The summer of 1988 was a time of unrest in Stoughton, with a months-long labor dispute between auto workers and Stoughton Trailers and a drought that pushed Wisconsin hay prices 50 percent higher than elsewhere in the United States.
But it was also a time of renewed emphasis on community, as Stoughtonites came together to raise more than $55,000 to replace the clock tower that had been lopped off City Hall in the early 1960s.
With an auction, a “cablethon” talent show broadcast live on local TV and a raffle that featured a 1988 Chevrolet Corsica as the main prize, the community came together to restore what architect Arlan Kay called “the symbol of our city.”
On Friday, Sept. 30, 1988, citizens of Stoughton gathered to see a crane hoist a new clock tower atop City Hall, restoring the building to the form it had taken when originally constructed in 1901.
“Symbolism is huge,” said Kay, whose firm was contracted to restore the clock tower and install a fire escape to bring the building up to code. “There is awe when you have a tall steeple. It’s about civic pride. Without the tower, you just have a brick building.”
The project faced its share of challenges, from a City Council that didn’t want to use taxpayer money for the building to the steeple manufacturers that kept promising delivery dates and then blowing past them, as well as the level of disrepair the building had fallen into by the time restoration work was done.
The auditorium, now known as the Opera House, had turned into a de facto pigeon coop, and Kay recalled being told later about how many parasites he probably inhaled from the layers of pigeon poop that had been allowed to accumulate.
Still, once he put his eyes on the auditorium, he knew the city had a “real treasure” on its hands. And the first step to reclaiming the building was re-establishing civic pride in a downtown focal point that had been allowed to degrade to the point that some had advocated for its demolition.
So Kay got to work, putting together a feasibility study “in 1978 or ‘79” at the city’s behest to establish a cost and scope for the project. While he proudly takes credit for “stirring the pot” and getting the conversation going, Kay gives all the credit to the community for getting the project done, once “they saw it was possible.”
He points to Erma Skaalen’s involvement as a turning point. She not only donated a large amount of seed money early on, but served on the Auditorium Restoration Committee, which was founded in 1983. Once the project gathered momentum, citizens rallied together for volunteer cleanup and repair days in the building.
City Hall was originally built in 1901, and Kay points to that time as a golden era for “grand buildings.”
“Let’s say you have a postcard – what do you put on a postcard?” Kay explains. “City Hall is a grand building (worthy of) civic pride. It says ‘This is our Stoughton, this is our pride.’”
If you were a farmer coming into Stoughton in 1902, one of the more remarkable things you’d see on your journey would be the new City Hall, complete with a 100-foot tower topped with four clocks and electric lights powered by the nearby Stoughton Dam. The building housed the city’s jail, fire department, auditorium and library – the city’s Carnegie library was still a few years in the future.
But by mid-century, the clock tower had been deemed a safety hazard, and in July 1961, the council contracted with a Wausau firm to repair the roof and “remove the top of the city hall tower,” according to an article in the Aug. 1, 1961, Hub.
Kay remembered the clock tower had become rotten, and Dave Kalland, former president of the Stoughton Historical Society, said stones from the tower had started to come loose and fall to the ground.
The clocks that originally had been installed in the tower had been removed “many years earlier,” according to the 1961 Hub article, and volunteers with the Civil Defense program had used the windows to keep lookout for enemy aircraft during World War II.
Kay remembered going to the top of the tower and seeing silhouettes of different aircraft still drawn on the inside to help the spotters. Skaalen was one of those spotters, and she remembered volunteers from service clubs and civic organizations helping in the effort.
“We used to crawl up there to check for planes,” Skaalen, then 84 years old, told the Hub in 1988. “We had a phone connected to the Madison airport, and if a plane flew over, we called it in.”
By the time Kay started working on restoration efforts, “the entire building had been neglected.”
“In order for the auditorium to be used, they had to fire boilers three days ahead of time and open all the doors,” Kay said. And the balcony, which according to a 1901 Hub article could seat 400 people, had been limited to 35 because of fire-safety concerns.
Extensive water damage led to the building being shut down in the 1950s, and that was the way it sat until restoration efforts began in earnest in the 1980s.
As Kay discovered the city’s “treasure” in the late-1970s, amid the pigeon droppings, torn-out light fixtures and original, “crawl-in” dressing rooms for actors, he saw backstage an informal history of the building in the form of hand-lettered cast-lists for productions from the building’s glory years, like a junior-class play, graduations and talent shows.
Kay was convinced he was on the right track when he’d take citizens on tours backstage and see tears streaming down their faces.
“Their memories, the tears…. This had been such an important place, and it wasn’t happening for them anymore,” Kay recalled.
Reclaiming civic pride
Just as important as the $2,500 Skaalen had donated to kick-start restoration efforts in the early 1980s was the fact that she lent her good name to the effort. With Skaalen leading the restoration committee, others quickly jumped on board and the effort gained momentum.
Former mayor Helen Johnson, who was city clerk before becoming mayor, took the lead in fundraising efforts, with seemingly no idea too far afield, like reviving the old-time fiddlers contest or holding an “All City Auction.”
Former alder Bob McGeever remembered by the time he had joined the effort, “Helen Johnson had done her magic,” and the ball was already rolling.
“It’s one of those examples here in Stoughton where a bunch of people get together and make something happen – something the city government would have been scratching their heads over for decades,” McGeever said with a laugh.
Community members volunteered to scrape old paint, clean out the pigeon poop, do small repairs on the chairs and contribute any way they could to the restoration effort. For example, Kay remembered “local, retired guys” making castings of ceiling tiles to remake them out of fiberglass. Still others participated in a talent show “cablethon” that was broadcast live on local TV.
By the time Ed Daggett won the 1988 Corsica, the group had raised more than $56,000 for the clock tower replacement and the tower was on its way.
Originally projected to arrive in time for Syttende Mai, after numerous delays the tower was delivered by the Kentucky firm hired to manufacture it on Sept. 28. Two days later, it was sitting atop city hall, where it has become the symbol of Stoughton.