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Wonder Bar won’t be demolished; 18-story, $40 million housing project stalls
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Wonder Bar won’t be demolished; 18-story, $40 million housing project stalls

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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.

After an outcry from residents, the Madison Plan Commission unanimously voted Monday to save a historic bar with deep ties to Chicago mobsters by putting a pause on an 18-story housing project that would have required the bar’s demolition.

The $40 million-plus development, which was proposed for Olin Avenue near the Alliant Energy Center, would have razed the Wonder Bar steakhouse and the Coliseum Bar & Banquet to make way for the tower of 291 apartments, 342 parking stalls and 16,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space.

Although commission members were supportive of the increase in housing, they objected to the demolition of the Wonder Bar. Some were also opposed to the scale of the project, while others thought the density was needed.

Neighbors and preservationists have called for the Prohibition-era Wonder Bar to be saved and relocated, but a new site has not been found. More than a dozen residents spoke against the development at Monday’s meeting, decrying the loss of the bar, which opened in 1929.

“There’s overwhelming support for saving this building,” said Ald. Sheri Carter, 14th District, who represents the area.

The city’s Landmarks Commission has said the Wonder Bar has historic value as a rare remaining example of a Prohibition-era roadhouse, although the structure has not been officially designated as a city landmark. It’s associated with a network of roadhouses that were operated at the edges of cities for the purpose of distributing illegal alcohol.

“I think preserving it is important,” Commissioner Bradley Cantrell said. “It does add to the history of Madison.”

The developer, McGrath Property Group, said moving the building within a one-mile radius would cost at least $250,000. Lance McGrath said he would donate the cost of demolition to the relocation, but the several options for new sites that he explored “weren’t feasible” for a variety of reasons. He said the relocation is also limited by surrounding bridges that could not withstand the estimated 800,000 to 950,000 pounds of the building.

The Plan Commission placed the housing proposal on file without prejudice, meaning McGrath could come back with a revised proposal that addresses commission members’ concerns.

“I see this as a pause,” Cantrell said.

East Wash project

Also Monday, the commission unanimously approved a six-story, mixed-use development with 290 apartments and 15,000-square-feet of commercial space at 1858 E. Washington Ave., next to what will become the Madison Public Market.

The project still needs final approval from the Urban Design Commission before the developer can move forward with construction.

Galway Companies obtained permission to demolish the Washington Plaza shopping center, the one-story, 39,696-square-foot strip mall, built in 1962, that is currently on the 3.9-acre site.

Plans for the major project include a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments with a restaurant along East Washington Avenue and a series of townhouses facing North First Street.

Cantrell said the project fits well with the city’s goal of redeveloping the East Washington Avenue corridor.

“This is a great project,” Cantrell said. “It’s going to be a nice addition to that corridor.”


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