New site for GOP birthplace could draw more visitors. It also endangers its historic status.

The Republican Party's historic birthplace in Ripon has been moved from its longtime location to a newer commercial strip.
The Republican Party's historic birthplace in Ripon has been moved from its longtime location to a newer commercial strip.

The relocation of the historic birthplace of the Republican Party includes creating a new visitors center in hopes of drawing more people to the small Wisconsin community of Ripon.

And that effort involves an Arizona-based contractor who's a Ripon native.

But the move of the building − the third time its's been relocated over the past century or so − from a longtime site in downtown Ripon to a newer commercial strip on the city's northwest side is endangering its landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.

The move of the building, known as the Little White Schoolhouse, was approved last fall by city officials.

News of its Monday relocation has raised concerns from Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson and Timothy Bachleitner, chairman of the Fond du Lac County Republican Party.

"This national treasure has now been moved right in the midst of an Ace Hardware, a vape/smoke shop instead of being able to stroll one block away and see the buildings where the men who founded the party have their names adorned on them," Bachleitner said.

Ripon Mayor Ted Grant on Wednesday defended the move.

"In general, I think it's a positive move for the city," he said, noting that the old location didn't have its own parking or restrooms.

The relocation from 305 Blackburn St. to 1074 W. Fond du Lac St. includes plans to create a visitors center in the former Marine Credit Union at that site, Grant said.

The new site also will provide a parking lot for visitors, Grant said, with more visibility and accessibility on Wisconsin Highway 23 than the Blackburn Street location.

A proposal to locate the schoolhouse to the Fond du Lac Street site was reviewed in October by the Ripon Plan Commission.

After a discussion that included questions about whether the site has adequate parking, the commission voted 5-0, with one member abstaining, to approve the plan, according to the meeting minutes.

The 3.5-acre Fond du Lac Street site was donated to the Ripon Chamber of Commerce by Villa Rita Holdings LLC.

Villa Rita also is the owner of the small Blackburn Street parcel where the schoolhouse was located.

The Ripon Area Chamber of Commerce, which owns the schoolhouse, sold that lot in December to Villa Rita for $1, according to state real estate records.

Villa Rita's registered agent is Justin Krueger, a Ripon native who is chief executive officer and president of Icon National. That Scottsdale, Arizona-based general contractor renovates affordable housing sites.

Krueger in 2021 dropped plans for a mixed-use development about a half-mile northwest of the new schoolhouse site, according to

The schoolhouse's new location could cause the building to lose its placement on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a letter to the Wisconsin Historical Society from the U.S. Department of the Interior obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin.

The new site removes the schoolhouse from its historic context in downtown Ripon, according to the letter.

The ruling came on March 20 − three months after the Chamber of Commerce sold the schoolhouse's previous downtown site to Krueger's group. Krueger said he doesn't have plans for the Blackburn Street parcel "at this time."

Meanwhile, the chamber could appeal the Department of Interior's ruling or reapply for historic landmark status. Grant said the chamber and the city were pursuing both routes to restoring the schoolhouse's status.

A property on the National Register of Historic Places is eligible to seek federal and state historic preservation tax credits. Those tax credits can help pay for renovations, such as new windows, as long as they meet federal standards.

The schoolhouse was built in 1853, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"This building became significant for a meeting that took place on the evening of March 20, 1854," according to the society. "The people at the meeting were mostly Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats who believed that their respective parties could not prevent the extension of slavery to the north.

"They came out of the schoolhouse in agreement that one unified front was crucial to the fight against slavery and thus began the Republican Party."

In 1860, the schoolhouse was converted into a private residence. In 1908, it was moved from its original location at Thorne and East Fond du Lac streets to the northwest corner of nearby Ripon College − and moved again to Blackburn Street in 1954, according to the society.

The latest events come several years after a previous attempt at commercial development tied to the Little White Schoolhouse fell apart.

Milwaukee attorney and developer James Connelly promised to transform downtown Ripon when the city in 2009 agreed to provide $8.6 million to help finance a $23 million project that included a hotel, a museum honoring Republican presidents and other developments.

Connelly completed just two of the 10 separate developments: an expanded pizzeria, and a building remodeled to house two of his businesses. The city sued Connelly, a retired Foley & Lardner partner, with that litigation dismissed in 2015 after a settlement.

Tom Daykin can be emailed at and followed on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

Subscribe to get the BusinessWatch email newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: GOP birthplace move in Ripon, Wisconsin hopes to draw more visitors