GRESHAM — There are openings for windows, many of them, but no frames or panes of glass.
Most of the doors are gone, along with the lights, toilets, sinks, heating and electrical systems.
The interior walls of the 25,000-square-foot limestone mansion are filled with graffiti, furniture is nowhere in sight and no one has lived in the place for decades.
But Dan DeCaster and Russ Obermeier haven’t spent the last 18 years with dreams of spending millions of dollars for its restoration, although at one point early on in their ownership, they had thoughts of a housing development. Instead, their eyes were drawn to the 181 acres of woods, farmland, a waterfall and over a half-mile of frontage along the Red River that meanders east through Shawano County before dumping into the Wolf River.
The property, with an annual tax bill of $7,363 and formerly referred to as the Alexian Brothers Novitiate, just east of Gresham and northwest of Shawano, is where since about 2002 the two men, family and friends have hunted ducks, fished for smallmouth bass and brown trout, and hiked the undulating terrain just south of the Menominee Reservation.
“It was a very beautiful piece of property and interesting and we thought it was a pretty reasonable price,” said DeCaster, 63, who lives in Bonduel and is co-owner of Northern Metal Roofing Co. in Green Bay. “We really haven’t had a plan or anything with what we wanted to do with it. It’s just maybe time now for somebody else to see what they can do with it.”
DeCaster and Obermeier have, for the second time, put the property on the market, this time for $2 million. But it also comes with a story that spans decades and involves Chicago wealth, a religious order and a high-profile hostage situation that involved members of a Menominee Indian sect, actor Marlon Brando and required the National Guard. The property has been vandalized over the years, been subjected to fire and has been considered for other uses such as a county park and alcohol treatment center.
The majority of the remote property consists of conifers and hardwoods but also includes about 60 acres of cropland and 25 acres of open space around the mansion, which overlooks the river.
On Thursday, Bruce Gallagher, a Realtor from Hartland in Waukesha County who specializes in “high-end lake properties and unique country properties,” had to bundle up to fend off the 18-degree temperature and don winter boots to trudge through the nearly knee-deep snow as he gave tours of the mansion and some of the land.
“Normally we wouldn’t travel this far afield, but it’s such a unique property,” said Gallagher, of Gallagher Lake Country Real Estate, which is affiliated with Keller Williams. “I don’t know where else in Wisconsin somebody’s going to buy a half-mile of frontage on an actual river.”
DeCaster, Obermeier and other investors, operating under the name of Whitewater Gresham Estates, bought the property for $500,000 and then in 2005 tried to sell the property’s 17 tracts to four bidders at an auction that drew a crowd of 100 people at a Shawano banquet facility. However, the combined $1.26 million in bids were about 40 to 50 percent below the minimum asking price, according to a story at the time in the Shawano Leader newspaper.
“The value of this is the land and the riverfront,” Gallagher said. “To a lot of buyers, (the mansion) is a liability and it’s got to be taken down. But you could put a family compound here and put a couple of million bucks into the place. We sell plenty of property with people who do this these days. The economy is booming. There are a lot of people with significant means out there.”
Brando steps in
Construction of the mansion began in the late 1930s and was built for the invalid daughter of a wealthy Chicago inventor and attorney. The daughter, however, died before the mansion was completed, and her mother lived there until 1948. In 1950, the Alexian Brothers, a Catholic religious order devoted to caring for the sick, founded in Europe at the time of the Black Death, acquired the 232-acre site and several buildings as a gift. In 1954, an addition was added at the cost of about $1.5 million.
The property was used as a traditional novitiate until 1968, when the novitiate program was moved to Chicago. A resident caretaker maintained the property while the order tried to sell it for about $3.5 million, but an armed group of Menominee Indian dissidents took it over in January 1975, resulting in a 34-day standoff. Brando sat in on final negotiations between the Menominee Warrior Society and the Alexian Brothers, as did the Rev. James Groppi, a well-known civil rights leader from Milwaukee.
Brando, who died in 2004, also took part in an Indian drum ceremony in Keshena to show support.
“I’m here today to aid in every way I can the protection of indigenous people all over the world,” the actor said, according to a Wisconsin State Journal story. “I would hope that the United States would sign a covenant against genocide as so many other countries have done.”
The siege ended when negotiators reached an agreement calling for the Alexian Brothers to turn the property over to the Menominee tribe for $1 and other considerations, and for it to be used as a medical facility. The tribe, however, never took possession. The Alexian Brothers later deeded 56 acres to the town of Richmond, with the rest of the property and buildings deeded to a Milwaukee academy for use as an alternative school. The land was later sold to the Rand Corp. of San Antonio, Texas, which later sold it to Texas Savings and Loan.
On Oct. 11, 1975, a fire of unknown origin nearly destroyed the mansion, leaving just a shell. It was purchased for $40,000 in 1992 by Frank Matuzny, which stopped a demolition order obtained by the towns of Richmond and Herman. Matuzny later built a visitors center and announced plans to restore the 20-room, three-story mansion, but the visitors center was destroyed in 1994, in a fire that authorities termed suspicious. In about 2001, Shawano County supervisors rejected the idea of buying the land for a possible future park before DeCaster, Obermeier and other investors bought the property.
A few months later, the investor group began dismantling the multi-level, 175,000-square-foot monastery building that had included cut limestone walls, stone floors, stained-glass windows, a full-size chapel, reading rooms, dorms, a butcher shop, tailor shop and administrative offices. The towering gold-gilded dome, however, was saved and given to the Alexian Brothers, who operate a hospital, nursing home and other health care programs in Chicago.
“The mansion was a very, very small part of it,” said DeCaster, who estimates it would cost upward of $5 million to restore the building. “It would be a pretty fun project to do. But if that’s not to your liking, it wouldn’t be a big deal to dispose of it. We didn’t want to do that in case somebody wanted to utilize it.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.