It might have been the end of the old Wausau Club building, one of the city’s largest, most beautiful historic landmarks, if the art museum plan hadn’t come along
Vacant buildings that are not maintained deteriorate. It just happens. And the large, historic Wausau Club in downtown Wausau has been empty for 12 years.
That’s why some city officials were warning as recently as 2013 that there might be no choice but to eventually tear down the stately, architecturally significant structure.
But its destruction would mean not only losing a landmark steeped in local history; it also would mean the utter loss of more than $2.5 million of private money already spent to save and restore it.
Luckily David Hummer came along with his plans to create a contemporary art museum in the space. The city gave final approval last week. And though much of the public buzz has been around the excitement of a new arts venue, the perhaps overlooked facet of the project is that, in an important way, it returns that $2.5 million to the community and maybe saved the building from the wrecking ball.
In 2007, more than a year after the Wausau Club closed, Tom and Connie Schuette (of the Wausau Homes family) purchased the building and invested more than $2 million for major repairs and renovations, in hopes of reopening it as a public restaurant and event space.
Then it became apparent the building needed more work than anticipated. And then the economy started going into a recession. They pulled the plug on further renovations and looked for a buyer. When none surfaced, they donated the old Wausau Club to the entity headquartered just across the street: the city of Wausau.
For about nine years the city marketed the partially-renovated building to potential developers (starting while it was still owned by the Schuettes). Surely someone would find a business use for such an architectural gem, located just a block from the Grand Theater, the 400 Block square, and downtown businesses?
But no one bit, and the building continued to languish without heating and cooling.
In 2014, Alderwoman Lisa Rasmussen complained that the Wausau Club was “an epic white elephant” to the city. The large, three-level building stretches nearly the entire block of McClellan Street, abutting the back of the Prima deli shop on Third Street.
Later that year, a potential developer was found in local businessman Mark Goffin—the only proposal the city ever got. But those plans fell through. How much longer could the building remain vacant before it deteriorated beyond reasonable repair, even with the partial renovations done by the Schuettes?
Not the whole building at once
Last week on Tuesday, a small crowd gathered for a city council meeting sat patiently through a number of fairly routine business. Only at the end of the meeting came the item the crowd had waited for: The final approval of a plan to turn the former Wausau Club building into the Museum of Contemporary Art. The plan for the Museum of Contemporary Art had changed since it had been first proposed in September.
What was going to be a $1.5 million project was scaled back to less than $200,000—a conservative estimate with a contingency on top. The project manager, artist and The Bauhaus owner David Hummer, originally was looking to update and use the entire building, using spaces such as the upstairs ballroom and the kitchen as an events center.
But that added such complications, it threatened the main focus: creating the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The new plan: Develop the Wausau Club’s first floor into MOCA, and save the second floor ballroom and possibly the basement for future development phases down the road. If the main goal is to get a museum open, why not do it in the most direct way possible? Hummer thought.
City officials agreed that was smart. It also makes Hummer less reliant on outside financing. Hummer, under the plan, will pay the money he ordinarily pays in rent for his The Bauhaus’ art studio on Washington Street to the museum instead, covering the construction loan. Any foundation donations to the museum can go toward top-notch exhibits, not immediately renovating and maintaining the entire building.
Hummer plans to have the museum open on October 7. About that first exhibit? Hummer will bring New York artist Alyssa Monks for the juried exhibit and to hold workshops for artists. For readers not attuned to the art world, Monks coming to Wausau is something like Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez coming to show the Woodchucks a thing or two at Athletic Park.
Some people have expressed surprise at Hummer’s proposal, wondering how the renovations could be done for such a low price. There are a couple of reasons.
A walk through of the building at 309 McClellan St. reveals a big difference between the first and second floors. The main level shows fresh paint, clean, stable floors and wallpaper that might be a bit dated but largely intact. This is where the museum will be located. The second floor and basement levels are in far worse condition: exposed 2x4s, exposed ceilings and open sections of walls. Fixing up those areas for use will come later.
But the biggest factor making this project possible in the former Wausau Club building is the work put into it already.
The Schuettes put more than $2 million into the most critical renovations to preserve the building. They replaced the roof, added a handicapped ramp, added plumbing and electricity, removed asbestos, and started to install a heating and cooling system (which still needs a lot of work before it’s operational).
The fact is, the building would be in far worse shape than it is today if not for the contributions of the Schuettes, according to city officials and Hummer. It’s unlikely the museum project would have happened there without that previous work. And without the museum project, the clock would have been ticking to find another use before the building deteriorates beyond reasonable repair.
“I honestly hope that when Tom [Schuette] sees what is being done, that what he did, sticking his neck out that far, that it wasn’t in vain,” Hummer says. “If it wasn’t for what he did to take care of the structure and the roof, and to get the exterior presentable, this wouldn’t be remotely possible.”
Of plans and clubs
Hummer’s museum proposal wasn’t the first for the Club, which closed as the Wausau Club on Dec. 31, 2004. To “hold” the building, Wausau’s Community Development Authority purchased it largely with funds from the local Judd S. Alexander Foundation. Shortly after, Tom and Connie Schuette bought the club for $315,000 and along with business partner Elizabeth Beckett in 2007 announced on the club’s steps that they would reopen it as The 309, a restaurant, bar, deli and banquet hall.
Much renovation happened on the building during this time, but ultimately the Schuettes abandoned the project. (City Pages’ attempts to reach out to the Schuettes and Beckett for comment were unsuccessful.)
The city thought it had found a developer in Mark Goffin after putting out an RFP in 2014. Goffin’s idea was to create a multi-business mercantile with a wine bar and spa. After some finagling with the city council — Goffin’s proposal asked for the building and $150,000, and had hoped to apply for Wisconsin Economic Development grants — the city once again found itself in possession of the Wausau Club with no developer in sight. Goffin gave up on the project for personal reasons in the summer of 2016.
City leaders weren’t sure what to expect when they put out another request for proposals for the club. Fortunately for them, they got one response: Hummer’s.
And it might have come from the perfect person. Not only is Hummer a nationally known artist, but he also had a second career in real estate and development, buying and developing property in the Chicago, and later in Nevada and California. The city seems to have the right person just in the nick of time.
Without working heating and cooling in the building, historic buildings don’t always last long.
A good example: The St. James Catholic School building, which the city acquired with an entire block of land for $1 million in 2015. The building at 602 Second St., last known as the Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ Parish Center, was torn down last year to much public dismay. But there was no saving it. The insides had decayed too much by the time the city acquired it.
Another good example is found in Stevens Point, which in 2010 tore down a century-old building that housed one of the last known examples of early car repair shops, in which a car was mechanically hoisted to the second floor to be worked on. The city found a developer with plans to turn the building into eco-friendly apartments, but when the building proved too-far-gone, the developers backed out. Stevens Point razed the brick building in the face of community protests.
The Wausau Club building was luckier. The Schuettes’ renovations may have represented a big personal loss, but it most likely saved the historic landmark by allowing for more time to find the right developer, says Community Development Director Christian Schock. Without the foundation and roof repairs, there’s no doubt the building would be in rough shape by now.
It’s hard to say at what point the city would have simply pulled the plug and razed the building. But it’s certainly true that demolition would be an option, to make way for a new development on what is, without argument, a very valuable piece of real estate.
The St. James building is a good example of what happens a building deteriorates too far to save it.
“When you tear down a building and don’t have a plan for it, or a way to replace its value, that’s a loss to the taxpayer,” Schock says. “In my mind, I don’t advocate for the tearing down of buildings, unless there’s a plan for it, like the riverfront.”
A symbol of industry
It’s no secret that city council member and historian Gary Gisselman has a bias toward preserving old buildings, but the Wausau Club holds a little more significance than the average historic building in town.
Officially designated as a club in 1901, it’s the founding place of the Wausau Group that helped develop Wausau from a lumberjack industry into a more modern economy for those times, with such early titans of industry as Walter Alexander, Frank Kelly and Benjamin Heinemann, Gisselman says. Third Street started booming with retail and services. The building contains some unique features, such a W-shaped bar in the basement. And, according to the pamphlet Great Times: The Story of the Wausau Club, a tunnel between the Wausau Club and the former Wausau Pilot newspaper, now Shepard and Schaller, was discovered during a renovation project in 1997.
The club hosted many social gatherings, but was also the place where you did business, and that was crucial to Wausau’s growing economy, Gisselman says. “The building stands as a testament to the economic growth that set Wausau apart from other communities in the river valley,” Gisselman says. “Without that cast of characters that gathered at the Wausau Club, Wausau would be a completely different community than it is today.”
For many years the club served mainly the wealthy and influential in Wausau, but that changed over the years as events were made open to the public. Current Mayor Robert Mielke remembers attending the club as a teenager for dances. A recent walkthrough prompted some memories and reminiscing by the mayor. “For me, there is so much history in that building.”
The audience gathered at the city council meeting gave a long ovation once the museum proposal was approved, something not terribly common at city council meetings. The museum received unanimous approval from the finance and economic development committees, and from the city council.
There were likely a few key reasons for this. For one, other than the city giving the building to Hummer, there wasn’t any cost to the city. The other is the intense support for seeing something happen in the building that has been largely empty since January 2005.
Hummer hadn’t even considered the Wausau Club building when he first started developing his museum idea two years ago. “One of the attractive qualities of the Wausau Club was that it looked like a museum,” Hummer says.
Wausau River District Executive Director Elizabeth Brodek Field says there is reason to be excited. The former Wausau Club building is one of the few in the River District on the national registry of historic places, and to have an approved project for the building is creating a buzz. “A lot of the viability in that project is in the concept that downtown Wausau is the place to be and to build a business and a culture,” Brodek Field says.
While Hummer is glad to make use of the building, he often has stated that he’s not in the business of historic preservation. The goal was always to build his museum somewhere, not necessarily in the Wausau Club.
It’s really more of a fortunate coincidence that contemporary art and historic preservation are meeting— in the year 2017 that the city has declared the “Year of the Arts.”
For details on the museum, visit wmoca.org