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Mansion Hill neighbors oppose plan to move landmark Steensland House
The latest historic-preservation battle
The Steensland House was a meeting spot for early progressives.
The Steensland House was a meeting spot for early progressives.

Another battle is brewing over a historic building in downtown Madison, this time over plans by Bethel Lutheran Church to move the Steensland House from North Carroll Street to 124 East Gorham Street.

Halle Steensland, a leader in the progressive movement, built the house in 1896. It was designated a local landmark in 1974, and it's also on the National Register of Historic Places. Although it is in remarkably good condition, it is surrounded by Bethel Lutheran's parking lot, with its old neighbors having been demolished decades ago.

The church wants to move the house for an undefined expansion project that might include a school or a community center.

"Bethel wants to expand its ministry program, and it has no use for the house anymore," says Bill White, an attorney for the church. "How do you get it back into productive use? That [house] looks lonely. The idea is to put it into context."

The church wants to give the house to Apex Property Management, which has vacant land at 124 East Gorham. If the plan is approved, it would place the house next to two other Madison landmarks. Although the move would only be a few blocks, it would require that the house be cut in two and reassembled.

Many neighbors in the Mansion Hill district are against the move. Ledell Zellers, a member of the Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. executive committee, says there's "considerable concern" about the proposal in the neighborhood.

Attorney Fred Mohs, who led the fight against the Edgewater Hotel expansion, says it would set a bad precedent. Mohs remembers when the house was landmarked and says preservationists agreed to allow the church to demolish other homes on the block in exchange for saving the Steensland. Moving it now is unacceptable, he says, and the church could easily build an architecturally sensitive development around it.

"If anyone can move a landmark house to another site when they don't like where it is, the landmark district is a joke," Mohs says. "If we're serious about preserving the architectural evidence of our history and the people who made it, we can't start moving buildings around."

Moreover, Mohs says the house's site is integral to its history: It was a meeting center for the Progressive movement, and Fighting Bob La Follette was a frequent guest. "When Halle Steensland stepped out of his house, he didn't step out onto Gorham Street, he stepped out onto North Carroll Street."

Mohs also says the city shouldn't even consider moving the house until the church has firm plans for the property. "To cut it in two and move it to another site so they can think about what to do is ridiculous," he says.

White believes the church would be open to putting restrictions on the property -- agreeing not to develop student high-rise apartments, for instance. But developing around the house, White says, ""would look stupid. It would be expensive."

Opposition to the move is hardly uniform. Stu Levitan, chairman of the Landmarks Commission, says he'll wait until a presentation next Monday by the church before passing judgment. "The fact that it's proposed to be located within the historic district and adjacent to two existing landmarks is a positive," he says.

But, he adds, "It's not an approval to be granted lightly."

Levitan says Madison has allowed two other landmarks to be moved, the Stoner House on the 300 block of South Hamilton and the Brittingham Boathouse on the 600 block of North Shore Drive. However, both were moved only a short distance and remain on their original property. (Another building, the Gates of Heaven, was landmarked after it was moved to James Madison Park.)

If the city allows the Steensland to move, it would retain its local landmark status, Levitan says, but its national status would be a "matter between the owners and the [U.S.] Secretary of the Interior."

Jason Tish, executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, says there are times when moving a landmark is acceptable. While the trust is not dead set against moving the Steensland House, "The church hasn't really flushed out what they want to do on that block. We can't justify supporting moving it at this time."

Tish says these fights keep breaking out in the Mansion Hill district in part because there are so few owner-occupied homes, and the pressure to develop more student housing is so great there. "So you get such a small group of people fighting so hard to preserve the character of that neighborhood."

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