Wisconsin

Fate of historic building at Mendota Mental Health in doubt

A run-down but historic hospital building on the Mendota Mental Health Institute campus finds itself in a familiar tug-of-war between preservation and the wrecking ball.

The state is about to spend $541,000 to tear down the old Wisconsin Memorial Hospital, built in 1922 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

State officials say the building, empty and deteriorating for 15 years, is a fire trap, but low-income housing developer Gary Gorman says he can rehabilitate the building at no cost to the state, then lease it to Catholic Charities of Madison as a home for Hope Haven-Rebos United, which provides drug and alcohol treatment.

The rehab appeals to first-term state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison. “Let’s figure a way to save the building,” Roys said Friday. “It will be a win-win-win for the taxpayers, for the environment, and for our history and cultural heritage.”

In January 2008, the State Building Commission, with approval from the Wisconsin Historical Society, approved razing the building, which last housed a veterans’ hospital. The campus contains 22 other buildings, including Lorenz Annex, which houses the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, and Stovall Hall, which houses a coed treatment unit for civil commitment patients who are admitted involuntarily.

Six months later, Gorman proposed using about $3.4 million in affordable housing and historic preservation tax credits and traditional financing to rehab the place.

Department of Health Services spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said Monday the state talked to Gorman but decided the proposal wasn’t going to work.

For one thing, Marquis said, state housing officials told DHS that historic preservation tax credits can’t be used for transitional housing such as Catholic Charities provides.

For another, she said, Gorman underestimated the cost of renovation. She said that would leave the state open to shouldering any costs over the estimate.

The demolition will move ahead, she said.

But preservation advocates are mobilizing.

Gorman said Monday the historic preservation credit rules do not dictate the use of the building. “To qualify for the historic tax credit, it simply has to be placed in service as an investment property,” Gorman said. “A lease to Catholic Charities is completely consistent with the historic preservation rules.”

Gorman also said the state would run no risk from cost overruns.

“When someone representing the state says that it is a better solution to tear down a historic building in a historic district, one must ask ‘why?’” Gorman said.

“To my knowledge, they have no plan whatsoever for a different use of the site. … This building is in a historic district directly adjacent to native American burial mounds. The options for new construction are very limited. To spend money to tear it down when someone is willing to renovate the building at no cost to the state makes absolutely no sense.”

Deputy state historic preservation officer Jim Draeger said circumstances have changed since the Historical Society signed off on the demolition in January 2008.

“When we approved the demolition in January of 2008, there were no viable options for preservation,” Draeger said Monday.