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On Wisconsin: No residents but a campus remains

On Wisconsin: No residents but a campus remains

From the On Wisconsin series
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WATERTOWN — The swimming pool has been drained, prayers in the chapels are few and the bedrooms are empty.

The large commercial kitchen has been rendered to catering while the gymnasium hosts the occasional youth basketball game and regular Jazzercise classes.

Most of the corridors, day rooms and common spaces of what was once Bethesda Lutheran Home are void of activity after years of transformation that have integrated Bethesda-supported adults into group homes in communities throughout Wisconsin and 13 other states.

But the 400-acre campus along the Rock River on this city’s south side that at one time was home to more than 650 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and 750 employees could be coming back to life.

In what form is unclear. But Bethesda Lutheran Communities officials have begun a process they hope to formulate over the next year that could bring new uses to the historic property that has brought international attention to Watertown for more than 100 years and has been an economic engine for the region for decades.

“I can’t give you a definitive plan, like we’re going to do A, B, C and D right now in terms of the functionality of it. We’re looking for ideas,” said Mike Thirtle, Bethesda’s president and CEO. “There’s a history and a legacy here. It’s a beautiful facility, and we need to figure out how to repurpose it the right way. The closer we can stay to our mission the better, but I’m also open to other ideas.”

The facilities include 350,000 square feet of potential office space and 120 residential rooms in six, 20-room living areas. There are commercial laundry facilities, meeting rooms and two chapels. One of the chapels was built in the early 1900s while the other was completed in 1982 for $2.5 million and was designed with only partial pews to allow for more wheelchairs.

Furniture from much of the property is being inventoried for sale likely later this year. The barns where Bethesda residents once milked cows have been gone for years, but the property includes a mix of farmland and wooded areas plus Camp Matz, established in 1969, that will continue to operate.

Growing up in Watertown, not knowing someone with a connection to Bethesda was an anomaly. This is where my mother worked for nearly 35 years caring for residents. My sister, Chris, worked there during summers and breaks during college. A neighbor, Doris Reese, was in housekeeping and Harold Uttech, who lived across 8th Street from us, worked for more than four decades in Bethesda’s printing shop.

The Bethesda campus was a community and employed many in the city, county and beyond. Its transformation will be noticed by generations.

Thirtle, who came to Bethesda in 2013, said he wants to avoid doing any redevelopment in a piecemeal fashion. Instead, he would prefer a master plan for the property with a common theme that fits the mission of Bethesda and, ideally, is implemented by a single developer. Possible uses for the campus include creating work opportunities for the people cared for by Bethesda, youth sports facilities, weddings, housing or lodging, local food processing or using some of the campus as a care facility for veterans or seniors.

“It’s a significant opportunity for (Bethesda) and for the city,” said Kim Erdmann, executive director of the Watertown Economic Development Organization. “You really have a wonderful opportunity to create a unique location, and I say that because of the acreage and the buildings.”

Watertown is uniquely positioned between Milwaukee and Madison, just north of Interstate 94, is on the Highway 26 corridor and has grown by 13.4 percent over the past 15 years to 23,861 people. The city, known for its Octagon House, First Kindergarten and Gosling mascot, is home to Wis-Pak, a major producer of Pepsi-Cola products. In the city’s downtown, a redevelopment plan is being considered that would transform space along Main Street to make way for a hotel and public plaza along the river while the nearby library is also considering expansion.

The redevelopment of the Bethesda campus could also have far-reaching impacts for the city.

“This is a cultural center in this community, and we take that really seriously,” Ross Boettcher, a Bethesda spokesman, said during a tour of the grounds. “We want to make sure we make the right decisions when we take those next steps.”

According to the Watertown Historical Society, Bethesda was founded in 1904 as Faith House in a rented building on Margaret Street. At that time, there were five clients and eight employees, but in 1906 Faith House moved to Milwaukee after losing its lease. The operation moved back to Watertown in 1909 to 40 acres of donated land and until 1924 was referred to as the Lutheran Home for the Feeble-Minded.

In the 1920s, Bethesda was home to 270 residents, a full-time chaplain and workshops. In 1956, the campus cared for 460 people with a $2 million building campaign started for the Ritter Memorial Dormitory and a nine-room school that would allow Bethesda to care for up to 750 people. The first of what is now 19 Bethesda Thrift Shops, opened in 1960 in Watertown, and by 1965, enrollment was at 660 people on the Bethesda campus.

But in 1961, Bethesda opened its first group home for women with disabilities who did job training with Bethesda’s laundry, kitchen, infirmary, sewing and housekeeping teams. They later were placed in independent job settings with local companies, Boettcher said. That move began a trend of deinstitutionalization for Bethesda that led to adding out-of-state group homes in 1977. By 1997, Bethesda had 39 homes in 11 states, a number that has grown to about 300 homes in 14 states serving 2,000 people.

Those numbers include the $6 million spent on nine homes recently constructed in Watertown that led to the last 60 residents moving off the Watertown campus earlier this year. The new homes, built among traditional neighborhoods throughout the city, include private bedrooms, accessible bathtubs, full kitchens and non-slip flooring. The homes also have attached garages large enough to house a specialized transport van that helps the group home better blend with its neighborhood.

“We are at a crossroads in this organization, and it’s all good, but how do we figure out how to serve people with our Christian mission?” said Thirtle, who had a long career in the U.S. Air Force that included a stint at Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and worked for RAND Corp. “We’re almost like a stealth organization now.”

John David grew up in Watertown, went off to play college football at Indiana and returned to work in the family paint store for several years. He is also the city’s mayor and knows the important role that Bethesda has played in Watertown’s history and what its redevelopment could mean for the city’s future.

“There is a ton of possibilities,” David said. “The services that they provide for the developmentally disabled certainly have helped put Watertown on the map. They’ve meant a lot to the city.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at


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