“What will become of the Republican House? That decision has yet to be made. But I can say that time and the elements (and some vagrants and animals) have not at all been kind to the structure. Honestly, the cards are stacked against the building.”
— Dan Zimmerman, Jan. 15, 2015 Ripon Commonwealth Press letter to the editor
“It needs to be protected. It needs to have a designation placed on it to protect it.”
— Dan Zimmerman, June 1, 2021 Ripon Historic Preservation Commission meeting
For an example of government overreach, watch on the Ripon Channel the Historic Preservation Commission’s June 1, 2021 meeting. Start at 18:20, when chairman John Splitt announces “I think it’s important we discuss it” — referring to a pending sale of the Republican House restaurant property to the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area.
Note how at 55:28 Splitt finally states what should have been the topic’s prelude: “We have nothing … we have no powers [to determine the building’s fate].”
And in between, put yourself in the position of the commissioners. Discern for yourself the historical import of a building whose significance derives from the fact merely that it is … old.
In a sad piece of irony, former state Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dan Zimmerman, caretaker for the Republican House restaurant building for the past seven years, defends the structure whose front porch for many years served as a stage for Ripon’s annual Memorial Day ceremony until it became so neglected, dilapidated and dangerous as to become a community embarrassment.
Zimmerman began his presentation by handing to commissioners documents that show a rendering of his proposed Republican museum on the site that exhibits no accommodation to preserve the former restaurant building. “There are some pictures on the museum paperwork there that show what we want the larger museum to look like but that’s not the topic tonight,” he told the commission last week.
This, from the same person who told a group of 30 community members six years ago: “What’s the future of the Republican House? I can tell you, with all certainty, it’s undecided.”
In the intervening six years, plywood has replaced first-floor windows, black mold grows on the ground floor, squatters have squatted despite non-functional plumbing, a ceiling remains collapsed, bricks disintegrate (wrong mortar was used in a most recent tuck pointing), dirty restaurant dishes remain in the kitchen and little improvement has been made to the deteriorating structure’s interior despite Zimmerman’s contention in 2015 that, “We’re ecstatic. It’s been a long process … now that we’ve acquired the property, we’re excited to move forward” with plans to open the museum — by 2016.
At last week’s meeting, Zimmerman spent more time talking about his Republican Party museum’s plans than he did about the former Chinese restaurant’s historical significance to the party’s founding, which he concedes is limited to the fact that it was built on part of “Bovay’s Addition,” a giant real estate tract by GOP co-founder Alvan Bovay on land that encompasses downtown and Ripon College.
So that’s it. As Ripon Historical Society Acting President Pat Grahn told the assemblage last week, the building’s history is “very, very sad.”
It “has sat empty on and off its entire life. It’s been sold twice at sheriff’s auctions,” Grahn said, adding that local historian the late George Miller deliberately excluded it from Ripon properties and districts he deemed historically important. “No one of any note every lived in that building.”
Zimmerman responded that important local events occurred at the building “that I didn’t go into that are very significant that make it a historical property.”
Despite his unsubstantiated claim, nothing of historical significance occurred.
But what about the building itself? Is it a unique example of 19th century red brick Italianate? Three houses within seven blocks of the Republican House (on Lane, Oshkosh and Hall streets) suggest it is not.
Zimmerman conceded cost to restore the Blackburn Street building to its former glory (vintage 1954, when the defunct Ripon Education Foundation was created) would exceed $1 million. That cost is no problem, he added, noting he represents “a nice group of donors that came out of the woodwork” with deep pockets. Never did he share their identity, which might matter to a commission determining whether Zimmerman has the means to save a building he oddly has claimed to have some control over yet seems unable to buy.
Zimmerman asserts the Historical Preservation Commission has the authority to label a building historic. “You’re all aware that city ordinance would allow you to designate local historic property,” he told its members. It does not, and the commission knows that. (That authority lies with the Common Council, and only after it seeks the owner’s approval — source: City of Ripon Municipal Code, section 20.43.110-Designation criteria).
Instead, the commission voted 5 to 2 (Cathylee Arbaugh and David Gallops wisely voted no) to write a letter to the editor of this newspaper advocating preservation of a building that is neither historically nor architecturally noteworthy.
So let Ripon historians preserve this notion: The city’s commission seems to believe Ripon would rather look back, saving unremarkable brick and mortar, rather than look forward, to bettering the lives of generations of future Ripon citizens.
— Tim Lyke
Editor’s note: Lyke was on the original steering committee to start a Ripon Boys & Girls Club and his wife is now on that committee as well as serving as president of the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area.