In 2014 a structure went on the market in downtown Kewaunee. There were lots of bids—and the winning bid was an all-cash offer for $1000 over the asking price. The structure was the old Lutheran church building with the adjoining one room schoolhouse on the corner of Dodge and Harrison. The schoolhouse was once a church itself, built in 1867 and moved onto a newer foundation. The adjoining brick church was built in 1882. The structure is older than the Kewaunee Lighthouse and older than all but one of the houses in the Kewaunee Historic District. In fact, the church shares the same cream brickwork with the Duvall house which was built just a year before.
The buyer was Steve Sagrillo, who made his living maintaining and restoring old buildings. A former shop teacher for the Home Building Institute, Steve taught do-it-yourselves how to build and repair their own homes. Steve is the type of person who saves lath wood so he can replaster instead of using drywall. He loves old craftsmanship. So when he can, he repairs things rather than replacing them. It may take longer, but he will tell you it’s the right way. And ever since taking over the old church and school in 2015, he has been working on it. He started with the school, because that is where he lives. He repaired foundations and windows and worked his way up to the roof, which he replaced a few years ago.
And then he started on the church. His neighbor, who regularly sits on his front porch taking in the Kewaunee summer, often watches Steve, who buzzes around the buildings, tuck-pointing this and rebuilding that. It’s like watching a beaver adding logs to his dam. Steve has been in various forms of construction during his life. He has been a machinist, he built staircases, he replaced gutters, garage doors and siding. He was a roofer for 17 years. He even got degrees from NWTC in Mechanical Design and Computer Aided Design. Steve is still disappointed that he got one B—the rest were As. He also holds degrees in Cultural Anthropology, Geography, Environmental Science and has a minor in Fine Arts.
It seemed like a match made in heaven. An old structure that needed lots of maintenance in the hands of someone who loves to fix up old structures. Steve was happy to spend the rest of his life fixing up the church. But then things started to go wrong. Steve says it all started with the clock that the city put outside his house—maybe 90 feet from his front door. Steve will tell you how many times it chimes every day—“680 clangs and gongs”. One speaker faces straight at Steve’s house, and from 7am until 10pm it chimes every 15 minutes. Steve was bothered. So he complained to City Hall. Steve is the kind of guy who does research and so he did. He found that the clock was in violation of four city noise ordinances. He wrote a letter and read it at a city meeting. But nothing happened. The clock stayed and the chimes continued.
Soon after, Steve applied for a permit to build a garage. He was denied. Then the building inspector came and problems got worse. He says the building inspector would look at his foundation, but would then report he needed a roof. Then it was landscaping. The piling-on continued, and Steve became more and more frustrated with the City’s demands that didn’t fit with his understanding and expertise in dealing with old buildings. This issue culminated in the raze order that threatened to tear down the church he had bought a few years earlier because of a leaky roof that did not leak.
Steve did not know what to do. Law was not Steve’s strong suit. So he went online to see if he had any support to save his church. The church got over 300 signatures of online support in just a weekend. Further, the church got 93 handwritten signatures on paper petitions throughout the town. That is more signatures that all three candidates petitioning for council in District 2. It was abundantly clear that there were hundreds of people who staunchly supported saving this historic building.
Nonetheless, Steve had to get a lawyer. And he had to find a roofer, who of course needed a hefty downpayment to seal the contract. It seemed a highly risky investment to put down money to do work on a building that the city was bound and determined to tear down. Steve tried hard to comply—he can wave a list of over 100 inquiries to roofing contractors But when roofers heard about Steve’s trouble with the city, they poof—disappeared— like smoke in the air.
Now some people will say this is a classic case of “you can’t fight City Hall”. So as an alderperson I asked, what do the people of Kewaunee want? With that in mind, I walked down to the church this past Saturday night because it had rained most of the afternoon. I walked into the church and looked at every inch of the ceiling and saw no leaking. There were some old dry stains, but the ceiling had been there for over a hundred years. I could not see any water or new stains. Then the next night it rained especially hard all night. My weather app said we got over three inches of rain and 14 mph winds. Again, I went down to the church Sunday morning. After re-inspecting all the parts of the church’s ceiling, I found a small wet spot under the hatch at the very center where the steeple used to be. You can see the hatch from the corner of Milwaukee and Harrison. It was a very small damp spot given last night’s rain. But it was there. Steve said the roofers opened the hatch that had been sealed for decades when they were bidding on the project.
And then I walked the neighborhood and asked a neighbor what he thought about the church and Steve. The neighbor said that he couldn’t understand why the city would want to take down the church. He said, “I might be old fashioned and nostalgic, but I like the old church and I don’t want it torn down.” I had explained that I was on city council and asked if I could quote him at the meeting and he said “sure”.
And that is pretty much the way most people think. In my informal poll, I would say that the people who like the church are about about 10 to 1 in the majority. And then I started to wonder, if most people want the church to stay put, and Steve loves to fix the church, why is the city trying to tear it down? I can’t verify this, but I’ve heard that the mayor himself bid on the church, as did several others. So there is value in this church. Some see value in the church itself, and some others see value in just the land. Given this, structural integrity is not the entire issue here.
On Monday the church is on the council agenda. The city attorney says it needs to be in closed session. Closed sessions are where the city gets to state its case without rebuttal. They sometimes say things that don’t seem true, but we have no way to research or verify statements, since we are in a closed session. And I don’t think they serve anyone fairly—it keeps the citizens of Kewaunee in the dark on important city issues. It seems to be the city’s way of gagging the council. I can tell you I don’t trust closed meeting information, but I am not allowed to be specific and that’s the point.
The city does not really have a good reason to take down the church. The city inspector is not an expert and knows nothing about buildings this old. He is not even allowed to inspect this building, as the state has told us. And the city officials are hardly disinterested parties. They are feuding with Steve and bringing the force of an unlimited legal budget down on him. And so it goes. Steve may be in the right, but his money is not endless.
In the end I only care what the people of Kewaunee want. And as far as I can see, they fall into two camps. One likes the old church and doesn’t want it taken down. The other group hates the fact that the city can come in and take your property for no good reason. Both groups have compelling arguments. And they are the voices of the voters. My solution is to end the legal battle, leave the church up and have Steve submit to inspections by qualified people, assuring that the church will continue to be cared for. The people’s interest will be served.
Thanks for listening,