'Love's noble tribute'
Menomonie restores a landmark's Victorian glamour and renovates its legacy
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
Well over a century has passed since the Milwaukee Sentinel dubbed Menomonie’s then-new Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater "one of the finest and most imposing public buildings" in Wisconsin. It was "love’s noble tribute," according to the article published in 1890, a gift to the community from a wealthy local couple grieving the death of their young daughter.
The building's stately sandstone exterior and its opulent Victorian-era interior inspired admiration far and wide. Inside, philanthropists Andrew and Bertha Tainter seemingly overlooked no detail and spared no expense--from its marble stairwell to its brass fixtures and leaded glass windows to the intricately carved woodwork, luxuriant fabrics, and its state-of-the-art water-powered pipe organ. Collosal, rough-cut stone walls, deep-set windows and a dramatic arched entry evoked the authority of a medieval castle, a style indicative of the times and of the Tainters' refined taste. They donated the elaborate monument to meet the community's needs for a library, lecture hall, Unitarian meeting space and performance venue.
Today, freshly restored and renovated by a Minneapolis architectural firm, the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts retains its stature, both as a community treasure and as an award-winning historic theater. It appears on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Wisconsin Historical Marker site. Recently, restoration efforts earned the Mabel Tainter Literary, Library and Educational Society the 2008 Historic Restoration Award from the Wisconsin Historical Society. And this fall, the magazine Architecture MN paid the Center homage with a splashy, full-color cover and feature story that befits the building's grandeur.
The Tainters would likely have been pleased. The accolades demonstrate that last year's work continues not only to advance their artistic vision but also to memorialize their daughter Mabel, who died suddenly in 1886. What's more, the completed renovation and restoration signify a return to the Tainters' 120-year-old mission, that of establishing a regional cultural center in Menomonie.
Restoring the Tainter's vision
Gary Schuster, the Tainter Center’s Executive Director, saw the community through the extensive renovation, which initially drew skepticism from local preservationists: “While we needed to resolve safety and accessibility issues by adding an elevator and a new entrance, no one wanted to see a glass and steel structure stuck on the back of the building.” Several proposals for an accessible annex were rejected, none of them practical, Schuster says.
Then, by chance, a historic quarry reopened for business. When UW-Stout alumnus Aaron Keopple purchased nearby land once owned by Dunnville Cutstone Company, the design team saw a unique opportunity to match the annex to the original structure: they would use rock from the very same quarry that outfitted the Center's exterior in 1889.
However, the community's desire for aesthetic consistency posed an ironic challenge to the renovation team. Approval from federal and state groups was necessary to retaining the site's status on the National Register and to using the historic tax credits that would make the expensive project possible. And National Park Service guidelines governing historic building rehabilitation stipulate that any addition to a historic site must be distinguishable from the old.
It was on these grounds that the State Preservation Office initially opposed the Dunnville Cutstone idea. However, when Keopple pointed out that the newly quarried stone might take a hundred years to match the texture and hue of the old, the Office ultimately gave its consent. Finally Miller Dunwiddie, the firm representing the Tainter Center, was freed to propose a design everyone could support. By all accounts, the completed addition successfully blends with the old, while looking distinctively new.
Koepple says supplying the sandstone for the addition gave him “a real appreciation for the enormity of the work that went into the building when it was first constructed.” His team used four-inch thick stone, while stonecutters building the main structure had used rock that was at least 16 inches--and sometimes as much as 24 inches--thick. The addition is located on the north face of the building, opposite the original entrance on the south side.
With the annex issue resolved, residents embraced the restoration as well. Schuster says scrupulous efforts to restore the auditorium chairs, to match the look and feel of the draperies and carpets, and to repair the hand-stenciled walls “convinced everyone we were moving in the right direction.” Of course, a large portion of the project's expenses went toward major structural upgrades, changes not necessarily noticeable to visitors. Besides updating the plumbing, wiring and other mechanical systems, the Center's east side had sustained water damage from its roof to its foundation.
Though he calls the Landmark Theater the “jewel of the building,” Schuster says his favorite room is the old library. Still in use as a reading room and reception area, he says the place exudes warmth and a sense of community, just as he imagines it did in 1890. Its centerpiece is the mahogany reading table with a round furnace at its middle that continues to heat the room. Other areas now available for community use are the art gallery, a studio and a public room.
Renewing the Tainters' mission
Since coming on board as Executive Director in 2003, Schuster has spearheaded a sort of spiritual restoration at the Tainter Center to accompany its most recent architectural one. Its legacy as a community cultural center had survived various rough patches brought on by the decline of vaudeville in the early 1930s, the library relocation in the 1980s and even a short-lived plan to gut the building and move in city offices in the 1950s. In its recent past, the building had actually been locked down.
While patrons could make special arrangements for private tours, the Tainter Center's closed-door policy likely caused 21st century residents to view the building more as a beloved monument than as community gathering place. Schuster reopened the building to the public five years ago, even before the renovations, and residents slowly began to return. "But changing old habits takes time," he notes.
Now ADA-compliant, the Tainter Center is a physically accessible structure, but staff also strive for accessibility in its programming. These days, it hosts affordable events that appeal to many tastes and needs--everything from community and professional theater, to both popular and classical musical acts, to comedians, to free art programs for kids. Unitarians still hold meetings there, and local couples rent the space for their weddings.
"The only thing we've struggled with is dance. Dance companies find our 24 by 20-foot stage to be too confining for their performances," he says. Otherwise, the theater’s small size--there are only 270 auditorium seats--creates a memorable experience for performers and audience members alike. “By the end of the night, there’s never a show that doesn’t get a standing ovation,” says Schuster.
Schuster hopes students from nearby UW-Stout, who have begun using the space more regularly, will lead the way for the rest of the community. Adding wireless technology and a café has helped. When he finds students studying and napping on the Center's comfortable new furniture, he's thrilled. “I love it!" he says. "I always tell the staff that if the building’s empty, we’re not doing our jobs."
Yet, from a bystander's perspective, it would be hard to accuse Center staff of not doing their jobs. The renovation and restoration exemplify a successful collaboration between Center, city, architect and state. As a result of their efforts, Menomonie not only retains its architectural gem, but it also renews the Tainters' contribution to the social and intellectual health of the community. A loving and noble tribute, indeed.