The city of Ripon has revoked a raze permit for Ripon College’s Merriman House for a 30-day period or until a compliance review is completed by the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Office.
“The State Historic Preservation Office wants to go to the property or look into its historic significance and document that one last time before it gets torn down,” said City Administrator Adam Sonntag, who is a Merriman fraternity alumnus.
In correspondence with the college, state historic preservation office compliance reviewer Drew Barnhart said the review itself doesn’t determine whether a 30-day hold is placed on demolition.
Rather, the hold begins when the Historic Preservation office is informed of the demolition permit and continues until the review process is complete, Barnhart noted.
“The purpose of the 30-day hold is to ensure we have time to document the structure, so we would only waive the period if we do not need any documentation or if documentation has been completed,” she said.
Ripon College President Zach Messitte said the college is complying with all state and federal guidelines for razing the building and that it has made its archives of the building available to the state historic preservation office.
“We’ve had a conversation with the compliance officer, who has been in touch with the college’s archivist, who does photographs and documentation — I don’t know whether [the compliance reviewer] is coming to town or not,” he said. “We told them, ‘You can have complete access to whatever you need during the period of time that you would want to look at the house.’”
The Merriman House, 470 Congress St., had been home to the Phi Kappa Pi fraternity — better known as Merriman — until the fall of 2010, when the fraternity was relocated to a traditional dorm.
The move was framed as necessary due to deteriorating conditions in Merriman House that posed risks for its inhabitants.
In April, Ripon College filed paperwork to raze the building.
“The building has not been occupied for over a decade, and it’s in really poor condition,” Messitte said at the time.
After it was announced last month that the Merriman House would be razed, Messittee said he isn’t sure why the Merriman House wasn’t maintained over the years as it was unsafe for students before he became Ripon College president.
“I don’t know the specific reason why it fell into that level” of disrepair, he said.
Ripon College will raze the building, after spending several years exploring ways to restore the property with Merriman alumni, Messitte said last month.
In fact, the college even hired an architect to provide possible renderings of what a remodeled Merriman House could look like several years ago, Messitte added.
He said Ripon College began trying to fundraise for the project, but it was clear that the college would need donors to contribute up to six figures to fund the renovations.
“We had some initial success and raised a bit of money, but nowhere near enough to be able to renovate it,” he said last month. “I spent months and countless numbers of hours, crisscrossing the country making the case to people.”
So far, according to Messitte, all Ripon College has done to the Merriman House is asbestos remediation. Late last month, the college was contacted by the state historic preservation office, he said.
At the city’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting last week Tuesday, Merriman alumnus Andrew Peterson said he “heard unofficially” that the property is planned to be converted into a parking lot.
“If that is the case, surely there was collaboration between Ripon College and the city management or Fond du Lac County to do a traffic study/parking study in and around the college,” he said. “I would ask that this traffic study be made public. However, I fear that there is no study, there is no plan, no decisions being made on data — just a decision.”
Messitte described the parking lot idea as a rumor and said Ripon College doesn’t yet know what the property will be used for, but it plans to build a “commemorative installation” on the grounds of the Merriman House.
“There’s a variety of discussions going on with Merriman alums, that run the gamut from rebuilding a house there that recognizes the historic nature of the place, to some sort of more commemorative outdoor space,” he said. “There’s no sense here at all of what comes next and we feel like we’ve got plenty of time to figure that out.”
When architects looked at restoring the house several years ago, they felt that the best course of action would be to tear the building down and build a new one in its place, the Ripon College president added.
“The recommendation was, very strongly, ‘Look, you can get a much better building here and a much more valuable building for your community, if you just redid this,’” Messitte said. “There may be some foundational things that could stay, but for the most part, the building had to be pretty much taken down to the foundation.”
Ripon’s Historic Preservation Commission also took aim at the college for declining to join the city’s local historic district.
“I’m disappointed by them because they promised that they would be good stewards of their buildings [without] our [local] historic district,” commission member Eric Pollesch said. “Now we’re seeing the fruits of that.”
Messitte said he “doesn’t have a strong sense of why” the college declined to join Ripon’s local historic district.
He added that the individual in charge of Ripon College’s marketing and communications at the time didn’t feel it was necessary.
“I don’t know the reasons, specifically, beyond this is a college where we are in charge of a fair number of buildings, landscaping and signs that need to be updated fairly constantly,” he said. “I think there was a sense that we had always done this by ourselves.”
Messitte said Ripon College is complying with all local, state and federal statutes on the Merriman House project.
“We’re not fighting anything,” he said. “We want to, obviously, work with our partners in the city and — to the extent that we can — be helpful and work with our partner alumni from this fraternity to do something appropriate.”
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