In early September 2021, I received a message from Jeff Peters alerting me to the renovation plans for the old Mellen State Bank in Mellen, Wisconsin. It had been vacant for some 60 years.
Back in 2020 a building inspector contracted by the city said the floor was unstable, part of the roof had collapsed, and opined the building posed a danger to town residents. a raze order was placed on the neglected building.
People in the community wanted to rebuild the town, and therefore wanted investments to go toward doing that. However, area residents did not want to see the building torn down. They sought to delay the planned destruction of the building.
Those opposing its destruction saw the building as historic, a centerpiece of the town’s history. The Mellen State Bank was built as the town’s financial center in 1902 from brownstone in the Romanesque style. The brownstone was quarried by the Superior Brownstone Company on Basswood Island in the Apostle Islands. It was used for the Mellen State Bank.
There is much to tell about this bank, and I’ll focus some of it. A highlight that stands out has to do with how people came together to save this bank.
Jeff Peters, a Mellen native and man greatly interested in preserving Wisconsin’s history, led the charge.
Jeff has opined this about the words “Mellen State Bank” carved into the sandstone facade of the bank:
“It feels like history. It almost feels like the history of connecting in this area. Mellen is connected to many places in many ways…”
“My great-grandparents and grandparents went to school in Mellen. My parents and my brothers and sisters went to school in Mellen, some lived and worked in Mellen. My daughter went to school in Mellen. My wife and I went to school in Mellen.”
He had local support. A petition circulated throughout the Mellen area and more than 400 people signed up urging the bank be saved.
A few years ago, Jeff was photographing the bank building and bumped into a California couple whom he did not know. The couple was Jacob Sertich and his wife, Meredith.
It turned out that Jacob Sertich, a California native, had ties to Mellen. His father, Joseph, grew up in Mellen and considered it his hometown.
Back in summer 2020, the Sertich’s, heard about the efforts to destroy and save the bank. Jacob commented:
“We heard that the city of Mellen had a demolish-order for the bank building, due to it not being kept up and being a liability and hazard. Jeff called us and we were trying to brainstorm about how we could save this thing. We just thought it would be a real tragedy for the area.
“It’s probably a nostalgia thing with me. My dad grew up in Mellen. He just had a real affinity for Mellen, I mean his stories, all his childhood memories, and fun times revolved around that.”
Peters worked with Sertich to develop a plan to save the bank. Step one was for the Sertiches to buy the bank, and that’s what they did. They paid $14,000 for it. They tasked Peters to take the lead at the helm.
Sertich would add:
“The citizens of Mellen were very kind to my father, Joseph, when he lived here, and we wanted to give back to the community by saving and renovating this little gem."
Peters knew he had a challenge before him:
“We’re going to have to renovate it, restore it, and use our plan to turn it into a type of interpretive center, not just for Mellen, but for Copper Falls State Park which is nearby. They get over 180,000 visitors a year. People can find out what’s here, what’s to do and just slow them down and have them stop in Mellen."
The translates to the need for financial support. So, Jeff with legal helped formed the Mellen Brownstone Center (MBC) as a nonprofit organization. That action would provide the means to raise money and get the renovation project organized and underway. The papers were filed in February 2021.
Will Conley and his sister Kati, of San Francisco, recently visited the Mellen State Bank. Conley is an attorney with the international law firm Perkins Coie in Madison, Wisconsin, and has provided pro bono legal services to MBC, helping to complete the IRS section 501(c) 3 nonprofit application.
The project is in the active fund-raising stage. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has approved its nonprofit application. The IRS must now approve it and that is pending at this writing.
There is a lot involved in an endeavor such as this. Peters has said:
"Right now, I am working to complete the business plan that will explain the phases of the project.”
He said Phase 1 is done, being the actual purchase of the bank for $14,000 by Jacob and Meredith Sertich.
MBC is working with C&S Design and Engineering of Ashland, Wisconsin, on reuse plans and architectural designs that will retain the structural and historical integrity of the building.
An engineering study completed by C&S several months ago confirms the building’s structural condition is sound and renovations will enable it to meet State of Wisconsin commercial building codes.
The estimated cost for the renovation is $225,000. To date two unstable original brick chimneys have been taken down and the bricks saved for reuse.
Jeff Peters has noted the next steps include removing and replacing rotted wood flooring, failing plaster on the walls and ceiling, installing new windows and doors built to original specs, repairing the failed roof on a portion of the building, tuckpointing brick walls, installing a heating system, and enclosing the structure for the winter.
A recent volunteer effort has already removed and properly disposed of the unsalvageable materials stored inside during the past 60 years. Invasive brush has been cleared and the lawn is regularly maintained.
Renovating the bank is only one aspect of this project. The intent is to provide a visitor's and interpretive center to share the heritage of Mellen and surrounding region. The idea is to give it a place in efforts underway to help improve Mellen and create a perspective of historic structures as something that attracts visitors and motivates economic growth. Visit MBC’s Facebook Page and you can see the MBC has already begun collecting historic photos of days gone by in Mellen.
Volunteers have stepped forward from several quarters.
Cher Vought, a 1967 Mellen High School graduate, is working on an original oil painting of the Mellen State Bank brownstone building.
Cher plans to donate the artwork to help raise funds for renovation.
MBC plans to use this same artwork to create postcards, note cards, t-shirts, and limited-edition prints.
Cher has said:
“This structure is an important component of Mellen’s past, and it’s exciting the old bank will remain a part of the community.
Gary Tipler (right) and Joseph Muenich, both from Madison, Wisconsin, recently visited the Mellen Brownstone Center and donated to the building’s renewal. Tipler, who’s been involved in historic renovation projects elsewhere, said:
“Along with other folks near and far, I’m pleased to support the old Mellen State Bank’s preservation and its revitalization into the new center. I’ve enjoyed photographing the building each summer as I travel through Mellen, and it’s wonderful to learn about the bank’s transformation. Mellen has great potential to capture more business and investment. The Mellen Brownstone Center may well be a catalyst in making that happen.”
Robert Dahl is a retired businessman and native of Sand Island, one of the Apostle Islands, and now lives in Jacksonville, Florida. He visited the MBC during a recent trip back to Sand Island and Bayfield. He has commented:
“When I heard that a group of concerned citizens from Mellen and around the country were establishing a nonprofit to restore this historic brownstone I asked, ‘What can I do to help?’
“I have a long history of historic preservation with The Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy and am pleased to have been asked to be on the board of the Mellen Brownstone Center whose goal is the restoration and preservation the building for the future of Mellen citizens and visitors to use and enjoy for decades to come.”
Larry Koivisto, of Mellen, volunteered to clean the windows at the bank. A master carpenter from the area will rebuild the rotted window frames, trim, and doors to the original specifications as fundraising permits.
North Country Lumber in Mellen has generously agreed to donate and help install red oak plank flooring during the ongoing renovation effort.
Erik Joking, owner of Iron City Construction, has Volunteered his time and experience at the Mellen Bank.
Personalized laser engraved bricks – to be used on pathways, patio areas, and a segment of the interior – are also being sold to raise funds and can be purchased at: