Ascension to demolish legendary T.B. Scott Mansion in Merrill
TINA L. SCOTT
Good Samaritan Health Care Center applied for, and was granted, a Wrecking Permit to demolish the T.B. Scott Mansion on Monday, Feb. 15.
“The decision to demolish the mansion has been made by a private party for private property they own,” said Dave Johnson, Merrill City Administrator. As such, the City had no grounds to deny the application and issued the permit.
C&D Excavating of Merrill is contracted to do the demolition but has not yet returned a call asking about the timeline for and the cost of the demolition.
Much of the Merrill community is opposed to the demolition and will be alarmed to learn the permit was issued.
Merrill’s Mayor Derek Woellner is one such community member opposed to the demolition of the Mansion.
“The City should do everything within our power to prevent the demolition of the Mansion,” Mayor Derek Woellner said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have much power to do so at the moment.”
“The permit is good for 45 days, so the clock is ticking,” the Mayor added.
Ascension promises made, not kept
That means, in far less than 45 days, the Mansion could be gone, and along with it, an irreplaceable part of Merrill’s history.
The Mayor said the City might have more options if the Mansion had been designated as an historic structure, but unfortunately, when the City’s Historic Preservation Committee discussed nominating the T.B. Scott Mansion to be designated as an historic structure in summer 2018, “The committee seemed uncomfortable with designating a structure without the property owner’s consent.”
“The City has tried to work with the current owner to maintain the property, and we thought we had found a solution when they agreed to do some exterior maintenance,” the Mayor said.
Darin Pagel, Merrill Building Inspector/Zoning Administrator, said City of Merrill representatives met with Ascension leadership in Sept. 2018 to discuss what needed to be done on the exterior of the Mansion to bring it up to code. “Ascension then put together a plan of action, along with timeframes for completion … that the City agreed to.”
“It is quite common for the City to agree to plans of action to accomplish compliance,” Pagel said. “However, in this case, the plan was not complied with.”
A letter to the City on Ascension letterhead dated Oct. 15, 2018, and signed by Ron Boecker, then Regional Director of Medxcel Facilities Management, said, in part: “We … recognize the desire to preserve the legacy of the T.B. Scott Mansion in a way that adequately captures its historical significance in an efficient manner. We continue to remain open to meaningful discussions on the future of the Mansion.”
The letter then went on to say Ascension would propose to do scheduled maintenance on the Mansion to comply with City ordinances including “Tuckpointing, Cupola/Front porch repair, Siding/Shingle repair or replacement” during the July 2018-June 2019 fiscal year; “Lead paint abatement and Exterior Painting” during the July 2019-June 2020 fiscal year; and “Window repair or replacement” during the July 2020-June 2021 fiscal year.
“We believe the above illustrates Ascension’s commitment to the City of Merrill and the significance of the T.B. Scott Mansion while maintaining Ascension Good Samaritan’s primary mission of providing compassionate, personalized healthcare services to the community,” the letter said. Ascension Wisconsin’s Regional Vice President for the North Region, Debra Standridge, was copied in on the letter.
Despite promises made, no maintenance work was done on the Mansion. Instead of keeping promises to maintain or improve the property, Ascension Good Samaritan Health Center instead submitted an application on Monday to tear it down, answering “No” to the question that asked, “Is your property in a Historic District or a Historic Site?”
While the T.B. Scott Mansion may not be an “Historic Site” with a capital “H” and a capital “S,” it most certainly is an historic site. (See T.B. Scott Mansion, History, on this page.)
When pressed for comments or an interview, Ascension released a statement on Monday, Feb. 15, that said, in part:
“Ascension Good Samaritan Hospital and Ascension Wisconsin leaders continually review operations for how to best meet the healthcare needs of the greater Merrill community and the region.
“This includes the T.B. Scott Mansion which is on the Ascension Good Samaritan Campus and is owned by Ascension Wisconsin.
“The Mansion has been an ongoing topic of discussion for several years and extensive research has been done, including an estimate and plan to make necessary repairs to bring the Mansion in compliance with the municipal code of the City of Merrill.
“Further analysis has been completed and has resulted in the decision that the repairs necessary are no longer feasible and that the Mansion is not a fundamental element in the delivery of core healthcare services to our community.
“As a result we are engaging the services of a contractor to decommission the Mansion and remove it from the property. “
Promises to the Holy Cross Sisters not kept
Another promise not kept was to the Holy Cross Sisters. In 1923, Merrill gave the land and house to the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross on the condition that they establish a hospital. They did. Holy Cross Hospital opened in 1926.
Throughout the years, the T.B. Scott Mansion itself served as provincial headquarters for the Holy Cross Sisters, as a novitiate, as a residence building for the sisters, and was partially remodeled to be used as apartments and/or a dormitory through the years for the sisters, the hospital’s engineer, chaplains of the Convent, and the Holy Cross Junior College.
When the Holy Cross Sisters officially transferred ownership of the T.B. Scott Mansion to Good Samaritan Health Center in 1990, it was with the express understanding that they would not sell or demolish it.
Clearly, that promise is no longer a priority.
You can have the building, but not the land
In 2018, unknown to many, Ascension offered the City of Merrill the chance to acquire the Mansion, but only if they moved it off of the property. The City did consider that, but the cost at that time to move the structure was at least $700,000 to move the building alone. And it would have negated a key part of the history of the T.B. Scott Mansion: the location.
Legend says the Mansion was built on the hill where a beautiful Indian maiden named Jenny, who died of white man’s influenza, was laid to rest. It is said the early lumber settlement, which was known as Jenny Bull Falls, prior to being incorporated and renamed Merrill, was named after Jenny. The Indian maiden’s grief-stricken father, who was an Indian chief, is said to have stood grief-stricken before her grave on the hill and to have dedicated the hill to his daughter’s memory and cursed any white man who would dare to violate it. And so began a series of events that appeared to give credence to the Indian chief’s curse. The only time the “curse” let up was when the Holy Cross Sisters owned and managed the property.
Very recently, but prior to Ascension Good Samaritan applying for the demolition permit, at least one private party has expressed interest in restoring the Mansion. Apparently, his interest is not being considered.
Private Merrill-area citizens are also interested in banding together to acquire and renovate the property, if Ascension will agree to transfer the land and building together rather than insisting the building must be moved off of the property. They are prepared to begin fundraising efforts, including applying for historical grants, but the Mansion and land staying together is critical to their interest. The legend is important to promoting the structure for future use as a tourist attraction for Merrill. And, they know citizens won’t want to spend $700,000+ on moving the Mansion away from the historical property.
As of this writing, Ascension has not yet responded to requests for comments about this.
It’s all about money
During discussions in 2018, the Merrill Historical Society also considered the property. At that time, their Board of Directors issued the following statement adopted by the Board in July 2018: “The Scott mansion has been a part of this community for over one hundred years. The Merrill Historical Society’s Board of Directors understands the community’s concern over the future of the mansion. The Society’s financial status, however, does not allow our organization to consider relocation, renovation, maintenance, and staffing of another building. The Board of Directors supports the sale of the building to a party who could restore the structure at its present location or move the structure and renovate it for a new purpose.”
“Both the exterior and interior of the Mansion require extensive work,” Merrill City Administrator Dave Johnson confirmed. “The building is in need of extensive renovation to address years of deferred maintenance, both aesthetically and structurally.” Johnson said the estimated cost to restore the mansion (as of 2018) was $2-$3 million.”
Now it all comes down to one thing, he said: “Money.”
“Yes, it would be nice to save the T.B. Scott Mansion,” Johnson said, “But who is going to pay to do so, as well as pay the future costs?”
The Mayor said it is still possible to designate the T.B. Scott Mansion as an Historic Site (with the capital letters) which could save the structure if it can be done in time.
“The key question the committee raised in 2018 still stands today,” Mayor Woellner said. “Should the government be making historic designations, which limits what the owner can do with the property, without the owner’s consent?”
“In this case, I personally believe we should,” he said, “And this scenario is exactly why we have the ordinance in the first place. The powers to override the will of the property owner because ‘the building is of such historical significance that its demolition would be detrimental to the public interest and contrary to the general welfare of the people of the city and state’ exists for a reason.”
It might seem extreme, he said, but clear and fair procedures to do so exist, and while he cannot guarantee how the committees involved would vote or if the process can be done in time to save the Mansion, “It should be attempted, and this is likely the last chance to act.”
That means any chance to save the T.B. Scott Mansion from the wrecking ball will require some quick thinking, decisive action, and tremendous support from the public.
According to one source, an asbestos abatement company is already in the building starting to remove asbestos pipe wrap and asbestos tile.
Will Merrill’s history be destroyed?
Residents who learned of the demolition permit being issued on Monday immediately started a petition asking Ascension to halt demolition of the T. B. Scott Mansion and to allow the full and official transfer of the property to Aspirus Health and further imploring Aspirus Health to meet with and actively pursue a dialogue with residents of the City of Merrill and other interested parties who wish to preserve and protect the mansion. A list of businesses where you can stop in (or drive up) to sign the petition will be shared soon.