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 sitting 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 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.
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.