The state's first 'Executive Reisdence' was completed in the mid-19th century and has housed UW-Madison grad students since the 1950s.
The future of the Wisconsin governor's mansion is in doubt.
Not the current one, where 14 governors have lived. It's the earlier one, home to 18 governors from 1883 to 1950, that is a few blocks from the Capitol.
The mansion may be sold by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, but officials have been vague about what they're considering. The potential sale has some fretting about the landmark's future.
"It's such an important piece of the city's history, and the land around it is significant in that history," says Ald. Ledell Zellers, whose district includes the mansion.
The mansion, 130 E. Gilman St., is on the National Register of Historic Places. The date of its completion is unknown, perhaps as early as 1854. At the time, the entire UW consisted of North Hall. Madison was two years from incorporating as a city.
For many years the home was jokingly called "The White House" for its first owner, Julius White, later a Civil War general. Officially, it was the "Executive Residence," named by Belle Case La Follette, wife of governor and later U.S. Sen. Bob La Follette. She felt the term "mansion" distanced the public.
The property totals 63,462 square feet. In 1950 the state transferred the property to the UW Board of Regents for $60,000, drawn from a UW trust fund created by Kemper Knapp. The building has since served as the Knapp Graduate Center, a living and learning facility for doctoral students. In 1967, UW built on the shoreline its Lifesaving Station, a base for rescue crews monitoring boaters on Lake Mendota.
But the Knapp house has become expensive to maintain. "It was getting to the point where we needed to upgrade the facility" to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture. "The Knapp program didn't have the funds to do that."
The UW declared the mansion surplus, leaving its fate to be determined by the DOA. However, the UW still wants to keep the Lifesaving Station.
In order to do so, the UW has to subdivide the property. "We wanted to go through the official process with the city of Madison," Brown says. On June 17, 2013, the city Plan Commission was scheduled to take up the proposal.
"The staff at DOA started having second thoughts about it and then just pulled it off the agenda," Brown says.
With no subsequent word from DOA, the UW again submitted its proposal to the Plan Commission on July 27 this year. Again, the DOA interceded. Since then, Brown says, "We've not heard anything from them on what their plan is."
The property is on a June 30 DOA list of state assets "for potential sale or lease," including "underused acreage" at Madison's Hill Farms State Transportation Building on the west side.
Stephanie Marquis, DOA spokeswoman, had few details to offer when asked about the mansion. "It is too early to speculate on the potential sale or lease of any of these properties because the state has just begun the review process," she says.
More than review is apparently going on, however. The Capital Times has submitted an open records request to learn about developers interested in the Hill Farms property. The DOA refuses to release the information "until a negotiation of the contracts is completed."
Brown doubts the grounds around the old mansion would be deemed historic, meaning it's possible something could be built there. But a deed covenant will protect the building, at least, from demolition.
Says Brown: "I hope someone gets it that can really take care of it and make it a great shining example of historic preservation."