September 22, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.

City takes legal action over ‘dilapidated’ fire escape on Brown St.

Complaint alleges downtown building is unsafe for occupancy
Pictured is the front view of 28 N. Brown Street in Rhinelander. The City of Rhinelander has filed a legal action in Oneida County circuit court requesting that a judge order the building unsafe for occupancy due to a “dilapidated” fire escape. (River News photo)
Pictured is the front view of 28 N. Brown Street in Rhinelander. The City of Rhinelander has filed a legal action in Oneida County circuit court requesting that a judge order the building unsafe for occupancy due to a “dilapidated” fire escape. (River News photo)

By HEATHER SCHAEFER
Editor

The City of Rhinelander has taken legal action against the owner of a more than 100-year-old downtown building alleging that he has failed to repair an “unsafe and dilapidated fire escape.”

In a civil complaint filed Sept. 15, city attorney Steve Sorenson alleges that the property — 28 N. Brown Street — “is being rented and occupied by individuals in violation of the Rhinelander City Codes and the Fire Codes of the State of Wisconsin.”

The defendants are Earl D. Meinen Revocable Trust and Dean Meinen Revocable Trust which are described as the owners of the building. 

Earl D. Meinen is the legal fiduciary representative of the two trusts, according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, Meinen was first mailed a notice of violation related to the condition of the fire escape on Nov. 11, 2022.

Additional correspondences are also included in the complaint.

“The defendant has been personally notified and sent several emails with notices as to the (alleged) noncompliance, and has done nothing to complete the necessary repairs to the noncomforming structure or to make the premises compliant with the City and State Codes, thus failing to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of the renter occupants of the building and the general public,” Sorenson wrote in the complaint.

The city’s complaint asks the court to find that the property is “out of repair, not compliant with applicable City and State codes and unfit for occupancy and use.”

The city is also asking the court to direct that all persons occupying the building vacate the premises and order Meinen to replace the fire escape and otherwise bring the building into compliance.

The complaint does not indicate how many tenants reside in the building, which has been a part of the downtown architecture for over a century.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the building began life as the Oneida Hotel.

“The four-story north section was built in 1916 for the Rhinelander Hotel Company,” according to the state Historical Society website listing on the building. “H. T. Liebert, of Wausau, was the architect ("Stock Company Will Build New Hotel Here," New North, February 24, 1916, p. 1). The matching three-story south section was erected in 1926 (New North, May 27, 1926, "Build Addition to Oneida Hotel."). The Oneida Hotel is a Prairie School commercial building, with three- and four-over-one double-hung sash windows, brick pilasters and decorative brickwork suggesting column elaboration, parapet with stepped cap, raised brick panels at parapet level, stone beltcourses and copings, stone window surrounds at the second story, and stone panels with simple geometric ornament. The Oneida Hotel was financed by the Rhinelander Hotel Company, a local stock venture organized for the purpose. Insurance executive A. E. Weesner was president, and E. O. Barstow was secretary, of the stock company. There were a total of 100 rooms in the 1916/1926 building. It remained the Oneida Hotel until it was purchased by Charles E. Fenlon in 1951 (Kris Gilbertson, "Oneida Hotel Sold to Fenlon in 1951," Rhinelander Daily News, March 19, 1991). From 1951 until 1982, it was called the Hotel Fenlon. The hotel rooms were converted into 31 apartments beginning in 1982 (Kris Gilbertson, "Fenlon Hotel Was Northwoods Convention Site," Rhinelander Daily News, May 18, 1982). There was a restaurant/lounge and lobby on part of the first floor of the north section (26-32 North Brown Street) until at least 1982. The north storefront housed a bank in 1920 (perhaps the Oneida National Bank), and the Glass Shelf Gift Shop from at least 1953 until at least 1978. There was a J. C. Penney store in the south storefront in the south section (16 North Brown Street) from 1927 until 1958. F. W. Woolworth was located in the north storefront from 1927 until at least 1936 (Rhinelander City Directories).”

The city’s complaint also includes a request for payment of fines incurred at the rate of $100 a day.

The River News offered Sorenson an opportunity to provide further comment. 

“The lawsuit speaks for itself as does the condition of the building,” he wrote in an email to the River News. “This was not an action taken by the City without due diligence,” he added. 

“It is still the hope of the City that Mr. Meinen will bring the building in compliance with the safety codes so that no tenants will be harmed. The Code Enforcement department is authorized by ordinance to take all appropriate action. As City Attorney I have determined that the City Code Enforcement department has done every thing that is required and has tried working with the owner but have been left with no alternative but to take action to protect the occupants and their guests.”

The River News also reached out to Meinen.

In an email to the newspaper, he indicated he is in the process of resolving the fire escape issue.

“I have been trying to get it fixed but the bureaucracy is ridiculous,” he wrote. “I finally got an answer from my structural engineer with a meeting on Monday the 24th with my contractors to fix the maintenance problem. It’s been a long road since spring to get a permit to do the maintenance...”

In a follow-up phone conversation Wednesday, Meinen said he had yet to see a copy of the city’s complaint.

“I wanted to get this done a long time ago,” he said. “They’re making me jump through hoops,” 

Meinen also noted that his work in rehabilitating the aging property has greatly improved the downtown area.

“It was a flop house when I bought it,” he said.  

When asked how many tenants reside in the building, Meinen said there are 47 apartments but approximately 8 or 9 of the units are vacant at any given time. As of press time, it was unclear if the tenants were aware of the legal action. 

Also, it should be noted that Meinen believes initial construction of the building began in 1900 rather than 1916.

Heather Schaefer may be reached at [email protected].


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