In 1912, Richland Center built the very first municipal auditorium in the state of Wisconsin. Over the years, the likes of Jack Benny, Liberace and many others have graced the stage to appreciative audiences. The building also housed Richland Center City offices for decades.
In 2009, the Richland County Performing Arts Council purchased the historic building for $1. Now it is known as the Richland Center Auditorium.
Historical Background and Context
Settlement began in Richland Center in 1851, shortly following its designation as the county seat of Richland County. The community grew over the following decade with Richland Center establishing itself as the hub of county political activity and also as a trade center for a developing regional agricultural economy. By 1860 Richland Center offered an array of services that included a hotel, post office, three mercantile stores, a hardware store, a wagon shop, a cobbler, a brickyard, a baker, jewelry store, and a cabinet shop. In a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding agricultural community, early area farmers provided products—predominantly wheat—for processing and sale in what remained a relatively local trade economy. In turn, they purchased supplies and equipment from retailers in the city. With the arrival of a branch line from Lone Rock of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in 1876 Richland Center’s ongoing growth was assured. The railroad opened the community it served to broader regional markets and new trade opportunities in Milwaukee and Chicago.(1)
During the 1870s a shift occurred in the production of agricultural commodities from wheat to a combination of livestock and crops that included livestock feed and small grains. This decade saw a growth in dairying, sometimes in combination with commercial poultry production. With the expansion of the dairy industry, the production of butter and cheese was relocated from the farm to the factory. The processing of butter began in Richland Center in 1880s, cheese by the turn of the century and condensed milk products early in the 20th century. Although Richland Center saw a rise in prosperity through the 1870s and 1880s, when the national economy slowed in the 1890s Richland Center’s economy also languished until early in the 1900s when a focus on dairying brought a renewed prosperity to the city and the region. (2)
From the time following the civil war forward, Richland Center was home to a large number of social and volunteer organizations. The women’s groups in the community were especially active, and in the summer 1882 the Women’s Club of Richland Center was founded. Although its stated purpose was “to aid social, intellectual and philanthropic interests,” fourteen members of the club traveled to Madison that fall to be on hand for the formation of the Women’s Suffrage Association on September 7, 1882. Two years later, the first regular convention of the Wisconsin State Suffrage Association was held in Richland Center, and in 1892 Richland Center hosted a meeting of the Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Club. According to Margaret Scott, these activities resulted in Richland Center becoming known early throughout the state as a center of suffrage interest.(3)
The Women’s Club was one of a number of women’s organizations established Richland Centerin the 1880s. The local chapters of a number of national groups also were founded at this time, including the Relief Corps, the Sweet Home Rebekkah Lodge and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). In 1892 the Alpha Circle was formed as a local organization with its membership comprised of women from various churches throughout Richland Center. The group met for Bible study on a weekly basis in the homes of its members. Through the initiative of the Alpha Circle, the Federation of Women’s Clubs was organized in 1898. Meeting for the first time that March 26th, its charter members included the Alpha Circle, the Shakespeare Club, the Relief Corps, the W.C.T.U., and the Women’s Club. The Federation, which consisted of approximately fifty women, met four or five times a year in various churches. Its purpose was civic improvement, and its first large project was to start a new public library. Before the end of 1898, a library had been established on the second floor of a downtown commercial building, and in 1905, through the efforts of the Women’s Federation, Richland Center had a new Carnegie Library. (4)
On the heels of its success in having secured the Carnegie grant that resulted in Richland Center’s new public library, by 1908 the Federation of Women’s Clubs began to actively pursue the construction of a new city hall. Since there was a shortage of public meeting space in the city, the Federation promoted the idea that a new building should include not only meeting spaces, but an auditorium so that large community gatherings could be held. The women met in April 1908 to begin planning a fund drive for the erection of a new city auditorium, and in June they circulated a petition requesting the city council call an election that would bond the city for a combination city hall and auditorium.(5)
In anticipation of constructing “some type of city building,” in April of 1909 the city purchased three contiguous lots at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Mill Street, and relocated a residence that had been situated on one of them. A special election took place on August 15, 1910 to approve bonding for the construction of the city hall with an auditorium. The election was close, but the community voted to approve $25,000 for the construction of the new building. (6) The mayor appointed an auditorium committee, which hired Bajari and Bentley of La Crosse to design the new building.(7) With drawings in hand, Percy Dwight Bentley was a La Crosse native; his father Edwin Bentley was the president of the Batavian National Bank. From 1903-07 Bentley had studied at Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio but did not complete a degree. In 1907 he enrolled as a freshman at the Armour Institute of Technology (the precursor to IIT) in Chicago. At Armour, Bentley befriended William Bajari, who had enrolled the same year. Although Bentley remained a student through 1910, he spent extended periods in La Crosse between 1907 and 1910 working for architect Wells Bennett.
Despite not having completed an architectural degree from Armour, by 1911 Bentley established the La Crosse practice with Bajari in the Batavian Bank Building. It has been suggested that this relatively unseasoned team received the commission for the Richland Center Municipal Building through the influence of Bentley’s father. The partnership between the architects was not long lived. Bajari left La Crosse in 1913, likely following the completion of the Richland Center Municipal Building.(9) The architects had completed their plans by June of 1911, and in August “James Sharp had a large force of men busy excavating” the site.(10)
In early November ten bricklayers were putting up the walls, although a couple of weeks later it was reported that, “An incipient labor strike among workers at the new auditorium stirred up considerable excitement and a complete cessation of brick laying for a number of hours. A bunch of four union bricklayers came out from Milwaukee and stirred up trouble, which was soon settled and work resumed with a small force the next day, a Saturday.” (11) Work continued, apparently without further delays, through 1912 when construction was nearly completed. In February of 1913 the Republican Observer announced, “The new city auditorium will be opened some time during the first week of March with a play ‘The Only Son.’ This attraction has been secured direct from the big cities where it has been given much praise by the press and theatre going public. Watch for announcements.” (12)
Work concluded in March 1913; on the 15th of that month the auditorium was opened with a Saturday afternoon matinee performance of “Modern Eve.” The daytime show was scheduled for the “benefit of out of town patrons,” with special consideration also extended to children in the community. The discounted fifty-cent seats in the balcony were reserved for children twelve years of age and younger. The formal dedication of the auditorium occurred that evening with the presentation of “The Only Son.” Prior to the performance, Richland Center’s Mayor P. L. Lincoln addressed the audience and extended public thanks to the community, to the building committee and to the contractor. Within months of opening, the success of the auditorium required the city to expand the width of the sidewalk in front of the building to accommodate crowds congregating before and after performances; at that time the city also placed two ornamental electric light posts at each corner of the building.(13) The building was described by Margaret Scott in her history of Richland Center:
The building was of hard red brick, 77 x 122 feet in size, with a main audience room of 640 seats and a supporting balcony of 288. Offices were provided for city officials and a large room on the top floor was fitted up with tables and chairs so that it might be used for recreational purposes. By gentleman’s agreement the Federation of Women’s clubs was granted the use of the large room on the ground floor and the small, adjacent room, which the women made into a kitchen.(14)
The Federation of Women’s Clubs raised the money to outfit and furnish the lower level space, where they met regularly for meals and other club activities. They also made the space available to other organizations to rent. Shortly following the completion of the auditorium, journalist Walter A. Dyer visited Richland Center and wrote a piece for the New York-based serial publication World’s Work. In the August 1915 issue Dyer shared his complimentary perceptions of Richland Center and provided a national audience with a glowing description of the community, which he said exemplified cooperative action and the spirit of the Middle West. Dyer’s article offers an excellent description of the features and the arrangement of spaces in the new auditorium, and comments that it was “as attractive a small theater, opera house, and lecture hall” as he had ever seen. He further observed that “its decorative beauty scarcely conceals its look of confident efficiency.” In his final analysis of the building he writes:
The Richland Center Auditorium has undoubtedly contributed in a degree to the community spirit and democracy of the place, and it has given the leaders a confidence in social experimentation. It is a popular institution with no taint of philanthropy, and it is used by the people largely because they built it themselves.(15)
The Richland Center Municipal Building and Auditorium provided a social nexus for the city and outlying communities for decades following its completion. The auditorium offered social, educational and entertainment opportunities, hosting events that included plays, lyceum lectures, political debate, recitals and concerts. Historical accounts provided by both Margaret Scott and Walter Dyer attribute the construction of the building to the tenacity of Richland Center’s women’s groups prominent at the turn of the century. Despite society having relegated women to a second tier in matters of public policy, the role of the women in Richland Center in first securing a library for the city and, then, in pushing for the inclusion of the auditorium in the program for the new city hall contributes greatly to the historical significance of the building.(16)
(1) National Register of Historic Places registration form, “Court Street Commercial Historic District,” listed with the National Park Service November 13, 1989, 8-2. The principal bibliographic reference concerning the development of Richland Center is Margaret H. Scott’s Richland Center, Wisconsin, A History, which was published in 1972. The documentation compiled relative to the Municipal Building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places both as an individual resource (1980) and as part of the Court Street Commercial Historic District (1989) provides solid background information concerning the history of the community, the construction of the building and the ways in which the building is significant to the community.
(2) NRHP Registration Form, “Court Street Commercial Historic District,” 8-3.
(3) Scott, Richland Center History, 90, 113.
(4) Scott, Richland Center History, 113-14, 136-37.
(5) “Seventy Years Ago,” Richland Observer, April 20, 1978; “Thirty Years Ago,” Republican Observer, June 9, 1938.
(6) “Bond Issue Wins Out,” Republican Observer, August 18, 1910.
(7) “Seventy Years Ago,” Richland Observer, February 12, 1981.
(8) Scott, Richland Center History, 171.
(9) Don Aucutt, “Bentley-Bajari in Smalltown [sic] Wisconsin,” Prairie, Popular and Progressive American and World Architecture, July-September, 2004, 7-19. Aucutt also prepared a manuscript entitled, “In Progress: a Life and Works of Percy Dwight Bentley,” which provides a chronology of Bentley’s professional and personal life. A copy of the unpublished document is available in the archives area of the La Crosse Public Library.
(10) Republican Observer, June 16, 1911, offered that although the plans for the building had not been accepted formally, they were available for inspection at the Richland County Bank. “Seventy Years Ago,” Richland Observer, August 27, 1981.
(11) “Sixty Years Ago,” Richland Observer, November 4, 1971; “Sixty Years Ago,’ Richland Observer, November 11, 1971.
(12) Republican Observer, February 20, 1913, 4.
(13) Richland Democrat, March 20, 1913; “Thirty-five Years Ago,” Richland Democrat, March 11, 1948.
(14) Scott, Richland Center History, 172
(15) Walter A. Dyer, “Richland Center and the Spirit of the Middle West: How life in a Small Town is made Big with Possibilities” World’s Work., August 1915, 487-88.
(16) More recently, retired UW-Richland Center Historian Jerry Bower expanded on this theme in an unpublished paper, “Social Housekeeping in Richland Center: The Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1898-1925,” n.d. See also Bower’s “The City Auditorium,” n.d. and “The Pearl Levi Lincoln Family History,” n.d.
Much later in his life and posthumously Percy Dwight Bentley received fairly notable recognition for the houses he designed in La Crosse, which are fully contemporaneous to the design and construction of the Richland Center Municipal Building. In 1957 an exhibit was being planned in Roswell, New Mexico that was intended to honor “a group of progressive American architects who lived and designed in the period 1900-1920.” (1) The exhibit curator was David Gebhard, who later became a highly respected scholar of American architecture. As part of preparing the exhibit he contacted the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce to learn more about Bentley. In his letter he commented, “…having seen many of these houses and buildings which he designed in La Crosse, I feel your community has a group of buildings of which any city would well be proud…” The exhibit featured the Salzer Residence, the Felber Residence, and a small commercial shop for O.J. Oyen, an interior designer and decorator. All of them are located in La Crosse. (2)
The accolades for Bentley’s “Prairie Style” residences were even more effusive from another highly regarded academic architectural historian. H. Allen Brooks, of the University of Toronto, published his seminal The Prairie School, Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries in 1972. He describes Bentley’s background at some length, finding his work notable for his adaptation of Wrightian form in spite of his lack of direct contact with Wright and his Oak Park associates. Following a fairly extensive description of Bentley’s work in La Crosse, Brooks concludes,
Bentley’s earliest designs were created during his first few years of active practice, at a time when he taught himself what he could not learn in school and had not learned from working with others. One expects that these designs will show indebtedness; what it unexpected is how well studied, brilliantly evolved, and well-proportioned these designs really are—works of considerable inherent merit. (3)
Brooks’ observation concerning Bentley’s ability to assimilate intuitively from his cultural milieu may provide an important clue when considering the stylistic sources for the Richland Center Municipal Building. Referred to as being in a “modernized classical style” in the NRHP district nomination, “neoclassical” in the WHS Intensive Survey and elsewhere as “Italian Renaissance,” it might be worthwhile to reconsider stylistic design within the context of the other work Bentley was producing at exactly the same time.
Aside from the Ionic capitals above the pilasters of the principal façade and a cornice that is ornamented simply with dentils and a band of egg and dart molding, there is little else to suggest classicism as the building’s principle stylistic source. Although the organization of the of the façade and the building’s proportions have classical roots, the more important influence to Bentley may have been his observations of how these features had been adapted by the progressive architects he admired during his time in Chicago. The simple and functional massing of the building, the horizontal accents, and the use of “Chicago windows” set within arched openings on the upper story all suggest such an influence. Further the decorative quality of the exterior masonry surfaces, which have been textured to carry a subtle secondary geometric theme, also point to more contemporary and progressive sources than previously suggested. Perhaps the classicized cornice and Ionic capitals were incorporated to satisfy client expectation for the design of its prominent new municipal building, even within this progressively-minded community. Since this is the type of commission that typically falls to a much more mature designer, it is possible that a certain self-consciousness may have contributed to the incorporation of overtly classical elements in this exterior at a time when Bentley’s other work was overtly modern.
(1) The La Crosse Tribune, February 8, 1968.
(2) The La Crosse Tribune, January 23, 1957. David Gebhard was a professor of Architectural History at the University of California-Santa Barbara; he had a life long interest in progressive American design of the early 20th century (particularly in the Midwest and California), and he had written a couple of books on Purcell and Elmslie. He also was an early and often-noted advocate of historic preservation.
(3) H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School, Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972)
ENGBERG ANDERSON PROJECT NO. 071755