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Historic house hamstrings Madison development

Leaders at Bethel Lutheran Church (background) are trying to find a new home for a historic house (foreground) at 315 Carroll St., Madison, to make way for a community center project. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

A downtown Madison church wants to build an expansive community center but first must find a new home for a 114-year-old house on the property.

The Steensland House, a registered historic landmark, has hamstrung Bethel Lutheran Church leaders, who don’t use the house and want to build a 150,000-square-foot building in its place.

To leave the house where it is would increase the cost of a community center by $2 million and force it to be six stories tall, said Rev. Bill White, the church’s senior pastor. The city is unlikely to approve such a tall building at that site.

“We’re gonna have to find some place to put it — we don’t have any skyhooks available,” White joked.

The church’s neighbors aren’t laughing, though. While there is support for the church’s plan to build a community center — it also would fill what is now a parking lot — the house is causing a moral dilemma for people who love Madison history.

“This looks like a great project for a much better use of this half-block,” said Jason Tish, executive director of Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. “Our issue, obviously, is the house.”

The Steensland House looks nothing like the modern city structures around it, making it somewhat easier for neighbors to consider moving it.

“It’s almost completely lost its context on that block,” Tish said. “I would just encourage the church to be patient and do due diligence to find a lot in the historic district.”

Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., the neighborhood association that includes the Mansion Hill Historic District, where the house is, echoes Tish’s sentiment.

“I hate the idea of moving historic houses that are part of Madison’s heritage,” said Ledell Zellers, a board member for Capitol Neighborhoods. “I think it’s fundamentally a wrong thing to do.

“That said, I do understand its isolation there.”

The problem with moving the house to another neighborhood lot, though, is there are few empty lots available, and perhaps none that would be big enough for the house, city planners said.

Even if it’s a bad fit, though, Zellers said she would prefer that to moving the house out of the neighborhood.

“I would like to see it moved, if it’s going to be moved, within the Mansion Hill Historic District,” she said. “I would jam it in before I would move it far away.”

Bethel would be glad to move the house in or outside of the neighborhood, White said.

But Capitol Neighborhoods and Alderman Michael Verveer, whose district includes the church, have asked Bethel to only consider moving the Steensland House outside of Mansion Hill after every other option has been explored.

“I’d like to broach that if it comes to it,” Verveer said. “It would mean a lot more if it remains in what a common person defines as the Mansion Hill neighborhood.”

As it stands, though, there are no viable options.

“We can play the hypothetical game as long as we want, but until there are concrete issues on the table, these are tough decisions to make,” said Michael Rosenblum, a member of the city’s Landmarks Commission.

In the meantime, Bethel is at a standstill, searching for a lot owner willing to take on an 1896 Queen Anne house.

“We will continue to search for a home until we have exhausted all possibilities,” White said. “After that, we’ll have to see what comes.”

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