Former community theater building gone
By Scott Bellile
Over 120 years of history came crumbling down to the sidewalk Thursday, June 18, as demolition crews razed the 122-year-old downtown building that previously housed Wolf River Community Theatre and Markman’s Department Store.
The building had been vacant since 2012 and was deteriorating. In January this year bricks began falling onto the sidewalk, so adjacent Lincoln Court was closed as a public safety precaution.
Fidelity Direct Leasing, the owners since Wolf River Theatrical Troupe sold the building in 2012, determined the building’s flaws were too expensive to warrant repair. New London Building Inspector Paul Hanlon said the city did not issue a raze order for 225 W. North Water St.
“The owners themselves made the decision to take the building down,” Hanlon said.
The lot will be leased as a build-to-suit arrangement, according to Tiffany Viets, representative for Fidelity Direct Leasing. The arrangement means Stoughton-based Fidelity Direct Leasing would construct a building for the client who would then buy or lease the property.
People set down lawn chairs and brought food and even cans of beer Thursday afternoon to watch Waupaca-based Faulks Bros. Construction demolish the former theater. Several voiced hopes for either a public park or a parking lot to replace the plot.
Because Fidelity Direct Leasing will retain private ownership, residents are unlikely to see either in the near future.
Hanlon said the city had looked into buying the building from Wolf River Theatrical Troupe to develop a parking lot several years ago. They determined the demolition would be too costly for the few parking stalls the lot would have room for.
Faulks Bros. Construction started tearing down the back of the building, the north side, around 8 a.m. on June 18. They advanced to the front by the afternoon, and excavators knocked the building to ruins by 4 p.m.
Bree’s Inn bartender Bill Bree said it was sad to see the theater knocked down, but it’s also a unique experience. The sight reminded him of watching the Franklin House on Pearl Street get demolished as a child in the early 2000s.
“I’ve always been fascinated with watching any building go down,” Bree said.
Lucas Jensen, a Wolf River Theatrical Troupe member since he was 6 years old in the late 1990s, said the building played a key part in his life growing up. He was disappointed that the city didn’t step in and save the building.
“It was horrific,” Jensen said. “It was awful. I spent 11 years of my childhood in that building.
“That whole building was a piece of our history. We just let it go like it didn’t matter.”
Retired Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Hoffman rode his bicycle to the site Thursday morning while it was being prepared for demolition. He had inspected the building in the past and said it showed problems with electrical wiring, exit doors and deteriorating wood infrastructure.
“No matter what you do, it’s still an old building,” Hoffman said. “You’re not going to change that.”
He said old downtown buildings across the region lack proper maintenance, perhaps because it’s expensive or because business owners may focus more on beautifying their storefronts. Thus more buildings in New London and surrounding communities are suffering from deterioration.
Hanlon said as Faulks Bros. Construction prepared for demolition the morning of June 18, a worker barely nudged a back staircase with a machine and the north wall came tumbling down.
No injuries from falling debris were recorded from the time Lincoln Court was closed in January until the June demolition, Hanlon said.
Hoffman said the building had beautiful brickwork and it was unfortunate to see it go.
“People would like it to live forever, but it ain’t gonna happen,” Hoffman said.
Battle for remnants
Business owners and community members expressed disappointment in the property owner’s decision to not salvage the building’s light fixtures, awnings, signage and New London artist Tony Bosquez’s paintings.
Bosquez created seven paintings for the exterior of the theater that were added in 2003. The works depicted Victorian-era actors. The five paintings displayed on the front were fitted between awnings and balconies and helped modernize the downtown landmark.
New London Public Museum Director Christine Cross said the museum did not request any items because space is already limited there.
Viets said two parties called her asking for pieces, but Fidelity Direct Leasing could not salvage property. The building was under raze order, she said, so removing pieces would have posed a safety risk.
Hanlon said New London did not issue a raze order. A call to Viets for clarification was not returned before press time.
Wolf River Theatrical Troupe President Margie Brown said she placed multiple calls to the owner requesting pieces but never heard back.
When the building was razed on June 18, the artwork, light fixtures and other components in high-demand became part of the rubble.
Jensen said he thought all the pieces of the theater would be gone because nothing was preserved. But he and other troupe members continued to make calls to see if anything had been saved.
On Tuesday, June 23, Faulks Bros. Construction Project Coordinator Cody Loughrin returned to Bosquez two paintings found among the debris. Each painting had a chunk missing, but Bosquez said they could be fixed.
Bozquez said he was not attached to the paintings as they were commissioned work, but as he loaded them into his pick-up truck he said he was glad to have them returned.
Jensen said he was relieved two paintings were saved. He said they were recognized around town and perhaps the troupe could put them to use in their new home, depending on Bosquez’s plans with them.
“To the troupe they’re more sentimental than anything,” Jensen said.
Wolf River Theatrical Troupe
Wolf River Theatrical Troupe had purchased the building from Markman’s Department Store in 1994, according to Brown. The group did an extensive remodeling of the building in 2003 and introduced Bosquez’s paintings.
After close to two decades of performances at 225 W. North Water St., the troupe sold the building to Fidelity Direct Leasing in 2012 and continued without a home. They staged productions in venues including Crystal Falls Banquet Facility, Shamrock Heights Golf Club, New London High School and VFW Post 2732.
This summer the troupe will move into the REAL Opportunities Outreach art center at 304 St. Johns Pl. Located at the former Cornerstone Church, the art center opened in May.
According to the New London Public Museum’s Walking Tour of Historic Downtown booklet, the 225 W. North Water St. building was constructed in 1893. Early owners considered making it an opera house but instead rented it out as retail space.
B. Siber’s Dry Goods Store was the first business to move in at the turn of the century. Melvin Gallae purchased the building in 1900. For the next decade he leased to several tenants, including a doctor’s office, the Heurer Brothers furniture and undertaking business, a grocery store, New London Business College and second-floor residents.
The grocery store, established by Paul Kusserow and Gus Vandree, occupied half of the first floor when it started around 1902 and expanded to the entire building by 1919. Vandree was working solo by then and broadened the inventory of G.R. Vandree to dry goods, clothing and shoes.
Markman’s Department Store moved into the building in 1952. Vandree’s moved to 207 N. Water Street, where the Water Street Vintage antiques store is located today.
Wolf River Theatrical Troupe purchased the building in 1994 and Markman’s too moved to 207 N. Water St.
Cross said the museum has resources if people are interested in the history of 225 W. North Water St. or other old buildings.
“As with any time the historic fabric is torn, it’s sad,” Cross said. “But you can only save so much and do so much.”