San Damiano Monona

The property

Called "an epic, iconic, and magical place."

At just under 10 acres, and with nearly 1,075 feet of Lake Monona shoreline, the property known as San Damiano has been described as epic, iconic, and even magical. The property’s small arboretum of cedars, sycamores, oaks, pines, and apple trees serves as a haven for a wide variety of native and migratory birds, and at least one natural spring still gurgles beneath its topsoil. Perched atop a natural limestone bluff, the property offers breathtaking views of the Wisconsin State Capitol, and a peaceful natural expanse, amidst the bustling sprawl of Madison’s East Side.

San Damiano has remained largely undisturbed for more than 100 years. A singular, Dutch Colonial-Revival manor house, built in 1893-4 and known as the Frank Allis House, still stands on the property in testament to a bygone era.

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Early years

San Damiano was originally the site of encampments created by Indigenous peoples of the region, including ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Cultural historians of the Ho-Chunk believe that the property’s height off the Lake, its natural siting in direct view of the setting sun, and its underground freshwater spring would have made it a particularly attractive location to gather and settle. Several arrowheads (points) and an old British coin have been found in its gardens.

Records from the Wisconsin Historical Society provide further evidence of Ho-Chunk influence. With the exception of the northeast corner, the property falls within the potential boundaries of an uncatalogued human burial site known as the Monona Drive burial group. The existence of this group was confirmed in the late 1800s by professional mound surveyor T.H. Lewis. He recorded the presence of two bird effigy mounds and twenty-four conical and linear mounds in the area between Lake Monona and what is now Bainbridge Street.

His account does not allow for a determination of precise locations of the mounds, nor their arrangement, and all surface indications of the mounds have been removed. But because San Damiano has been less disturbed than surrounding properties, the possibility that sub-mound burials and off-mound burials survive on its grounds is higher than on adjacent land.

A full archaeological survey of the site will be commissioned prior to any changes being made to the property.

The farm

The current manor house and property were part of a 600-acre farm developed by Allis-Chalmers heir Frank Allis in the 1890s. The house was the first year-round residence on Lake Monona, and the farm was a serious enterprise, consisting of over 100 head of Holstein cattle, 32 horses and other livestock, and various other lines of agriculture. But Allis was not rolling up his sleeves!  Today we would call him a “gentleman farmer”– someone who hired others to do the actual labor on his property.  Boasting a chauffeur, valet, and other service staff, his neighbors identified him as “the aristocratic type.” His home served as a local epicenter of hospitality, with its sizable ballroom, 14 rooms for family and guests, and 7 fireplaces.

Nearly a year after Allis’s death in 1915, the entire farm was sold to former Madison Mayor Adolf Kayser. A year after that, just the house and its ten acres were sold to Dr. Herman Gilbert, Chief of Staff at St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1924, Gilbert sold the house and property to sisters Josephine and Margaret Mahoney – for just $35,000.

The Mahoney sisters were widely known for their philanthropy, and in particular, for their donations to many Catholic churches and charities both in and around Madison. One of these churches was run by Norbertine priests, and in November 1929, Josephine and Margaret offered the house and property to the Norbertines for “$1.00 and other good and valuable considerations.”  Following this change of hands, the property was referred to as the Norbertine Novitiate.  

A place of study

The Norbertine Order had a significant presence in Dane County in the mid 1800s, and their roots in Wisconsin were even more firmly established in West De Pere, in 1898, with the establishment of the St. Norbert Priory and St. Norbert College. But potential seminarians needed a place to study and experience the religious life while attending the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  The Novitiate fit the bill. Young men spent their time in prayer, study, and recreation, usually for a full year, without ever leaving the property.

The Norbertines continued to use the house in a similar manner until 1975. They then rented the property to the Capuchins, one of the largest Catholic religious orders in the United States. A small number of Capuchins resided in the house and followed a more structured schedule with special emphasis on prayer. While inhabiting the property, the Capuchins changed its name to the San Damiano Friary. In early 2020, with the property no longer in use by either Order, the St. Norbert Abbey announced its intention to sell the property.  
Residents of San Damiano enjoying a game of hockey on Lake Monona.
San Damiano residents enjoying a game of hockey on Lake Monona.
Residents of San Damiano enjoying a picnic.
Residents of San Damiano enjoying a picnic.
A San Damiano resident fishes off the pier.
San Damiano resident fishing off pier.

3D house tour

The Current Condition of the Frank Allis House
While the historic Frank Allis manor on the San Damiano property was designated a Monona landmark in 1979, it had not seen care in recent years prior to the City of Monona purchasing the property in 2021.

In 2007, it was determined by the Wisconsin Historical Society that it is not eligible for state or national landmark status because its interior and exterior had been extensively altered since its construction in 1894.

A full assessment of the condition of the house was commissioned by the city and is available to read.

We encourage you to virtually walk through the whole 3-story house using this 3D tour.
Virtual tour of the historic Frank Allis manor
“I'm excited about the possibility of this iconic and unique space being available for public use. The site has currently untapped potential to be a resource for all citizens of Dane County.”
Mike Strigel, President and Executive Director, Aldo Leopold Nature Center
“This is a fantastic opportunity, a major beacon of light. The fit and breadth of this project is huge. Hundreds of thousands of people will enjoy this property into the future.”
David Schroder
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