The work of 19th century humanitarian and philanthropist Halle Steensland continues today in Madison, more than 100 years later, by people who live in the stylishly eclectic home he built in 1896.
The Halle Steensland House—known to many as the Bethel Parish Shoppe—was designed by the local architectural firm of Gordon and Paunack. The house, with its diversity of materials and decorative elements, has been cited as one of the best examples of the late Queen Anne style of architecture in Madison. As well as a 1974 Madison Landmark, the Steensland House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Halle Steensland, prominent banker, businessman, and a leader in the Norwegian American community, was born in 1832. He immigrated from Norway in 1854 with $10 in his pocket. In 1855, he came to Madison, where he first worked as a clerk in a retail store before becoming a partner in a grocery business that he continued until 1871.
Steensland then founded and became active in the Hekla Fire Insurance Company that served fellow Norwegians, eventually rising to president of the company. After selling the insurance company to a St. Paul, Minnesota, concern, Steensland founded the Savings and Loan Trust Company, of which he was president at the time of his death in 1910. Later, the company merged with the Bank of Madison that became M&I Bank and, finally, BMO Harris.
In 1892, Steensland was appointed vice-consul of Norway. In that position, he facilitated trade and friendly cooperation with Norway. In return for his service and philanthropy, Steensland was twice knighted by the Norwegian king.
According to the Madison Landmark nomination, “One of Steensland’s favorite maxims was ‘Do not try to get money fast. Too many financiers of our day go into an early oblivious grave on this rock.’”
Steensland’s philanthropy included a donation to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, to build a library. In commemoration of 50 years in business, he paid for a stone bridge over the Yahara River on East Washington Avenue. He was a director of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Steensland was a founder of the original Bethel Lutheran Church and an active and loyal member of the church from when he moved to Madison until his death.
His home, a three-story, complex-shaped structure now located at 15 W. Gorham Street, is of a wood frame with dark-red brick veneer and stone trim. The main block of the house is square. A tall entrance tower protrudes slightly in the center of the block. To the left is a gabled dormer echoed by a smaller one on the right. A wide veranda extends across the front. The first floor of the house has two large arched windows with beveled and leaded glass transoms. The arches are made of stone.
With many Queen Anne style buildings, the decorative elements are only on the facade that faces the street. The Steensland House has ornamental features on all sides, including two-story bays, more arched dormer windows, brackets embellishing dormers, and a large chimney trimmed with terra-cotta panels and bands of molded brickwork. Even though the house had two fireplaces, a coal furnace heated it. There was even indoor plumbing.
After Steensland’s death, his son, Edward, continued to live in the house. He sold it in 1938. From 1941 to 1943, the house was rented to former Governor Philip La Follette. It became the headquarters of the national Progressive Party and offices of the Progressive magazine. The Dane County Red Cross used the house as its headquarters from 1943 to 1945. From 1959 to 2005, the house functioned as the Bethel Parish Shoppe, Madison’s first consignment shop, and generated nearly $2 million that was given to Bethel Lutheran Church and its various ministries.
Today, the Steensland House, owned by Bethel, comprises a service-focused community of individuals with a passion for giving back to organizations serving Madison. Ten people—some students, some professionals—live in the house in three separate apartments, one on each floor.
Bethel worked with a number of local and Wisconsin companies to renovate and remodel the Steensland House into the apartments. Randy Alexander of the Alexander Company was the project manager. Matt Aro of Aro Eberle Architects designed the Steensland House remodel. Mike Murphy of Engineered Construction, Inc., owned by Bethel member Dave Lombardo, coordinated the interior remodeling.
In April 2015, the Steensland House was moved from its original location on North Carroll Street. The house was taken off its foundation, jacked up, moved around the corner, and put back down over a period of a month and a half by Heritage Movers LLC from Mount Hope in Grant County.
Since the house had never been remodeled for apartments or offices after its life as a single-family residence, many interior features—the entryway, woodwork, floors, some chandeliers—are still original. Renovation included new insulation, plaster, electrical, plumbing, sprinkler system, heating and air-conditioning, and storm windows over the original windows. “We didn’t gut the inside and tried to keep as many original features as possible to maintain the integrity of the interior,” says Dona Meyer, Bethel’s administrative specialist and event coordinator.
All of the apartments are fully furnished. Kitchens feature a full-size refrigerator, range, dishwasher, and microwave. An in-unit washer/dryer is provided. Rent includes all utilities and Wi-Fi.
The house had the first occupants at its new location in August 2016. In exchange for rent discounted 20 percent from market rates, residents agree to perform 16 hours of service per month. Mary Brennan, Bethel’s Steensland House community coordinator, reports, “Residents serve in an amazing number of ways even though none are currently Bethel members. At Bethel, they have played in the handbell choir and composed music. Some work in the food pantry during the week or in the nursery or library on Sunday. Others prepare meals for the homeless.
“Outside of the church, they serve at St. Vincent de Paul, prepare meals for Gilda’s Club, ring bells for the Salvation Army, and register voters with the League of Women Voters. Residents are involved with the UW Safe Walk program, various legal aid and environmental groups, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and animal sanctuaries.”
One of the residents of Steensland House is selected to serve as the community manager, connecting with residents to develop and promote a positive atmosphere and sense of unity. That person serves as the liaison between the residents and Bethel staff. Mary meets with the community manager on a monthly basis. Soon after residents move in, Mary meets with each one to determine their service interests and outlines how Bethel can support them. She sits down with them again in January and also conducts exit interviews with residents at the end of their leases.
Halle Steensland would no doubt be proud of what became of his home and how its residents still serve the community today.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.