The city of Monona made a major acquisition last month: a late 1800s house and 10-acre lakefront property that was once home to priests from one of the oldest surviving orders of the Catholic Church. Frank Allis, son of the founder of the Allis-Chalmers farm machinery company, built the eclectic, 14-room house in the late 1800s in what was then the town of Blooming Grove. Located at 4123 Monona Drive, the property was deeded to the St. Norbert Abbey in 1929. The Norbertines used the building as a place of study for priests before leasing it to the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph in 1975. Since then, it's been known as the San Damiano Friary. In 2020, after standing vacant for several years, the property lost its tax-exempt status, and the abbey moved to demolish the building.
Seeking to secure public access to the Lake Monona shoreline, the city bought the property on June 1 for $8.6 million, with Dane County contributing $2 million. The outdoor space is now open to the public. As the city begins a planning process to determine how the site will be used, Cap Times photojournalist Ruthie Hauge got a look inside the roughly 130-year-old building.
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The house, purchased by St. Norbert Abbey in 1929, once served as a friary. It has been vacant since 2015, and in 2019, the Freedom from Religion Foundation questioned why it was still tax-exempt. It lost its tax-exempt status in 2020, and the abbey sold the property to the city of Monona in June.
The property now referred to as the San Damiano Friary was originally inhabited by indigenous people, including ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. It is believed that two effigy mounds are present on the land. A full archaeological survey of the site is expected to occur prior to any development of the property.
The current house and property were part of a 600-acre farm developed by Frank Allis in 1893. Allis was an heir of the Allis-Chalmers company, which manufactures agricultural and construction equipment to this day.
In 2019, St. Norbert Abbey applied for a permit to demolish the house, citing concerns over asbestos, water leaks and lead paint, but the permit application was withdrawn following intervention by the city of Monona's Landmarks Commission.
The San Damiano property is rumored to be haunted. According to the website of the Friends of San Damiano, "The property falls within the potential boundaries of an uncatalogued human burial site known as the Monona Drive burial group."