It was almost a decade ago when I called Helmut Ajango in Fort Atkinson on the spur of the moment and asked him about the revolving bar.
I didn’t know it then — didn’t know it until this week — but Ajango had a life full of accomplishments about which a better reporter might have asked. Still, he was gracious.
“I loved the revolving bar,” I said.
I’d called Ajango, who died Nov. 15, at 81, because I was writing about the Gobbler. This was March 2005. The night before, sitting at a bar that didn’t rotate in Madison, I’d had a conversation with some young people who had never heard of the Gobbler.
“Shocking,” I said.
“What’s the Gobbler?” someone said.
Instead of answering, I wrote a column explaining how for some of us, the Gobbler Supper Club — it had a motel adjacent — lives large in Wisconsin lore. Across more than three decades, it was a frequent stop for people driving between Madison and Milwaukee.
Located just off Interstate 94 in Johnson Creek, the Gobbler, which opened in 1969 and has been shuttered since 2003, had pink and purple shag carpeting — on both floor and walls, as I recall — vinyl chairs, an interior waterfall, an elevated dance floor and, best of all, a circular bar that rotated electronically. If you took too long in the rest room, you could have trouble finding your seat when you returned.
“There was only one other one in the country, in Seattle, when we did it,” Helmut Ajango said.
Writing that column in 2005, I’d discovered that the original architect of the Gobbler — Ajango — was alive and retained an office in Fort Atkinson. I phoned him and we chatted about the Gobbler — the revolving bar and more.
“At first,” Ajango said of the bar, “it went all the way around in 40 minutes, and some people got disoriented. We settled on an hour and 20 minutes.”
Ajango told me his involvement in the project began when he was contacted by a Jefferson County farmer who admired Ajango’s design for the Fireside Restaurant in Fort Atkinson, which included a pyramid shape and centrally positioned fireplace. It was built in 1964.
“Clarence Hartwig approached us in 1965 or ‘66,” Ajango recalled. “He was raising turkeys and evidently doing really well. He wanted to get out of the turkey business and into the restaurant business. He liked what we had done with the Fireside, which is a dinner theater today. He said he wanted a better design than the Fireside.”
Ajango’s design for the Gobbler included a canopied carport entrance, but he insisted he did not intend for it to look like a turkey. The name reflected Hartwig’s turkey history, not Ajango’s design. He took some umbrage with a Minnesota critic who on a mock tribute website noted that the Gobbler resembled “an abstract sculpture of a giant turkey.”
“He said the restaurant was designed to look like a turkey,” Ajango told me. “It was not. If he looks at it and sees a turkey, he has quite an imagination.”
Ajango was friendly and helpful during our call. I wish I had probed him a bit about his background, but I had a deadline, and I didn’t.
It wasn’t until recently, when I read a fine news obituary of Ajango in the Daily Jefferson County Union, written by managing editor Christine Spangler, that I realized the full scope of the architect’s life and work.
Ajango moved to Fort Atkinson in 1958, after receiving an architecture degree from the University of Illinois. He first joined an established architecture firm, and then within a few years started his own. Ajango was a sought-after and prolific architect, designing churches, schools, office buildings, museums, municipal buildings, residential facilities and more.
I shared a phone conversation with Spangler at the Daily Union after reading her piece, and she was gracious enough to forward two earlier stories that ran in the paper, detailing an extraordinary event in Ajango’s career.
To fully appreciate its significance, one must realize Ajango was an immigrant to the United States. He was born in Estonia, a country that fell victim to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the early 1940s, a time of mass murders of Estonians judged not sufficiently loyal to Stalin. As a 9-year-old boy in 1941, Ajango saw cattle cars filled with humans on the rail tracks of his small town of Voru. He heard the cries of those inside. His own family fled the town as it burned behind them. They came to the United States in 1949.
In the late 1980s, well settled in Fort Atkinson, Ajango entered an international competition to design a memorial to the estimated 60,000 Estonians who died at the hands of the Soviet regime. It would be located in the cemetery at Tartu, where 192 were gunned down in one notorious massacre.
On Nov. 16, 1988, according to the Daily Union story, Ajango received a phone call telling him his design for the memorial had been selected. It wouldn’t be built for 13 more years — the article cites Estonia’s “economic chaos” caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union — but when it was finally dedicated, in 2001, Ajango was there with his family.
When Helmut Ajango died earlier this month, it was exactly one day short of 25 years from the moment he received the call telling him his design for the memorial had been selected.