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History of San Damiano friary in Madison, WI

Color photograph of San Damiano.

Here’s hoping we look this good at 134. | Photo by @sarahfromwisco

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Headed anywhere fun for a summer vacation? Back in the late 1800s, Lake Monona was a prime resort destination. That’s precisely why the historic San Damiano Friary was built.

Before becoming the first year-round Lake Monona home, San Damiano was the home of Frank Allis, heir to the Allis-Chalmers farming equipment fortune — and it’s changed hands + plans many, many times since then. As the property’s future starts to take shape, let’s see how this one building weathered a century of history on the lake.


700-1100 | The shores of Lake Monona were home to Ho-Chunk settlements, who used the property for burial. San Damiano occupies land within the Monona Drive burial group.

1888 | Frank Allis chose 600 acres and 1,500 feet of shoreline to build his home, which included 14 stories and seven fireplaces, each with unique carvings. The property included farm buildings, stables, and a private race track.

Early 1900s | Following Frank Allis’s death, former Madison mayor Adolph Kayser bought the house, before selling it to a local doctor, who then sold it to Josephine and Margaret Mahoney.

1925 | The Mahoney sisters deeded the old Allis property to the Norbertine Order — one of the oldest surviving orders of the Catholic Church. For 50 years it was a Norbertine novitiate, or place of study for new priests. It was San Damiano.

1936 | Over the next decade, the race track became the Frank Allis School, and the boarding house became the Quaker Oats Experimental Farm. After completing their research, Quaker sold their portion of the land for housing development, where the Quaker Heights neighborhood sits today.

1975 | San Damiano became a home for retired priests.

2015 | The final Norbertine priest left San Damiano. It was rented out to local graduate students until fall 2020.

2021 | The City of Monona purchased San Damiano for $8.6 million.

Present + future | In partnership with the Friends of San Damiano, the City chose Madison-based MSA Professional services to develop a community- and conservation-minded “master plan” for the property.

San Damiano is currently open to the public. Visit the Biergarten at San Damiano next Fri., July 15 for incredible views, food trucks, yard games, and tours of the house, which is normally closed for inspection.

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