In 2016 City Pages wrote about empty buildings in Wausau. Here’s where they are now


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

The masonic lodge transformed into Whitewater Music Hall, a cultural hub for the city.

In 2016 City Pages looked at all the empty buildings in the area. There were quite a few. 

Walking past the Whitewater Music Hall building in the former Masonic Temple, it occurred to me a lot of those buildings are now occupied or being used. Are all of them? City Pages decided to take another look at that story and find out what happened to all those buildings we wrote about in 2016, almost exactly five years ago. 

The story at the time ticked off a few folks, including former Community Development Director Chris Schock and, coincidentally, current Community Development Director Liz Brodek who was then the Wausau River District Director. They were concerned about the light it painted the city in. 

But, as Brodek points out in a recent interview, those old buildings ended up being the catalyst for new projects in the Wausau area. “I think there is a classic Jane Jacobs quote: ‘it takes an old building to make new ideas.’ And these buildings are examples of that.” 

The old Masonic Temple is now home to Whitewater Music Hall, as much a community center, beer hall and coffee shop as it is a music venue. Much of its drab red brick is now painted in a bright, colorful mural. The iconic Hiawatha train depot is now home to Timekeeper Distillery, a hot and happening venue serving up fancy cocktails. And the old Wausau Club has for some time been home to the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, putting Wausau improbably on the national art scene map. 

Some are still coming. The Washington Street train depot has housed a law firm and decor shop, but is now owned by the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce and will become its headquarters. And the chamber has plans for the former Valley Electric building as well.  

New uses for those old buildings not only brought new life to them; it also added to the city’s tax rolls. Buildings that were on the list brought in $83,083 to the city’s tax rolls from its 2020 taxes. That number wasn’t zero in 2016, when City Pages first looked at these buildings; but it was much closer to zero than to today’s numbers. 

The city still has property on the books. That’s normal. One of those is on the list, Westside Battery (and L&H Printing). Another, 1300 Cleveland Avenue, has gone through a round of Requests for Proposals (in which the city sends out a call for developers to submit proposals to redevelop a city owned site), but ultimately city leaders held off on accepting any of them in favor of dealing with environmental concerns first. 

Two other major sites include the former Great Lakes Cheese and Wausau Chemical sites, which were moved to the city’s industrial park and away from the Wisconsin River. Another major site is 180 E. Wausau Avenue, a warehouse Wausau Chemical used; plans had called for a new cannery and kitchen incubator, but that was before COVID-19. Other city-owned sites include plots in the city’s industrial park and some plots in Riverlife.

What it was: Masonic Temple

What it is now: Whitewater Music Hall 

How it’s used: Whitewater Music Hall is a concert venue, coffee shop, beer hall and has become noted as an event space. Rise Up has located its offices in the first floor of the building (where United Way once had offices), and the venue has become something of an art hub and hub for up-and-coming musicians in the area. Although COVID has somewhat crimped its ability to hold large concerts, the venue has still seen plenty of activity.

Address: 130 1st Street

Year built: 1973

2020 taxes:  $18,839

What was it: Wausau Club 

What it is now: Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art

How it’s used: The Wausau Club was already in the process of becoming the art museum when City Pages first looked at old, unused buildings in the city’s downtown. Today it is still home to the museum as well as the Bauhaus painting studio where artist David Hummer teaches painting. 

Address: 309 McClellan Street

Year built: 1865, became a club in 1901

2020 taxes: $15,621

What it was: Northwestern Trainline Depot

What it is now: Commercial space

How it’s used: Right now the train depot houses a law firm and a decor shop, but the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce has plans to relocate its offices there, which will put it closer to the Clark Island electrical building, which it also has plans for. (See the Valley Electric capsule for more details.) 

Address: 209 Washington Street

Year built: 1899

2020 taxes: $9,098

What it was: Milwaukee Road/Hiawatha Depot

What it is now: Timekeeper Distillery

How it’s used: Timekeeper Distillery did a great job transforming the old train depot into an uber cool place to grab a drink, while still maintaining the feel of the old train station. The outdoor area utilizes the train station deck and cobblestone, and the inside uses some exposed brick walls to make one cool experience to imbibe a fancy cocktail. 

Address: 720 Grant Street

Year built:

2020 taxes: $11,085

What it was: Valley Electric Building

What it is now: Still empty 

How it’s used: The Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce has plans to turn this into an innovation hub and is working with partners such as the Northcentral Technical College. City Pages has been requesting details but gets little info when asked. 

Address: 601 S. 1st Avenue

Year built: 1901

2020 taxes: $0

What it was: Westside Battery and Electric 

What it is now: Still empty 

How it’s used: A brand new request for proposals to redevelop the old Westside Battery and L&S Printing sites just went out late last month. Urban Street Bistro had plans to turn it into a restaurant, but that fell through as the financing never quite materialized; then the owner of The Filling Station had plans for a restaurant as well, but COVID put the kibosh on that. City leaders expect responses back soon.

Address: 415 S. 1st Avenue

Year built: 1953

2020 taxes: $0

What it was: Kleinheinz Dairy 

What it is now: No change. 

Address: 121 S. Second Avenue

Year built: 1924

2020 taxes: $3,435

What it was: VFW building 

What it is now: Opportunity Inc. 

How it’s used: The site was home to Opportunity Inc, which moved in after the VFW left; a service that supports developmentally disabled people living independently. The organization is a non-profit, so it doesn’t pay taxes. 

Address: 388 River Drive

Year built: 1976

2020 taxes: $0

What it was: Frontier

What it is now: Still Frontier, mostly empty 

How it’s used: No change.

Address: 521 N. 4th Street

2020 taxes: $0

What it was: Sav-o Supply 

What it is now: Atrium Lofts Apartments 

How it’s used: This was under construction when City Pages first wrote the abandoned buildings story. But a Minneapolis developer turned the old shoe factory into a low-to-moderate income apartment building with 29 total units. Apartment units around renting from about $550 to $850 per month, seeming to hold up to the promise of being affordable. 

Address: 1418 N. 1st Street

Year built: 1920

2020 taxes: $25,005

What it was: Sears

What it is now: Gone 

How it’s used: The Sears building, most recently bought by the city, nearly became a theater operated by Micon Cinema, chosen over HOM Furniture. HOM ultimately moved in the former Younkers building, and is the last bit of the Wausau Center mall to remain standing. The deal fell through after some strong-arming from the previous mall owners in a dispute over the mall’s and cinema’s walls, those close to the deal told City Pages at the time. The entire mall has since come down, and the street grid around it will be redeveloped. Plans are for mixed-use development heavy on housing, but nothing has been announced. 

Address: Washington Street

Year built: 1982

2020 taxes: $0