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With little time left, neighbors hope to save historic Madison bar with mobster ties
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MADISON HISTORY | WONDER BAR

With little time left, neighbors hope to save historic Madison bar with mobster ties

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Wonder Bar

Preservationists are trying to save and relocate the Prohibition-era Wonder Bar, set to be demolished for an 18-story housing and commercial project near the Alliant Energy Center.

With no good options, neighbors and preservationists still hope to save a historic bar with deep ties to Chicago mobsters that’s threatened by demolition as part of a development near the Alliant Energy Center.

McGrath Property Group hopes to raze the Coliseum Bar & Banquet, 232 E. Olin Ave., and historic Wonder Bar steakhouse, 222 E. Olin Ave., for an 18-story, $40 million structure, which would offer 291 apartments, 16,000 square feet of commercial space and five floors of parking.

Lance McGrath said he has a history of incorporating older buildings into redevelopments when it makes sense, but that the far smaller scale of the Wonder Bar and its architectural style don’t fit with the current project.

“The building can be moved, but it is a significant undertaking,” McGrath said, adding that it would cost at least $250,000 plus other expenses and that he’d donate the cost of demolition toward a relocation. “The main issue is finding someone willing to take on the project who owns a site within a relatively close proximity.”

The city’s Landmarks Commission said the Wonder Bar has historical value to the city as a rare remaining example of a Prohibition-era roadhouse.

“This is really gritty,” said city preservation planner Heather Bailey. “It’s about organized crime operating at the edge of the city.

“I think that it would be a loss to the city’s history for this structure to be demolished,” she said. “Often our landmarks are about celebratory history, and this place tells a more difficult story about what happened at the edges of the city during Prohibition. These places help us tell a more complete story.”

Online petition

Neighbors who hope for more time to find a new home for the Wonder Bar have started an online petition expressing opposition to demolition and asking that serious consideration be given to the historic value of the building and an alternative to its destruction be sought. If a new location can be found, the group may launch a fundraising effort to support the move.

“The Wonder Bar is a victim of lack of advance planning,” said Carrie Rothburd, a neighbor and member of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation’s advocacy committee. “At this point it would take a potential owner to drop into the scene with a serious infusion of cash. The best — really, the only — option for saving the Wonder Bar is finding a new location for it nearby as soon as possible.”

McGrath’s proposal will be considered by the Urban Design Commission on Wednesday, the Plan Commission on July 26, and the City Council on Aug. 3. He intends to start construction in the fall.

Notorious history

The Wonder Bar, emblematic of the outposts gangsters established at roadhouses along highways in rural areas and on the outskirts of cities in the 1930s for the illegal distribution of liquor, is woven into the history of some of the most notorious figures of the Prohibition era — the warring Chicago gangs led by Al Capone and Roger Touhy.

Originally dubbed “Eddie’s Wonder Bar,” the two-story, fortress-like structure was financed by Roger Touhy and built in the vernacular style, finished with brick and second-floor apartments for his brother, Eddie Touhy, in 1930.

The establishment stayed in the Touhy family for two decades. After several changes of ownership, Dennie Jax took the Wonder Bar back to its roots as a full-fledged steakhouse in May 2009. The atmosphere remained classic, with a fine-dining ambience, stone fireplaces downstairs and upstairs, and walls holding photos of old-time film stars and gangsters.

Wonder Bar - interior

Patrons enjoy drinks in the bar area of the Wonder Bar in June 2011.

Jim Delaney purchased the Coliseum Bar and Wonder Bar in 2017. The establishments were doing well, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close both in March 2020. The Wonder Bar reopened in September, but the Coliseum Bar, which relies on much larger sales volume, opened for a few weeks in June before closing and remaining shuttered. The Wonder Bar closed at the end of May.

Lack of a plan

So far, there seems no simple path to saving the Wonder Bar.

The building, approximately 48 feet by 48 feet, is estimated to weigh between 800,000 to 950,000 pounds, which eliminates any sites south of the Beltline due to weight capacities of overpass bridges, McGrath said.

The estimated $250,000 moving cost doesn’t include expenses to deal with trees, street lights, traffic lights and signage that may need to be removed, and a relocation site would also have to be prepared for the building, he said.

The city Parks Division explored the possibility of moving the structure to Olin Park, but the cost to make it an accessible public space “would be significant and beyond the Parks Division’s capacity to take on without significant additional resources,” parks superintendent Eric Knepp wrote to McGrath this week.

“I support the effort to save the Wonder Bar,” said Ald. Sheri Carter, 14th District. “However, finding the right location and the monies needed to relocate the building will be the greatest hurdle to overcome.”

‘Something cool’

Janelle Munns, a neighbor who renovated a vintage building at 109 E. Lakeside St. said it’s unfortunate the Wonder Bar building doesn’t have historic preservation protection and that it could be incorporated into a scaled-down project — “something cool, something different, someplace that those who care about history and vintage character would like to live.”

Wonder Bar - window

Unlit neon signs fill a window of the now-closed Wonder Bar.

“The major roadblocks are time, cost and, above all, lack of advance planning,” Rothburd said, noting that some are also concerned about the project’s height and density.

“But I cannot stress enough that Mr. McGrath is not the villain here. While he has made no changes whatsoever to his plan to reconcile neighbors’ comments with his design, the city has also shown no willingness to incorporate citizen input into planning for the neighborhoods surrounding the Alliant Energy Center.”

“If it ends up going the demolition route, then we would do whatever we can to salvage materials in the building,” McGrath said.

“No one likes to see old buildings get torn down, including myself, but in this case it is necessary to create much-needed housing,” he said. “It will be a significant addition to the city of Madison’s tax base and will hopefully help propel the vision of the Alliant Energy Center master plan and the surrounding Destination District.”

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