Fox Theater building needs help to survive
By Gene Kemmeter
The Fox Theater is a landmark in the downtown area on Main Street in Stevens Point. The building, constructed in 1894 as the Grand Opera House, was designed by Oscar Cobb and Son, a renowned architect of opera houses in the United States, and was owned by G.F. Andrae. The building was a hub in the local entertainment community for nearly a century, featuring plays and entertainers, before turning to movies.
However, the building has been vacant for more than three decades, and the city of Stevens Point building inspector ordered July 22 that the building be demolished due to disrepair and unsafe and unsanitary conditions unless the building owner can show financial proof and a plan to correct the situation.
The Fox served, basically, as the only movie theater in Stevens Point from 1957 until the Campus Cinema, 1601 Sixth Ave., was constructed in 1977, followed by other facilities since then, resulting in the Fox closing in the late 1970s.
In 2013, members of the Sanders family, descendants of G.F. Andrae, transferred ownership of the Fox to the Arts Alliance of Portage County which created the Fox Theatre LLC to plan for the future of the Fox.
That group commissioned a study by Meyer Borgman Anderson Structural Design & Engineering, Minneapolis, MN, which produced a 47-page report dated April 11, 2014, that listed deficiencies to address, such as cracks in beams, water damage, and one failed roof truss that could be corrected.
Since then, the Arts Alliance evolved into CREATE and has continued to work on repairs as well as development plans for the Fox, deciding after a few years to veer away from the idea of a theater because of existing facilities at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Sentry Insurance and Stevens Point Area Senior High School, as well as the Grand Theater in Wausau.
Greg Wright, executive director of CREATE Portage County, said in recent years CREATE decided to address preserving the facade of the building and recently focused on constructing a new, energy-efficient building within the shell of the old building to relocate its IDEA Center to provide additional work, project, event, and community gathering spaces.
Wright said CREATE is in the process of raising $3.5 million for the project and has received pledges covering about one-third of that amount when it was suddenly served the raze order.
The Stevens Point Historic Preservation/Design Review Commission voted Monday, Aug. 12, against the city’s order to raze the building within 90 days, pointing out the Fox is on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the commission is only an advisory group.
Commissioners pointed out that the city ordered that the downtown library be built to encompass the facades of buildings on the corner of Third and Main streets, and funds raised privately went into the construction of that building.
Wright said CREATE needs to undertake architectural and engineering studies to determine how to partially raze the Fox building because there may be adjacent buildings that are leaning on the structure. The city’s building inspector said the deterioration of the Fox led to the raze order because of a fear of the domino effect with a truss failure in the Fox.
The Fox is truly a landmark in the downtown area, and city officials have often displayed a lack of concern about historic buildings, even though it has been willing to designate some buildings for the National Register of Historic Places. The old post office, the Carnegie library, and the Dunnegan house have all been victims of the wrecking ball.
Razing the Fox building could leave a hole in the downtown area for many years. The site of the former Lullabye Furniture building has already been a vacant eyesore for nearly three decades. Do we want more?
The repurposed proposal for the Fox site sounds promising, based on similar projects in other communities. But can a nonprofit organization raise sufficient funds to finance and sustain the project throughout its lifetime. Are Stevens Point and Portage County residents generous enough to support it?