APPLETON — Appleton’s city hall and opera house was erected in 1895 at a huge cost to the small prairie community, evidence of the lofty aspirations of the town’s first inhabitants.
The building, listed since 1977 on the National Register of Historic Places, now represents the aspirations of today’s residents.
The historic City Hall and adjoining masonry building which was built in 1983 by Pioneer Television is now the care of a non-profit civic organization known as Preserve Appleton’s Heritage.
Its goal is not only to preserve the historic structure, but to once again make it a center of community activity and commerce. It’s a lot about community improvement, according to Kerry Bolke Bonk, executive director of PAH.
She shared her thoughts on October 14 as PAH and Pioneer Public Television board members joined in approving a unique partnership. Pioneer Television has owned the historic building since 1980 and will continue to own it under a lease-purchase agreement with PAH.
The public broadcaster will also serve as fiscal agent as PAH seeks grants and donations for the heavy lifting ahead. A building that cost $8,000 to build 127 years ago needs major upgrades, in the range of $1-2 million, depending on PAH’s ability to meet its goals for the building.
A measure of what civic-minded citizens will do will soon be known. PAH hopes to raise $100,000 in pledges and grants by the end of the year. “Our first big push,” PAH board member Brinna Langford said of the now-launched fundraising effort.
Langford is also evidence of PAH’s goal to make this building a viable part of today’s Appleton. She and her husband are moving forward with plans to open a cafe in the part of the facility where the historic City Hall and Pioneer TV addition meet. It will be known as the Apple Cafe. The name is taken from the cafe his grandmother once owned and operated a short distance away on the town’s main street.
The historic City Hall building and former Pioneer TV office currently have two tenants. What was once the fire station area of Old City Hall is now home to the Valley Dance District. Principal Whitney Massee and her staff offer lessons to local youth and have already filled her display cases with trophies from dance competitions.
The Appleton Arts and Culture organization, headed by Kolke Bonk, rents space in the former office of Pioneer Television. Kolke Bonk and other artists teach there. They have also dedicated much of the area to display memorabilia from Appleton’s past.
It was the arts and culture group’s desire to have a place for Appleton’s memorabilia and art classes that ultimately led to the current preservation effort. Kolke Bonk said they originally inquired about the space in the 1952 wing of the old Appleton High School building, but learned it was being considered for new library space, a project that is now In progress.
“I’m just going to ask about this building,” Kolke Bonk said, recalling how things evolved.
Pioneer TV had essentially saved the historic building when it purchased Old City Hall in 1980. It had been vacant since 1977, and the city agreed to sell it to the public television system for a nominal fee.
Pioneer operated in the historic City Hall and its adjoining building until 2018 when it moved the majority of its operations to a new building in Granite Falls. The building was designed for the needs of the station and donated to public television by Ron and Diane Fagen.
Pioneer TV retained a control room at Appleton City Hall, but is now ready to unplug Nov. 1 and operate entirely from its new facility in Granite Falls, according to Sheri Lemcke, executive director of Pioneer TV. .
She and members of the Pioneer TV Board of Directors joined in supporting the PAH in its future work.
A previous grant of $76,000 enabled PAH to retain the services of an architect and determine the work needed on the new building. One of the first needs is to upgrade the heating and ventilation system, the administrators said.
The members are optimistic. Kolke Bonk pointed out that the architects told them the building was structurally in very good condition. Although it requires work, it is also unique in that the building is safe and can be easily used at this time, Langord said. This helps volunteers seek community and potential tenant support for spaces that are still available.
There’s room for everything from offices to retail and pop-up business.
They are particularly interested in seeing the upstairs opera area used for larger community activities. Its stage and spacious interior – it once held 600 seats – make it well suited to a variety of larger community events, they noted.
For Appleton, the historic building is in many ways what the Foshay Tower is to Minneapolis. It is both a landmark and a symbol of community purpose.
“It’s a very unique building for miles around,” said PAH Board Member and Pioneer Public Television staff Tim Bakken.
He and other PAH board members said Pioneer TV searched for potential buyers for the building without success after it began moving into its new studio in Granite Falls. They believe the building and what it represents to the community would be lost without this effort.