There’s a quiet optimism among a few city officials about a possible new owner for the San Damiano Friary on Monona Drive.
The Norbertine Order has owned the nearly 10 acres at 4123 Monona Drive since 1929. Abbot Dane Radecki, O. Praem., said St. Norbert Abbey will sell the property now that it has abandoned plans to raze the house on the property.
“I hope when they go to market, it’s landmark status is a selling point,” said Rick Bernstein, Monona Landmarks Commission member. “It has unique features, it has history and a story to tell.”
Alder Jennifer Kuhr, who serves as chairwoman of the commission, said she is encouraged by the Abbey’s letter and the ability to work with any new partner on the future of the San Damiano property.
The city cannot control who buys the land, and there is little for the city to do until a buyer steps forward.
“Basically, we are right back where we were last fall before the request to raze the building was made,” Kuhr said.
She said the property is zoned community design district, which allows the plan commission the ability to review and determine whether to approve any new uses of the property.
“Since no applications are pending before the plan commission at this time, I do not wish to comment or speculate on the future of the property until an application does come forward,” Kuhr said.
Late last year, the Norbertines applied for a certificate of appropriateness to raze the house, claiming it was too costly to maintain. At a December meeting of the landmarks commission to consider the request, several city and area residents spoke against tearing down the home.
“It’s still a city landmark no matter who owns it,” Bernstein said. “They (any new owner) would still have to come to the commission for a certificate of appropriateness to raze the house.”
He said he walked through the house a few weeks ago.
“It’s still very, very functional,” Bernstein said. “It would need a certain amount of work, but it would be a phenomenal property once restored.”
He hopes a new owner will be sympathetic to the historical significance of the house.
John Sheild has worked the vegetable gardens on the property for 30-40 years.
“I’m still aiming to garden in the spring and until they tell me not to,” Sheild said.
For years, he gardened the site with Len Riha, who died in 2019. Vegetables grown in excess of what the gardeners can personally use are donated to the St. Stephen Food Pantry.
“I’m grateful they’re not going to demolish the house,” Sheild said. “We’ll have to wait for the next chapter to be written. Maybe the people who purchase the property will seek, try or plan to preserve the house, who knows?”
There remains speculation that, once sold, part of the land might be dedicated as a city park. According to city ordinance, the city must be paid $1,201 per proposed residential unit in park and public land fees.
It is the decision of the Monona City Council, not the applicant, whether fees or land are given. There is also the option to combine both a partial payment with less land dedication should that be favored.
“I would love it – ideally – if the state, county and city get together purchase it and preserve that open space,” Bernstein said, suggesting a proposal similar to when the city purchased 46 acres for Woodland Park and part of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.
Twenty-five years ago, that land was to be sold to developers, but the city stepped in, held an advisory referendum and opted to purchase the land to prevent it from being developed into residential properties.
The 17 acres along Monona Drive are designated as public parkland, while 20 acres are currently leased to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which is due east of Woodland Park.
Woodland Park is a wooded, hilly area with three trails running through it. One of the features of Woodland Park are Indian mounds that are visible from the trails. The park is used primarily for walking and hiking in the warmer months, and snowshoeing in the winter. Monona Woodland Park is the only large forested area within the city.
Bernstein said that at the December meeting of the landmarks commission, several people suggested they enjoyed the wildlife park quality of the site, with a variety of animals seen there. He also noted that because the land is not heavily developed and runoff is at a minimum, the water quality of Lake Monona in front of the property is better than other parts of the lake.
“A fish habitat area would do well there,” he said. “It has a lot of natural potential.”