The sounds of spring have returned to Burlington again. There are the exclamations of songbirds long gone, the roar of the neighbor’s lawnmower and – sadly – the familiar thud of the wrecking ball as another iconic structure is reduced to a pile of broken bricks and of concrete.
To many observers, it seems the end of each winter marks the demise of another historic downtown building. These multi-story buildings were once the commercial heart of the city, but the ravages of time, changing markets and poor maintenance now demand their destruction.
This destructive process is now repeating itself at the intersection of Third and Columbia streets, where two of the city’s iconic buildings collapse. There, Wisconsin’s Merge Development Group demolishes the structures that once housed the Moose Fraternal Club and the police station.
Demolition crews have completed the asbestos removal from inside the buildings and the schedule calls for the building to be razed by June 1. Merge then plans to use the site to erect a building housing shops on the ground floor and housing on the three upper floors.
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A story of the Golden Center of Burlington
The change will mark another chapter of use at a location once considered the city’s commercial hub. This importance was underscored in an 1870 newspaper article calling the intersection “Burlington’s Golden Center.”
The importance of the intersection of Third Street and Columbia Street to the history of the city was initially simply an accident of topography.
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When settlers first stranded in Burlington, they quickly noticed that the land south of today’s main commercial artery – Jefferson Street – was inundated by Hawk Eye Creek and the Mississippi River.
But the corner of Third Street and Columbia Street had dry feet. The land rose steeply above the course of the river and there were no streams crossing the site. This made the urban lots in this region particularly valuable and were also valued for the unusually large oaks that grew there.
It’s hard to say for sure who first recognized the significance of Third and Columbia Streets, as the land records of the very first Burlington were destroyed when a fire claimed the village records.
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Some reports suggest that a small cabin was erected on the site by a Dr Henry, but this cannot be confirmed. What is certain, however, is that a settler named Copp was active in the area at the same time and, in 1837, built the impressive Ekdale House, now considered a fine upscale restaurant and lounge, at the southwest corner of the intersection.
Bennett’s purchase of Pacific House Hotel was significant
The Pacific House Hotel may have been across from the Ekdale House, as records indicate that the property was sold to Jebediah Bennett in 1853 for $ 1,500. This was a very large sum for many at that time and supports speculation that a large, substantial building stood there when.
With the purchase of Bennett, the image of 424 N. Third St. becomes sharper. Bennett was a German immigrant and brought with him a reputation as a skilled coach scorer. He was able to secure funding to construct a multi-story brick building on the land to house his manufacturing business in 1853.
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At that time, there were four car manufacturers in Burlington, so the competition was intense. But good luck, sort of rode with Bennett, because in 1861 a cholera epidemic swept through the town and Bennett’s three competitors died.
Bennett now had the market for him and he ran with it. When the building was ready for occupancy in 1854, the car factory began producing phaetons, strollers, cars, sleds and light wagons.
Its products gained a reputation for quality throughout the expanding West, and the haulage jobs quickly had a workforce of 30. It became necessary to hire a business partner and John Frantz joined the company to create Bennett and Frantz Carriage Works.
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But the good luck couldn’t last. In 1873, a disastrous fire destroyed four square blocks of the Burlington Mall and the Bennett and Franz building was leveled.
Both men reacted aggressively and loans were arranged. The factory was quickly rebuilt into a structure then called “the most beautiful building in Burlington”. However, the following years must have been a time of economic challenge.
Frantz left the organization and Gus Sheagren was hired as a blacksmith and then quickly promoted to a managerial position. But that was not enough, and the fire debt caused the company to go bankrupt. In 1893, Charles Starker – of renowned Crapo Park – held a note of $ 13,000 on the company.
By then the energetic Bennett was gone. Records show he lived out his days in a tiny house scratching at his life as a stonemason while he was in the ’80s.
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Burlington’s Golden Center officially enters a new chapter
A mad rush ensued for the Bennett building. Starker passed the note on to his daughter, Clara Leopold. And a collection of car dealers have tried to make a living in the building. In 1920 the building was sold to Willow Ware Co.
The National Research Bureau, an advertising and data collection company, purchased the building in 1947. The structure at the time was in poor condition, with large parts of the building unoccupied due to electrical issues and structural stability.
National Research left the building in 1991 and the city acquired it in 1994 to house its police department. The police building was later vacated when the city acquired the bank building at 201 Jefferson Street, which now houses the law enforcement group.
The history of the site, which was once an important part of the city’s Golden Center, enters a new chapter. The old horse-drawn carriage and the adjacent Moose Building will soon be gone. In their place, there will be a building housing commercial space and apartments as the evolution of downtown Burlington continues.