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Historic northern Wisconsin property, mansion up for sale

Bruce Gallagher shows off the former conservatory room of the dilapidated mansion that at one time was part of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate near Gresham on Feb. 20. Gallagher is a Hartland Realtor charged with selling the mansion and the 181-acre historic Shawano County property that includes more than 4,000 feet of frontage along the Red River. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Bruce Gallagher shows off the former conservatory room of the dilapidated mansion that at one time was part of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate near Gresham on Feb. 20. Gallagher is a Hartland Realtor charged with selling the mansion and the 181-acre historic Shawano County property that includes more than 4,000 feet of frontage along the Red River. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal

GRESHAM, Wis. (AP) — There are openings for windows, many of them, but no frames or panes of glass. Most of the doors are gone, along with the lights, toilets, sinks, heating and electrical systems.

The 25,000-square-foot limestone mansion’s interior walls are filled with graffiti, furniture is nowhere in sight, and no one has lived in the place for decades. So it might not seem like a great prospect for a thorough-going restoration.

But, then again, Dan DeCaster, an owner of Northern Metal Roofing Co. in Green Bay, and Russ Obermeier also haven’t spent the last 18 years with dreams of spending millions of dollars on that sort of a project. Their eyes were initially drawn to the site because of its 181 acres of woods, farmland, a waterfall and over a half-mile of land along the Red River, which meanders through Shawano County before dumping into the Wolf River. DeCaster and Obermeier have, for the second time, put the property on the market, this time for $2 million, the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported.

“It was a very beautiful piece of property and interesting and we thought it was a pretty reasonable price,” said DeCaster, a 63-year-old Bonduel resident. “We really haven’t had a plan or anything with what we wanted to do with it. It’s just maybe time now for somebody else to see what they can do with it.”

The majority of the remote property is home to various conifers and hardwoods. There are also about 60 acres of cropland and 25 acres of open space around the mansion.

And then there’s the colorful history. It goes back decades and involves Chicago wealth, a religious order and a notorious hostage situation that involved both members of a Menominee Indian sect and the actor Marlon Brando and eventually prompted intervention by the National Guard.

DeCaster, Obermeier and other investors, operating under the name of Whitewater Gresham Estates, initially bought the property for $500,000. Their first attempt to sell it came in 2005, when they were working with four bidders at an auction in Shawano but failed to agree on a price. The $1.26 million in bids they were offered were about 40 to 50 percent below their minimum, according to a story at the time in the Shawano Leader newspaper.

“The value of this is the land and the riverfront,” said Bruce Gallagher, a real estate agent from Hartland. “To a lot of buyers, (the mansion) is a liability and it’s got to be taken down. But you could put a family compound here and put a couple of million bucks into the place. We sell plenty of property with people who do this these days. The economy is booming. There are a lot of people with significant means out there.”

Brando steps in

The mansion was initially built in the late 1930s for a wealthy Chicago inventor and attorney’s invalid daughter, who ended up dying before the project was completed. Her mother went on to live there until 1948. In 1950, the Alexian Brothers, a Catholic religious order that’s devoted to caring for the sick and was founded in Europe at the time of the Black Death, acquired the 232-acre site and several buildings as a gift. In 1954, an addition was put on at the cost of about $1.5 million.

The limestone exterior of a former mansion on the grounds of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham. The 25,000-square-foot building has no windows, doors, electrical, plumbing or heating systems and could cost $5 million to fully restore. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The limestone exterior of a former mansion on the grounds of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham. The 25,000-square-foot building has no windows, doors, electrical, plumbing or heating systems and could cost $5 million to fully restore. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The property was used as a novitiate until 1968, when that function was moved to Chicago. A resident caretaker maintained the property while the order tried to sell it for about $3.5 million. The most notorious event in its history occurred in January 1975, when an armed group of Menominee Indian dissidents took it over, resulting in a 34-day standoff. Brando sat in on final negotiations between the Menominee Warrior Society and the Alexian Brothers, as did the Rev. James Groppi, a well-known civil rights leader from Milwaukee.

Brando, who died in 2004, also took part in an Indian drum ceremony in Keshena to show support.

“I’m here today to aid in every way I can the protection of indigenous people all over the world,” the actor said, according to a Wisconsin State Journal story. “I would hope that the United States would sign a covenant against genocide as so many other countries have done.”

The siege ended when negotiators reached an agreement calling for the Alexian Brothers to turn the property over to the Menominee tribe for $1 and other considerations, and for it to be used as a medical center. The tribe, however, never took possession. The Alexian Brothers later deeded 56 acres to the town of Richmond and the rest of the property and buildings to a Milwaukee academy for use as an alternative school. The land was eventually sold to the Rand Corp. of San Antonio, Texas, which later sold it to Texas Savings and Loan.

On Oct. 11, 1975, a fire of unknown origin nearly destroyed the mansion, leaving just a shell. It was bought for $40,000 in 1992 by Frank Matuzny, which stopped a demolition order obtained by the towns of Richmond and Herman. Matuzny later built a visitors center and announced plans to restore the 20-room, three-story mansion, but the visitors center was destroyed in 1994, in a fire that authorities deemed suspect. In about 2001, Shawano County supervisors rejected the idea of buying the land for a possible future park before DeCaster, Obermeier and other investors had acquiredthe property.

A few months later, the investor group began dismantling the multi-level, 175,000-square-foot monastery building that had included cut limestone walls, stone floors, stained-glass windows, a full-size chapel, reading rooms, dorms, a butcher shop, tailor shop and administrative offices. The towering gold-gilded dome, however, was saved and given to the Alexian Brothers, who operate a hospital, nursing home and other health-care programs in Chicago.

“The mansion was a very, very small part of it,” said DeCaster, who estimates it would cost upward of $5 million to restore the building. “It would be a pretty fun project to do. But if that’s not to your liking, it wouldn’t be a big deal to dispose of it. We didn’t want to do that in case somebody wanted to utilize it.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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