RICHLAND CENTER — There are no restrooms, running water or heating and air conditioning systems.
There is a functioning freight elevator, but it’s powered by hand, thanks to a series of ropes and pulleys.
Electricity is limited, which is why Derek Kalish was forced to use the flashlight app on his smart phone last week to show off the basement of the A.D. German Warehouse, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest buildings in Wisconsin.
Kalish is among those leading the efforts of a nonprofit that is trying to reinvigorate the city’s downtown both economically and culturally, and to raise money to bring life back into the three-story, brick building that was built between 1917 and 1921 for commodities such as flour, sugar, tobacco and grains.
Its days as a warehouse are long past, and officials here are trying to convert the building into a home for events and perhaps artists, small businesses and a museum. The rooftop could be used for special events and include a bar with sweeping views of the downtown and surrounding hills that help define the Driftless Area. As for the basement, Kalish believes it could be the perfect spot for racks of aging Gouda, cheddar, Emmentaler and other cheeses, or perhaps barrels of whiskey from southwest Wisconsin artisans clamoring for aging space.
“The vision is that anything’s possible,” Kalish said as he pointed his phone toward the back of the 4,000-square-foot basement. “You have to endlessly explore whatever option you can and consider everything, even if it sounds crazy. You have to have a passion for this, and you have to believe in the project, and you have to believe in the benefits of the project and how it’s going to effect the community that we live in as well.”
After a somewhat slow start in 2012, energy has been building, along with the bank account, for the A.D. German Warehouse Conservancy. The organization has raised about $2 million of a $4.1 million campaign designed to restore the brick building that is largely void of windows and includes a concrete frieze around its upper edges resembling designs from a Central American Mayan temple.
The conservancy is hoping to begin exterior work next spring, which would include repairing the crumbling frieze and tuckpointing the bricks of the building where mortar has crumbled away leaving large gaps. The $1.3 million first phase would also include remodeling the first floor into an event space, sprucing up the basement and transforming the rooftop space.
About $600,000 in private donations have been raised, and the project has been approved for $1.2 million in historic tax credits. Last month, the warehouse received a major boost when it was one of 41 projects in 23 states and one of just two in Wisconsin, to receive a Saving America’s Treasures Grant, a matching grant program founded in 1999 by the National Parks Service to “help preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections that convey our nation’s rich heritage to future generations of Americans.”
This year’s recipients included the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to preserve a unique set of 120 panoramic and oversize rodeo photographs; Carnegie Hall in New York City to conserve and digitize 410 architectural drawings documenting the construction of the music hall in 1891; preservation of the August Wilson House at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; and the restoration of a building at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington.
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The program awarded $500,000 for the renovation of the Old Main building at the National Soldiers Home Residences in Milwaukee. The A.D. German Conservancy will receive $360,000 and have $720,000 on hand after it matches the donation.
“We were competing with major cities like Los Angeles and New York, the entire country,” Kalish said. “So for little ole Richland Center to get that much money, and even just the recognition alone, is kind of a big deal. It’s huge.”
Of course, there is arguably no bigger name in architecture than Wright, who was born in Richland Center and went on to design buildings around the world from his studios at Taliesin in nearby Spring Green.
The same year he designed the A.D. German Warehouse, Wright also sailed to Tokyo where he designed the Imperial Hotel. Two years earlier, in 1913, he designed Midway Gardens, an indoor and outdoor entertainment center in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Of those three buildings, only the warehouse in Richland Center remains and is the only example from that decade “in which Wright used sculptural ornamentation so extensively,” according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program.
The warehouse, built concurrently with the Imperial Hotel, features tapered interior columns and is structurally sound. It was constructed on the site of the former Badger Hotel and is adjacent to a warehouse German built in 1912 that is also owned by the conservancy.
German, who supplied area mercantiles with inventory, is believed to have commissioned Wright to design the building after Wright owed thousands of dollars to German, who budgeted $30,000 for the project but spent more than $125,000. German lost the warehouse to bankruptcy in the 1920s, got it back in 1935 and lost it again a few years later before leaving town. That led to a series of owners over the years until Harvey Glanzer bought the building in the 1970s and a few years later added a gift shop, tea room and a 42-seat theater on the first floor.
On the second floor, Glanzer displayed photographs, most twice the size of a sheet of plywood, that were intended to pay tribute to Wright. They included large-scale images of Taliesin West, the Johnson Wax Administrative Building in Racine, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and other well-known Wright-designed structures. The business was open for a time and later, for a couple of years, only on June 8, Wright’s birthday. Glanzer died in 2011, and his estate last month sold the building for $90,000 to Glenn Schnadt, a retired banker, who ultimately gave the building to the conservancy. Glanzer’s photos and remnants of his gift shop remain.
“This is really a plumb and something that should be restored,” said Mike Meadows, 84, who for nearly five decades worked in and later owned his family’s furniture store in Richland Center’s downtown. “I think people are more educated (about the building), and I think the timing is right. We have a wonderful group of people (helping on the project) and from all walks of life, and this could bring people here from around the world.”
One person drives from Chicago every other week to volunteer as a docent when the warehouse is open for public tours. Kalish, 37, works at the county courthouse, where he is deputy county clerk and an accounting supervisor. Kalish grew up in Richland Center, and has an art history degree from UW-Madison and an appreciation for architecture. He traveled the country managing stores for retailer Abercrombie & Fitch but found his way back to his hometown, thinking he and his husband would stay for a only a few years.
“Our paths are determined for a reason, and there’s a reason that my path has led me back to Richland Center,” Kalish said. “If it’s this or other things I’m not sure, but this has consumed a large part of my time for the past couple of years, so perhaps this is one of those reasons.”