Lions of Stone

April 28, 2010

On my recent visit to Fond du Lac I took a walk down Main Street, nearly always a worthwhile endeavor for the architectural history fan. Just a few blocks south of my hotel I came upon this magnificent stone lion.

Stone lionHe’s one of a pair who guard a bold, arched entryway declaring the building to be a BANK. It’s a small, two-story Romanesque Revival building in brownstone, a style and material particularly suited to vigorous carving. Below the lion you can see an elaborate pattern in the capital.

The building, it turns out, dates from 1903 and was the Commercial National Bank—but only for 20 years. Though the lions may have lost their metaphorical value as guardians, they still make a strong impression.

— Michael Bridgeman


The Brothers Behind the Fairy Tales

April 24, 2010

By Joan Fischer

Probably no other collectors of fairy tales are as well known as the Brothers Grimm and the characters they introduced to the world: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Rapunzel, The Golden Goose.

Now they’re making a special appearance in Wisconsin thanks to Dane County’s sister county relationship with Kassel in Germany, home of the Museum of the Brothers Grimm. (Images courtesy Museum of the Brothers Grimm)

“Once Upon a Time: The Brothers Grimm—Life and Work,” the first-ever North American exhibition of Grimm-related prints, books, engravings, and historical documents, will be on display in the Dane County Regional Airport lobby gallery from April 28 to June 25. The exhibition was coordinated by the University of Wisconsin’s Tandem Press.

“Many of Grimms’ fairy tales are set in the forests and castles in the Kassel area,” notes Scott McDonell, chair of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. “They are a central element of the Kassel culture.” A delegation of elected officials from Kassel will be on hand for the exhibition opening and celebration of German Day (April 29), which this year has the theme of fairy tales and involves related cultural activities at the university and other schools.

The Brothers Grimm (1785-1863) not only collected fairy tales and other German folk tales and legends, they also were lexicographers and highly respected scholars of language. They assembled their greatest collections (Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, German Legends, The German Heroic Legends) while working as librarians at the Kassel state library in the early 1800s.

Both brothers then went on to serve as librarians and professors at the University of Goettingen. They also were committed political activists who, with five other professors, protested against the revocation of the constitution by the king of Hanover. As members of the so-called “Goettingen Seven,” they lost their positions and were banished from the kingdom. But they were revered throughout the rest of Germany and continued their scholarly work in Kassel and Berlin for the remainder of their lives.

Children’s and Household Fairy Tales is their most famous and widely translated work. With that book, the Grimms were trying to document the “ethnic poetry” of the people (“Volkspoesie”). But, like the fairy tales themselves, with their clearly defined divisions of being (good and evil, bright and dark, conscious and subconscious), the book also was intended to provide a moral or at least cautionary education.


Looking (and spelling) Backward

April 20, 2010

I recently stayed at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in downtown Fond du Lac. “Why does that matter?,” you may ask. Because it used to be the Retlaw.


The Retlaw in downtown Fond du Lac continues to operate as a hotel.

The Retlaw was one of seven hotels built across Wisconsin in the 1920s by Walter Schroeder, an insurance magnate, hotelier and philanthropist. He built the Schroeder Hotel (now a Hilton) in Milwaukee and the Retlaw in Fond du Lac. Among Schroeder’s other properties were the Astor in Milwaukee, the Northland in Green Bay, the Loraine in Madison, and the Wausau Hotel. Travel by train was still important in the ‘20s, so Schroeder’s hotels were built in the heart of town. By 1920 there were also 12 million automobiles in the U.S. which helped drive a boom in leisure travel.

Since I’m always interested in architects and their designs, it took just a little digging to learn that Herbert W. Tullgren had a hand in designing at least three of Schroeder’s hotels – the Retlaw, Loraine and Northland. All look back to historic styles for their design inspiration. They are solid masonry structures and well-proportioned. The lobby of the Retlaw (now a Ramada) is not very large, but opens to the second story to add a touch of grandness.


Walter Schroeder's Loraine Hotel in Madison has been converted to condominiums after having been a state office building for many years.

Tullgren practiced in Milwaukee and did some of the best Art Deco buildings in the city which are, to me, far more interesting that his traditional hotel designs. I’ve not explored Milwaukee for a while, but some of Tullgren’s work stands out when I think of Deco in the city: the Scottish Rite Masonic Center on Van Buren Street (Tullgren and Schroeder were members) that has fabulous carved figures, the apartment building at 1260 N. Prospect with its green-trimmed windows, and the Milwaukee Western Fuel Company building further north on Prospect. This last building is one of my favorites—a small, two-story rectangle with orange columns and terrific bas relief panels depicting men at work. It is now a Japanese restaurant.

But back to Walter Schroeder. The larger of his Milwaukee hotels bears his family name. The Loraine was named for his niece. And the Retlaw? That’s Walter backwards – a puzzle revealed to me by my father many years ago when driving through Fond du Lac, long before I had a chance to spend the night.

–Michael Bridgeman


Canoe Building 101: Ken Kocsik and the Harmony of Building Your Own Canoe

April 9, 2010


Henry David Thoreau once said, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” What a splendid sentiment. Hmm…paddling and peace. Peace and paddling. Two words somehow bounded together in the most pleasurable annals of our human instinct and imagination.

What is even perhaps more wondrous about the canoeing is, a fine boat can be built by someone with no experience, provided that one is inclined to move slowly, shrewdly, and pay attention to details.

Madison canoe builder Ken Kocsik knows this drill well. He works and responds in harmony with raw materials, and understands how to get along with the materials – and, through the process, always learns a little more about himself. Through building blocks and careful steps, from premise to careful execution to the final reward, he finds that canoe building is a pattern of living that makes sense.

“Canoe building is a great teacher of life,” says Kocsik, who teaches yearly a two-week cedar-strip boatbuilding course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. “It’s a way to learn and practice self-harmony, harmony with nature, and with the wood.”

In the garage of his Lake Monona home, a pebble’s toss from the accessible ripples of the waterway which he considers a faithful friend (even during crummy weather), he builds canoes for himself and for others. If you ask him how to start your own canoe project, he will explain the process from start to finish – with artistic exuberance.

“You start by cutting thin cedar planks and learning how to assemble appealing patterns,” says Kocsik. “I suggest that people choose from three cedar-strip boat projects: an 18 ½’ tandem cruiser canoe, a 16’ tripping canoe or a 17’ kayak.”

Cedar-strip boats are lightweight, solid, and quicker to build than most other types of canoes. Kocsik says that a novice can build an 18 ½’ tandem in just six days at a cost of “right around about a $1,000 bucks in materials.”

Kocsik says that anybody who has the time, patience, and interest can build their own canoe. The art of canoe building is the art of bonding progressions, plain and simple bonding, bonding with boat, bonding with nature, or bonding with your co-builders.

“Canoe building is a great individual or great family project,” says Kocsik. “A few days’ or weeks’ work and you end up with something that will result in a lifetime of memories. With each procedure you should feel better and better about what you are doing.”

Cedar-strip building, or woodstrip construction, is the easiest and most accessible for the home canoe builder. Kocsik says that the degree of precision required when woodstripping a canoe is still quite significant, but its precision level is not nearly as complex as what is required for most wood-canvas or bark boats.

Kocsik recommends that all canoe builders start their journey by reading The Stripper’s Guide to Canoe-building by David Hazen.

“Hazen convinces us that a canoe building project can take an amateur about 150 man-hours of work,” says Kocsik. “Not too long considering the final product. He shows that even unlearned builders can produce a boat better than most factory-made boats.”

The built, finished product is a real utilitarian joy, but it is the process, the experimentation, the embarkation, the art form, that Kocsik says he and others often cherish even more. Completed boats not only become a source of pride, but even tangible illustrations of personal identity.

Ultimately, in order to find the peace that paddling can bring, you must buy or build a boat. If you decide to build, Kocsik suggests finding a tutor who writes and speaks in a manner that is easy to understand, at a level that an amateur can follow.

“Read a good book on canoes or talk to someone who loves to share,” says Kocsik “If you talk to the right person or read the right material, you will want to run out to your garage and start building.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of the travelogue A Wee Bit of Wisconsin.