Retlaw Theatre

23 South Main Street,
Fond du Lac, WI 54935

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Retlaw Theatre

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The Retlaw Theatre opened to the public on December 25, 1925 as a venue for vaudeville and movies. All 1,100 seats were located on a single floor. Eventually, movies became the sole form of entertainment, and by 1941 it was operated by Alliance Theater Corp. Around 1990, the auditorium was carefully divided into three screens, with a view that they could be removed at a later date if the auditorium was needed as a single space again. Later two additional screens were built at the rear of the building. The Retlaw Theatre closed in 1998.

The building was sold in 2000 and in 2001, it re-opened for a time as the Bravo Performing Arts Center. This was a venue showcasing various arts, including a dinner theatre situated in the former lobby, a dance studio on the third floor, and live theatre for children and young adults.

By early-2008, the property has been sold again and the possibility of a restoration project was mentioned, but by 2014, plans were unveiled to demolish for a car park. A grass-roots group has been formed to help to save the building, but on August 1, 2014 a developer closed on the purchase of the theatre and demolition of the auditorium is expected soon.

Contributed by Bryan

Recent comments (view all 17 comments)

DonLewis
DonLewis on September 22, 2010 at 8:59 pm

From the early 1900s a postcard view of the Retlaw Theatre with Fond du Lac Theatre sign visible up the street from the Retlaw.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on October 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm

The Retlaw property is currently for sale:

http://zacommercial.com/files/Download/Retlaw%20%26%20Main%20St.%20Properties%20-%20Brochure.pdf

LouRugani
LouRugani on November 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm

FOND DU LAC — A local developer wants to turn the historic Retlaw Theater into a boutique hotel. Commonwealth Construction Co. has a purchase option and is evaluating repurposing it into an upscale boutique hotel in the recently created Arts and Entertainment District with 34 rooms and retail space, to open in spring 2015. The Retlaw Theatre, opened in 1925 and closed in 1998, for a time served as home to a theater company and Fusion restaurant but has stood vacant for several years. It’s owned by Boyd Partnership. Commonwealth would restore the Retlaw’s primary façade on Main Street.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on January 22, 2014 at 1:22 pm

I posted some photos of the Retlaw from the early 1960s: http://webpages.charter.net/nlenburg/retlaw/

LouRugani
LouRugani on March 10, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Commonwealth Companies' boutique-hotel plans in the Retlaw Theater have been replaced by a plan for office/ retail space and 10 apartments. Louie Lange III is president of The Commonwealth Companies. The Retlaw auditorium facing Sheboygan and Portland streets would be razed for parking. Commonwealth says it intends to renovate the Retlaw facade facing Main Street “in a way that would complement the historic nature of Main Street”.

Wempner’s School of Dance owner Ann Kelly has been opposed to demolition of the Retlaw Theater and is unsure if she would stay in the building. Her lease continues through 2016. Kelly said a group of people interested in preserving the historic theater has no imminent plans for action. Still, Kelly would like to see the theater brought to life. “Is it not worth a chance to make it work?” she said. Lange says the theatre portion of the building has “lost its viability” and questioned whether more theater space is needed in Fond du Lac. “Are there groups out there that right now don’t have theater space to operate?” he asked.

City of Fond du Lac Community Development Director Wayne Rollin said the condition of the buildings has worsened “alarmingly” over the past several years. He said the roof leaks badly, the basement floor is under water, mold is an issue and electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems need to be replaced, the elevator hasn’t been working since fall, and “it would cost millions to restore the theater”, Rollin said, adding “If this proposal doesn’t work out the community will face the probability of condemnation and complete demolition of the entire complex in the near future, at public expense,” in a memo to Fond du Lac City Manager Joe Moore.

Dyann Benson, the city’s redevelopment planner, said the Retlaw theater property has been for sale for about five years. No one has proposed restoring the theater during that time. “In order to really invest in restoration, you have to have a return on the investment on the back end,” she said, adding that there would continue to be operating and maintenance costs and other expenses.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on June 26, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Commonwealth Development has an option to purchase the property, has been approved for a state grant for part of the cost of their project, and has permission from the city to demolish the auditorium to make way for a parking lot. They expect to close on the purchase within 30 days.

A citizen group is trying to “save the Retlaw” from demolition:

http://www.fdlreporter.com/story/news/local/2014/06/26/retlaw-demolition/11377789/

LouRugani
LouRugani on June 27, 2014 at 4:49 pm

There are some who consider the former Retlaw Theater a dilapidated, mold-riddled space with a leaky roof and standing water in the basement.

But a group operating mostly online with no ownership rights to the Main Street building sees a gem in the rough. Friends of the Retlaw Theater say the historic downtown building is structurally sound, has only surface mold resulting from malfunctioning roof drains and should be transformed into a usable theater for the community.

Louie Lange, president of Commonwealth Companies, has been granted an option to purchase the property that fronts 23 S. Main St. Once home to a grand theater, the buildings that are part of the theater complex have been vacant and for sale for seven years. Commonwealth intends to close on the property within the month and begin a project to renovate the building into a mix of offices, retail and apartment space. Lange said his project would not be financially viable with the theater.

“In order to develop the apartments that (financially) support the cost of the building, we need windows on the eastern side of the building — the same with the office space,” Lange said.

Parking, he said, is not as important as creating apartments on the eastern portion of the building. If parking were the only issue, he said Tuesday, the theater may have been salvaged.

Friends of the Retlaw Theater has been collecting signatures from people who want to save the theater. The group says it has 1,300 to 1,500 signatures but has largely stopped its petition efforts.

The following is posted online, petitioning Commonwealth Development Corp.:

“Please do not turn our Retlaw Theater into a 32-space parking lot. Utilize the auditorium in your redevelopment plan and be a hero to Fond du Lac citizens, young and old!”

Commonwealth is planning a $2.4 million project at the Retlaw site. The plan calls for creation of first-floor offices for 24 Commonwealth staff members and retail space. The second floor and part of the third floor will become 10 apartments priced at market rate including several two-story lofts. Wempner’s School of Dance may continue as a tenant on the third floor. Portions of the theaters facing Sheboygan and Portland streets will be razed and replaced with a parking lot.

Friends of the Retlaw group held a meeting Tuesday night at Fond du Lac Public Library that was attended by nearly a dozen people. The group invited all “Fond du Lac County residents, Commonwealth friends, Thelma friends, and the media to confirm facts and share ideas and find the common ground we all know exists to SAVE the Historic Fond du Lac Retlaw Theater for Fond du Lac’s Downtown Arts and Entertainment District.”

Fond du Lac resident Christine Clementi, who has been leading the Save the Retlaw Theater charge, said Tuesday she didn’t expect a buyer — any buyer — to have a plan that included demolition of the theater. When she and others learned of Commonwealth’s intentions, “they panicked,” she said, and started an online effort to try and find a way to work with Commonwealth.

Lange said his plan calls for construction of five apartments facing Main Street and five facing Sheboygan Street. The theater, he said, doesn’t fit with the design.

A 32-space parking lot could provide parking for some of his office employees, apartment tenants and retail employees/customers. Lange said he’s already purchased spaces in a nearby parking garage.

The historical character of the Retlaw Theater facade facing Main Street will be maintained. Lange said he will try and salvage architectural aspects of the building’s interior.

“It would be wonderful if we had an economically viable way to preserve that theater,” Lange said.

He said it would take at least $9 million to restore the theater. The Friends of the Retlaw group believe it can be done for a much lower amount.

The Retlaw complex Lange is purchasing is more than a theater — it encompasses the buildings at 17, 19 and 23 S. Main St.

A portion of one theater was made into a kitchen during the time it served as Fusion Restaurant and floors were flattened in another one-third of the building, said Amy Hansen, executive director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. She said a middle section still has theater seats, but they are covered with mold and can’t be reused.

Retlaw Theater is listed on local, state and national historic registries but it’s the local designation that is the most restrictive, said Dyann Benson, redevelopment planner for the City of Fond du Lac.

Benson said properties on the state and national historic registry are eligible for tax credits and funding for certain types of projects.

Because of the local historic designation, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission was required to vote on demolition and exterior alterations to the building.

“The HPC doesn’t have the authority to negate an accepted offer,” Benson said. An initial motion to delay demolition by three months was amended to allow immediate demolition when the committee questioned what a delay would accomplish.

Lange told them a delay could impact his plans for purchase of the building.

Ann Kelly, owner of Wempner’s Dance Studio, said a commercial cleaning specialist walked through the theater in October 2013 and told her the mold in the dressing rooms under the stage was “surface mold” and could be cleaned up and painted and that wood trim and wood doors should be removed to eliminate continual mold growth. The specialist said the mold was not dangerous black mold and would not require any special kind of cleanup.

Kelly said a structural engineer from a Green Bay firm inspected the theater on April 25 and reported that water damage is due to malfunctioning roof drains, and the building is structurally adequate and does not pose a safety concern.

A preservation architect from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Mark Buechel, who also viewed the property in April, said the theater is “in remarkable condition and a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture.” The architect said the theater could stand another 89 years if roof issues were addressed. He also wasn’t overly concerned about the basement mold.

Lange said Tuesday he is concerned dilapidated areas will “start eating at the rest of” the building.

Kelly has a secondary offer on the property, but Commonwealth’s is the offer accepted by owner Chuck Boyd.

Clementi said she believes the HPC should have voted to postpone demolition of the theater because another proposal (Kelly’s vision for a performing arts center for children) existed. The committee voted unanimously May 21 to allow demolition.

Fond du Lac City Council President Sam Meyer, on a recent online post, said the City of Fond du Lac does not have authority to dictate the terms of the property sale.

“This is a transaction between two private parties about a privately owned property,” he said. “The city can’t stop, alter, negotiate or deny any portion of this transaction because the city doesn’t own the property, nor does it have authority to do so. While some might not like it, if the private owner of this property decides they want to tear part of the property down, then that is their right.”

Meyer said no city taxpayer money was used in the development project/transaction and there isn’t a Council member associated with the seller or the buyer. Council, he added, did not vote to demolish anything related to the Commonwealth project. He said the owner does not need Council approval.

Hansen said she’s looked at the state of Rapp and Rapp theaters — the Chicago architects of the Retlaw Theater and 105 theaters in the U.S. Forty-seven have been demolished, 16 are vacant and still standing and 42 are open.

“It’s an unfortunate reality that not all of these properties can be saved,” Hansen said.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on July 5, 2014 at 8:23 pm

The group that is fighting to save Fond du Lac’s Retlaw Theatre has fielded a new website to support their cause:

SaveTheRetlaw.com

The photo album on the site shows interior photographs of this theater as it looks today.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on July 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm

The Friends of the Retlaw Theatre group also have a Facebook page and a fund-raising website.

Norm Lenburg
Norm Lenburg on August 5, 2014 at 9:22 am

Commonwealth Development of Fond du Lac, Wis., has closed on their purchase of the Retlaw Theatre property. The company plans to remodel the lobby of the former theater, along with existing ground-floor retail space, to be the company’s headquarters. Luxury market rate apartments are slated for the second floor office space of the commercial building attached to the theater, and the third floor dance studio will possibly remain under terms of an existing lease. The 89-year-old theater’s auditorium will be demolished to create parking and allow for east-facing windows in some of the apartments. Link to story

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