One week after the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area announced that an offer to purchase the Republican House had been accepted, Ripon’s Historic Preservation Commission heard from someone who also wants to buy the property.
Dan Zimmerman, who has been the caretaker of the building at 303 Blackburn St. for the past seven years, asked the Historic Preservation Commission last week Tuesday to give the property a local historic designation.
The Boys & Girls Club plans to raze the building to build a state-of-the art complex for its Ripon site. However, it has pledged to pay homage to the Republican House’s history and plans to work with the Ripon Historical Society to do so.
The Historic Preservation Commission declined to move forward with trying to give the property a historic designation, as Zimmerman had requested.
Rather, it voted 5-2 to pen a letter to the Ripon Commonwealth Press regarding the Republican House and “saving it from demolition” — with commission members Cathylee Arbaugh and Ald. David Gallops voting against the letter.
“Probably what happened in this case was, it was brought to the attention of the Historic Preservation Commission that this building may be torn down,” City Administrator Adam Sonntag said. “Then, the people on Historic Preservation put it on the agenda to discuss it, but they really have no authority to stop anything at this point.”
Zimmerman argued that the building does not have “irreparable damage” and can be saved, claiming to have donors interested in preserving the Republican House and building an accompanying National Republican History Museum.
The building has fallen into a state of disrepair. In 2015, Zimmerman told the Commonwealth that black mold had grown on the ground floor and a ceiling collapsed inside the building. Additionally, plywood has replaced first-floor windows and police scanner transmissions have reported break-ins and vandalism in recent years.
Zimmerman also told the commission that he has partial control of the property through a limited liability company (LLC) and a verbal agreement with its owner, William MacLeod.
“We don’t have a written operating agreement,” Zimmerman said. “We have a verbal [agreement] between us.”
However, the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area’s offer to purchase the Republican House was accepted by MacLeod, with the two parties having a mutually agreed upon signed offer to purchase, according to a press release.
Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area CEO Jason Presto told the commission that while Zimmerman had been “a contending buyer” for the property, the Boys & Girls Club is “under contract on a private sale” of the building.
During the meeting, Zimmerman provided commissioners a document displaying a rendering of the National Republican History Museum, which has been in the works since 2015.
“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 said.
In an email, Zimmerman said his museum project is “a significant historical and economic development project with local, regional and national reach.”
“It will make Ripon a must-visit tourist destination for many and spur growth here of which we have long dreamed,” he said via email.
During the meeting, Zimmerman said the Republican House was part of “Bovay’s Addition,” a real estate tract owned by Republican Party co-founder Alvan Bovay.
He added that significant events occurred in the building that he “didn’t go into” in front of the commission, but “make it a historical property.”
“It needs to be protected,” he said of the property. “It needs to have a designation placed on it to protect it.”
While the Historic Preservation Commission has the power to recommend designation of historic structures, the Common Council is responsible for approving the designation, according to Ripon’s municipal code.
Sonntag explained that the commission has some oversight power in Ripon’s Historic Downtown District on Watson Street and a few locally designated buildings.
However, the Republican House is not in the downtown district, nor has it been historically designated at the local level, meaning the Historic Preservation Commission doesn’t have oversight power on the property, he added.
“Beyond downtown and a few other properties that are designated as locally historic, there’s little to no oversight [from the commission],” Sonntag said. “... The city has the authority to designate properties historic, but we really do that in a way that includes the property owner.”
In addition, the extent of the Republican House’s impact on Ripon’s history also is in question.
According to the Ripon Historical Society, the building is not on the state or National Registry of Historic Places and “no one of any great historical importance to Ripon ever lived at 303 Blackburn St.”
During the meeting, Ripon Historical Society Acting President Pat Grahn described the Republican House’s history as “very, very sad,” noting the building has been empty on-and-off throughout its history.
She added that local historian George Miller excluded it from Ripon properties and districts deemed historically important.
Additionally, Presto said the Boys & Girls Club did its due diligence when looking into the historic significance of the building at the local, state and national levels.
“The building was not listed in any way, shape or form as a historical landmark,” he said.
While the commission may have a desire to restore the Republican House, Presto added that doing so could interfere with a private business transaction.
“There was time, leading up to this point, to [historically designate the building], had this been a priority,” he said, noting Zimmerman’s proposal was being painted as much more of a “rock solid, done deal project” than it really is.
Mary Lyke, board president for the Boys & Girls Club of the Tri-County Area, added that the club looked to partner with the Ripon Area School District and other groups on shared spaces, but nothing came to fruition.
She said the Republican House was the ideal site for a Boys & Girls Club in Ripon due to its proximity to the city’s elementary schools. For that reason, and its visibility, she said Boys & Girls Club donors liked the site.
“That’s why we went ahead with this project [and have made] a significant start to this project already,” she said. “... It’ll be a safe place for [kids] to be after school or during the summertime. We’re excited to bring these services to Ripon.”
While the city sees both projects as being beneficial to the community, Sonntag says it would be a stretch for the city to locally designate a property as historic in the middle of a private business transaction.
“At this stage in that property’s history, when transactions are planned, it gets very tricky [because] you start getting in the middle of things,” Sonntag said. “Quite frankly, in this particular situation, they could have come and asked for this to be historic, at any time, in the last 10 years. Why now? I think that’s the big question.”