(First published in the August 8, 2019 issue of City Pages)
People in Stevens Point have tried to save the historic Fox Theater for a decade. With a raze order from the city now, the community has 90 days to make it happen.
The facade of the Fox Theater is likely all that will be left, even if a plan to save it comes together within the next few months.
Main Street in Stevens Point is relatively busy these days. Everything from a shop selling locally produced goods, to an old-fashioned toy shop, a breakfast place, and a pizza joint—which all have become local legends—call Main Street home.
There’s also a movie theater and opera house. Or at least there used to be in the grand, unique and long-vacant building known as the Fox Theater.
Founded as the G.F. Andrae Opera House in 1894, a few years before Wausau’s Grand Opera House was built in 1899 (then rebuilt in 1927 into what today is the Grand Theater), the building was one of several opera houses in Stevens Point and became one of the most prominent in the city, hosting traveling musical and speaking acts. William Jennings Bryan spoke there, as did early labor leader Eugene Debs.
Beautiful theatrical venues weren’t uncommon in towns across Wisconsin. Many had their own opera houses, says Stevens Point history writer Wendell Nelson. Even the nearby small village of Amherst had its own, Nelson says. The Fox building became a theater very early on, showing silent films before the age of sound in motion picture.
The Fox Theater still stands today, but barely. The ornate, mostly brick facade is holding up, but the interior is crumbling. Support beams are failing, the roof is on the verge of collapse, and decades of water damage have taken a toll on the more than 125-year-old building.
Last month the city issued a raze order on the Fox. Stevens Point Inspection Superintendent DJ Schneider, who has been in that position since January 2018, says the building has been neglected for far too long and is past the point of temporary fixes.
The fear is not only for the safety of people walking around Main Street, but also for the buildings next to it. Should the roof collapse, it likely would push the walls outward and damage buildings next to it, and possibly people inside those neighboring structures, including Gallery Q.
There is a plan to save the Fox. There has been for some time. The owners gifted the property to the nonprofit arts organization Create Portage County, under a plan that at first would turn the Fox Theater into a performance and gathering space. That effort later shifted toward transforming the space into a new location for the IDEA Center, a co-working makerspace area currently in a county building south of downtown.
Create Portage County has raised about a third of what it would need to begin the Fox renovation project, but that benchmark doesn’t save the building completely. Even under the best circumstances, the group would be able to save only the front face and some side walls. That still leaves the interior, which has to be gutted.
But if you’ve seen the front of the building, you know why it’s worth saving. The façade’s unique architecture is steampunk fantasy—Victorian-style ornate details and a prominent sculptural relief with dials that resemble mechanical clockwork.
“It was quite a showpiece in its day,” Nelson says. “It would be a shame to see it go.”
A new vision, an old grudge
In 2011, a blistering cold January day didn’t stop a crowd from gathering under the Fox Theater for a press conference everyone knew would be more interesting than most. Ada Sanders, great-granddaughter of G.F. Andrae who built the Fox Theater, announced to the crowd that the Sanders family was willing to donate the building to CREATE Portage County, in an effort the restore the grand downtown building.
This project would be possible only if the city residents voted yes that February on a game-changing referendum: Allowing the city to borrow $5.9 million in order to tear down the adjacent Center Point MarketPlace mall. This failure of a venture was built on the tail end of the mall boom, and by 2011 stood as an albatross in the city’s downtown—barely half full in its heyday, and nearly empty on that cold morning of the press conference.
Sanders calling to tear down the mall could be seen as poetic justice. The back of the Fox Theater, including the area behind the stage, was condemned and torn down by the city in the 1980s to make way for Center Point mall. As a result, the Sanders family closed the Fox —then a movie theater— and vowed to never open it again, to spite the city.
Then, a few decades later, Ada Sanders called for the mall to come down to restore the theater to its former glory. The Fox could hold performances, events, and even movies.
Voters did vote yes in 2011, and the mall was torn down, part of it becoming the new campus for Mid-State Technical College. The Sanders family donated the Fox to CREATE Portage County in 2013, with the idea that the back end of the building would be restored to allow for a full working theater.
But by 2013, time and neglect had taken their toll. Those grand plans changed when everyone realized the building was too far gone, says IDEA Center Executive Director Greg Wright.
The new plan
No matter what happens, even in the unlikely chance the Fox is saved, basically say goodbye to the Fox Theater’s guts. Most of the building is coming down under the most recent plan. Which is a way for the Fox Theater to save face, literally.
Under the new concept for the Fox Theater, the facade would be held up by scaffolding while the rest of the building is demolished. Wright says some of the side walls could remain, since they’re abutted by buildings on both sides. Over time the building’s walls have kind of grown together, he says, and it simply makes sense to keep them.
A new structure behind this facade would house CREATE Portage County’s IDEA Center. Currently located at 1039B Ellis St., just south of the downtown core, the IDEA Center is part entrepreneur center, part co-working space, with a working podcast studio, 3D printers including an industrial sized printer roughly the size of a large treadmill. There’s also conference and board rooms and a media lab.
This space has been well-used, Wright says. Roughly 400 people come through the space per month, Wright says. The space has launched 56 businesses, and three businesses in the past month secured either state grants or venture capital funding. The IDEA Center started with a few rooms in the county-owned building it occupies and expanded to occupying much of that floor.
Although the building-new-behind-the-facade plan wouldn’t be as expensive as restoring the Fox as it sits now, the new plan still comes with a big price tag: $3.5 million. Create Portage County has quietly raised about a third of that, Wright says, and hasn’t begun the public portion of its campaign. But that timeline has accelerated now that the city has issued a 90-day raze order.
According to the breakdown of costs, the renovations make up the bulk of the cost at $2.2 million. Architecture and engineering is another $325,000, and furniture and equipment would be $365,000. The breakdown also includes a $500,000 contingency and another $110,000 for fundraising costs.
Taking down most of the building might sound like an erasure of history, but it’s not as bad as one might think, says Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza. Though he holds fond memories of the Fox from his childhood, including cleaning stints to earn free movies, much of the building’s historical interior parts were destroyed when the back end was demolished to make way for the mall. The building was never as ornate as the Grand Theater in Wausau, Wiza says, and it underwent a series of renovations that rendered it less historic.
“I think you need to kind of put that to rest; it will never be what it once was,” Wiza says. “Most people have a grander nostalgic memory of the Fox than it ever actually was.”
Wiza holds sympathy for the original owners, and thinks the city did not treat them fairly at the time. The Fox was torn down for a mall that was never even half full at its peak.
“The family that owned it was disrespected by the city a great deal when the mall went up, and I think they held a grudge. So nothing got done,” Wiza says, adding that the grudge persisted, even when the people who made that condemnation decision were long gone.
Former Mayor Andrew Halverson, in an interview with me several years ago, said that one of the first things he did when elected as mayor in 2007 was to reach out to the Sanders family to make amends. His goal was to tear down the failing mall, and allow for the Fox restoration.
Yes, the mall did come down, and the Sanders family donated the Fox to Create Portage County. But raising the funds for a renovation project of that magnitude is another matter. And in the meantime, time and vacancy continued to damage the beleaguered building.
Essentially, the Fox Theater has seen 30 years of neglect, says city Inspection Superintendent DJ Schneider. The building would be in rough shape even if last winter had been mild. But it wasn’t and the ice damage really took its toll. Temporary patches on the roof didn’t prevent the roof from leaking. A patchwork of support trusses didn’t hold up. Water damage took its toll throughout the whole building. The place has been unoccupied since the 1980s, and hasn’t been maintained with the right amount of upkeep ever since. Temporary fixes just weren’t enough to keep it safe.
A report in late 2017 showed the building was in worse condition than even its owners thought, Schneider says. A beam supporting a section of movie theater seats was failing.
Schneider came on board in early 2018, and the Fox came to his attention pretty quickly. “I wanted to work with them, to give them time to fundraise in order to rehab the building,” Schneider says of his work with Create Portage County. “I hope that, if for no other reason, the raze order will spark interest to save it.”
A similar situation happened with Altenburg Dairy Building on the south side of town. The city issued a raze order but the building’s owner teamed up with a group of food entrepreneurs to rehab the building into a local food coop.
What needs to happen in this 90-day window? Basically, Create Portage County needs to prove that it has the financial resources to at least fix the exterior to a safe standard.
“The interior work, that I don’t need done,” Schneider says. “That they can work on longer.”
If you’re interested in helping save the Fox Theater or getting updates on the campaign, you can do so at createportagecounty.org.