Ascension rushes to bulldoze historic home of Merrill’s founding father
Historic Preservation Committee nominates T.B. Scott Mansion as historic structure – Too little, too late?
BY TINA L. SCOTT
At a public hearing of Merrill’s Historic Preservation Committee Monday evening, Feb. 22, City Administrator Dave Johnson gave an update on the physical status of the T.B. Scott Mansion. “The asbestos as of now has all been remediated,” he said. “The furnaces have been shut off; there is no heat in the building. They have started to remove windows in the building. Interior pieces have been removed and have been delivered to the Historical Society for preservation.”
“That will continue through this week,” Johnson continued, “And when that is completed, the exterior of the Mansion will have demolition begin on that, first by peeling the stone off the outside, some of which is being saved for repairs on the Menard Center. So at this time, demolition is well under way.”
Heavy machinery for demolition stands ready behind the Mansion as a visible sign that Ascension is rushing to bulldoze the historic home of Merrill’s founding father, T.B. Scott, and will do so as soon as possible.
Once the historic property is demolished, it’s gone forever. And many area residents are heartbroken at the prospect.
Why the rush?
Ascension and Aspirus have failed to explain why they are rushing to bulldoze the Mansion.
Ascension won’t go on record saying so, and Aspirus, when asked directly, has failed to comment on the rumors that Aspirus Health is pushing for the demolition to be complete prior to finalizing the acquisition of the Ascension Good Samaritan property. Earlier this year, Aspirus announced their intent to acquire the Merrill hospital. However, Ascension Wisconsin replied to a request for comment last week saying, “While a definitive agreement has been signed by Ascension Wisconsin and Aspirus, it is not yet final and still needs regulatory and church approval and is not considered complete.”
Nonetheless, in an email with Johnson on Thursday, when asked to confirm or deny that he had told a resident that Aspirus was requiring the demo prior to acquisition, he responded, “That confirmation must come from Ascension, not from me. While it is my understanding that it is the ‘desire’ of Aspirus to have the Mansion gone before they take over the property, I have seen nothing in writing nor do I have the right to see their documents since this is a transaction between two private parties. In short, I do not know for sure that this is the case, just what I have heard.”
There is no evidence to suggest that either hospital system has plans for immediate expansion that requires the real estate. And so far, Ascension has ignored requests to hit the “pause” button to allow the City and area residents to consider other options for the Mansion’s future.
City Historic Preservation Committee takes action, but is it too little, too late?
City Aldermen and residents alike would like to see the Mansion saved. That’s why, two days after the City issued a demolition permit for the historic T.B. Scott Mansion in Merrill (as they had no grounds not to issue it), the City’s Historic Preservation Committee met to discuss what, if anything, could be done to save the structure.
The meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 17, drew a crowd in person and via telephone, and most of the people in attendance had a single purpose in mind: to save the Mansion. (See “Merrill public speaks out” on page 8.)
Ultimately, the Committee passed a motion to recommend designating the Mansion as an historic structure in accordance with City of Merrill Code of Ordinances 105-317, despite knowing complete demolition appeared imminent, according to City Administrator Dave Johnson.
After hearing public comments, Mayor Derek Woellner summarized: “Right now where we’re at, is a private business is likely going to tear down private property. The only hope is that, if by some miracle of God, they run into an obstacle,” he said. This would enable the City to step in, if the building has been designated an historic structure.
“I don’t want to give anyone false hope,” the Mayor said. “Even if the Committee designates this building, it’ll likely be too late. The only hope is that this Committee will designate the building, they’ll run into a delay, and then we can get it done in time, but unless that happens, the building likely is coming down.”
On the other hand, “It’s likely too late, but we’d be looking pretty silly if they ran into some delays and we hadn’t acted, so my suggestion to the Committee remains the same: designate the building,” Mayor Woellner said.
Wednesday’s meeting wasn’t able to be considered a public hearing on the nomination because the meeting was pulled together so quickly.
So a second Historic Preservation Committee meeting, this time to be a preliminary hearing on the nomination of the T.B. Scott Mansion to be designated as an Historic Structure, was set for Monday evening, Feb. 22.
The Monday meeting also drew a crowd, both in person and virtually or by phone. This time six out of the City’s eight Aldermen were also in attendance, including Alderman Russell and Alderman Sabatke, who are on the Historic Preservation Committee. Committee members Jeremy Thompson, Bea Lebal, and Elizabeth McCrank were present, along with City Attorney Tom Hayden, City Administrator Dave Johnson, and Building Inspector/Zoning Administrator Darin Pagel.
With just a single item on the Agenda, Committee Chairman Paul Russell immediately made a motion to nominate the T.B.Scott Mansion, 501 S. Center Avenue, to be designated as a City of Merrill Historic Structure. Committee member and Alderman Steve Sabatke seconded the motion.
When the meeting was opened to comments from the public/the public hearing portion, City Administrator Dave Johnson first read a letter from Pat Cormack, Provincial from the Holy Cross Sisters (included in its entirety on page 10), essentially advising the Holy Cross Sisters have no record of an agreement that future owners would not demolish the T.B. Scott Mansion and advocating that it is more important to maintain health services in the community than to preserve the building.
Numerous area residents shared their thoughts, with the vast majority speaking in favor of saving the T.B. Scott Mansion, if at all possible.
Even after Johnson informed the attendees how far the demo had progressed, it didn’t stop community members from sharing their impassioned pleas to the Committee to try to save the Mansion from further destruction so that it might be saved entirely.
Merrill’s City Attorney Tom Hayden said, “What we’re talking about is designating a Mansion owned by a private entity to be placed on the register of historic structures. While the public certainly has some interest in it, we are dealing with a piece of private property. With the designation as an historic structure, some would say certain obligations, some would say certain opportunities, go with it, depending on how they look at it.”
When discussion ended, the Committee had a roll call vote on the motion to designate the T.B. Scott Mansion as an historic site. The motion passed by a vote of 3 to 2, with Alderman Steve Sabatke, Alderman Paul Russell, and Elizabeth McCrank all voting in favor of the motion and Jeremy Thompson and Bea Lebal voting against it.
A City Plan Commission public hearing was set for Thursday, March 11, for the Commission to consider the Historic Preservation Committee’s recommendation. Ascension will be notified, along with others according to the ordinance.
But the clock is ticking, and if demo proceeds as Johnson predicted, the hearing may no longer be relevant.
The Historic Preservation Committe set their next meeting to also be held on Thursday, March 11, beginning at 5:15 p.m. when they will begin to look at other historic structures in the City and consider opportunities to take action to prevent a repeat of a similar situation in the future.