Stamm House

1847 at the Stamm House, now open on Century Avenue in Middleton, required months of hands-on tiling, sandblasting and heavy work to restore the building to its former glory. 

The renovations to the historic Stamm House in Middleton took nearly two years, more than half a million dollars and months of hands-on tiling and jack-hammering by the owners and managers of the property.

But don't call it a labor of love.

1847 at the Stamm House, which opened to the public on Tuesday, may be built on a lot of sweat equity, but it's also a shrewd business proposition. 

"I don't want people to think I'm foolish," said Troy Rost, who bought the building at 6625 Century Ave. in Middleton in June 2013. 

"I love my work, but ... you don't do it for free," he said, noting that he sees the Stamm House both as a successful restaurant and real estate that he could, eventually, sell.

"I want the business to succeed, but I don't have family money," he said. "I'm not going to bet my house and my kids' education on it." 

Rost, who also owns the Forequarter building at 708 E. Johnson St., understands that locals have a deep connection to the Stamm House. The first part of the building was built in 1847 (with two additions). For years, the Stamm House was billed as "Dane County's oldest tavern."

There are stories, which haven't been confirmed, that the Stamm House was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. As the Pheasant Creek Hotel, it was a stagecoach stop. For several decades in the early 20th century, Rost said, former German pilot Heine Fuller and his French wife, Marie, owned the building and ran it as a restaurant. 

It has since had a series of owners, including the Pohlkamp family and Jim and Mary Sweeney, who after 25 years sold the Stamm House in 1995 to Jeff Bunge and Donna Small.

The Stamm House, a classic supper club, became known for fish fry. In 2001, the tavern got a mention in Gourmet magazine for its chicken and dumplings.

The most recent iteration was owned by Joan Scheible and closed in 2011

"We've had lots of people give us a lot of input, what they want to see," Rost said. "I've had German people who live in Middleton ... say, 'You're making it a German restaurant, because it's a German building.' Well, it's a German building, it's a French building. You can make an African American, a French restaurant, a Native American restaurant. 

"It doesn't belong to any one set of people. Before it was a supper club it was a grocery store, it was a saddle shop, it was a dance hall. It has all these histories." 

Restoring the Stamm House involved peeling some of that history back to reveal the bones of the building. 

Rost and his partners, including the managerial team of Brian and Alicia Hamilton and head chef Nick Johnson, went through layers upon layers of wood paneling, concrete and tiles to reveal closed-up windows, high ceilings and stone walls. 

Because it had already been renovated so many times, there were few "treasures," like old newspapers or other antique ephemera, to be found. 

"We tried to go back to the original structure," Rost said. "There was never any one layer that was immaculate. It was a lot of, 'let's close the restaurant for a week'" and make upgrades. 

"We'd see three or four inches of wood panel on the wall, and none of it could be cleaned," Rost said. "It was all smoked up and full of grease." 

As part of the renovation, Rost moved the kitchen from upstairs to downstairs, where chef Johnson and Brian Hamilton helped hand-tile the walls and floors. The bathrooms moved to the front entryway, where there are several booths for waiting diners. 

Rost decided that, if he was going to redo the building completely, to "put people in spaces they want to be in." That meant a large patio out front, looped by strings of white lights, and bars on both levels. 

For "at least three months in the coldest part of winter," Rost chipped away at plaster on the walls to reveal the original stone, which he then sandblasted. Dumpsters carted away 14 tons of detritus from that job. 

It was labor intensive, Rost allowed, but also "the best thing for the building." 

The opening of 1847 at the Stamm House was originally anticipated for as early as spring 2014, but delays abounded as Rost and his team worked around elderly wood flooring, cleaned out a cellar to make a cool stone "chef's cave" below Johnson's kitchen and found creative solutions for the building's challenges. 

"Nothing's easy in this building," Rost ssaid. "The city was fantastic to work with, but (we had) to figure out, for example, how to get a grease trap for the dishwasher (under) short ceilings. There are things you don't have to worry about when you're doing a new building." 

Rost's next project is the old Flagstad Flower Shop at 1965 Winnebago St. on the near east side. The business, which had operated since the 1930s, closed in December 2014

"I don't know that I'll do anything this substantial again," Rost said at 1847 at the Stamm House's soft opening. "I want to do it the right way. 

"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I love this place."

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Since 2008, food editor Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, sparkling wine and good stories. She lives in Madison with two cats and too many cookbooks.