavilion & Cattle Barns 1 & 2
    Marathon Park, 1201 Stewart Avenue/800 Garfield Avenue
  • Nathan Orr House
    915 Grand Avenue
  • Louis Marchetti House, 921 Grand Avenue
  • Big Kitchen & Stone Entrance Structures of Marathon Park
    1201 Stewart Avenue
  • Stone Shelter Structure of Pleasant View Park
    1221 Sumner Street
  • Barker Stewart Island
    600 Island
  • Wausau City Hall
    407 Grant Street

The Downtown Historic District was established in July, 1997 and expanded in April, 1999. This Class II District includes all buildings in an area roughly bounded by Washington Street, 1st Street, Grant Street and 5th Street. The district contains 61 contributing structures and 24 non-contributing structures.

The Historic Preservation Commission (name changed from Historic Landmarks Commission in December, 2008, to more accurately reflect the activities of this commission) has grappled with many historic preservation issues during the last several years and has formulated four historic preservation goals and a series of objectives, strategies and recommendations to help accomplish these goals. The Commission’s Historic Preservation Plan has been incorporated into the City of Wausau Comprehensive Plan (adopted in 2006). The Commission’s Annual Action Plan which prioritizes its yearly activities is also part of its planning program.

In October, 2002, the City of Wausau applied for the status of, and received certification as, Wisconsin's 37th Certified Local Government (CLG) for historic preservation, a local-state-federal partnership for historic preservation to help preserve, protect and enjoy the special historical, architectural and archeological heritage of communities such as Wausau.

In October, 2009, the City of Wausau applied to the Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and received the designation of a Preserve America Community, which will aid in ensuring that Wausau protects and celebrates its heritage, uses its historic assets for economic development and community revitalization, and encourages people to experience and appreciate local historic resources through education and heritage tourism programs. Among the many benefits of Preservation America Community designation is eligibility to apply for Preserve America grants.