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Deteriorating Delavan landmark faces likely July 1 demolition

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Margaret Plevak
March 29, 2010
— Demolition looms for a downtown Delavan landmark. The former Israel Stowell Temperance House, 67 E. Walworth St., is the city’s oldest surviving structure, Walworth County historian Ginny Hall said. It is scheduled to be demolished July 1. It was built in 1839, shortly after Delavan was founded and 22 years before the start of the Civil War, according to “Butterfield’s History of Walworth County.” The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has seen better days. The exterior is peeling brown paint. Plywood covers missing front windows. Holes mar the wooden clapboard siding. Delavan Building Inspector Fred Walling can tick off a list of structural issues: bowed roof, rotting windowsills and doors, crumbling foundation, sloping floors and falling plaster. Delavan Fire Chief Neill Flood issued a condemnation order for the building. He said the deteriorating building is a fire hazard.

“The construction of the structure itself has fallen to a point where it is no longer safe in the community,” Flood said. “The fire load is very unsafe. I w o u l d n’ t send any firemen into it (if it were burning).”


The building owner, Ed Chesko, lives next door and uses it for storage. For decades, it housed the Old Delavan Book Store, from which Chesko and his partner, Dorothy Bogdan, sold vintage books.


“The company is pretty much out of business now,” he said.


Bogdan died seven years ago, and Chesko, 87, isn’t able to repair to the building.


Chesko said he understands Walling is doing his job pointing out the building’s problems, but he wishes others would recognize the building’s history—something that prompted him more than 30 years ago to apply for its status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Long history

The building’s history stretches back to when Delavan was established, a time when the temperance and abolitionist movements were sweeping west.


Two such advocates, Col. Samuel Phoenix and his brother Henry, founded the city, naming it after a notable New York temperance organizer and publisher.


The temperance movement was so strong that early Delavan deeds included a clause prohibiting alcoholic beverages, Hall said.


She said William Phoenix, a cousin to Samuel and Henry, sold land to East Coast transplant Israel Stowell, who built the temperance hotel. It was seen as a stopping point on the stagecoach route to Chicago, but it also became the site of most town hall meetings and a gathering place that offered an alternative to taverns.


“Yankees, Baptists and those who didn’t indulge in alcoholic beverages were welcome at the hotel,” Hall said.


The rest were turned away.


The building changed hands over the years and ironically became a tavern. Sections were added to each end of the original structure in the late 1800s to accommodate new owners.


Jim Draeger, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Wisconsin Historical Society, said the building is the only known temperance house remaining in the state.


“We see the struggle today in Mothers Against Drunk Driving and legislation for legal limits for those driving while intoxicated, but it’s a struggle that goes back to before Wisconsin was a state,” Draeger said.


Dim future

Chesko has offered to give the building to the Delavan Historical Society, but Patti Ma r s i c a n o , the society’s p r e s i d e n t , said the org a n i z a t i o n can’t afford to renovate it.


“ We're holding on to what little we have now,” she said. “And we’re talking about huge, huge amounts of money to repair it.”


Delavan Alderman Dave Kilkenny said he’s spoken with Frank Butterfield, regional coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, about determining whether the building could be saved. Kilkenny said he was looking into the matter privately, not in any official government capacity.


“I’d feel better knowing we would have turned over every stone,” Kilkenny said.


Butterfield said a condition assessment study could cost about $2,000 and might be eligible for a matching grant.


Draeger insisted all isn’t lost.


“We see buildings all over the state that are condemned then fixed. Structural problems can always be remedied,” he said. “But a couple of things have to happen: People need to gather and organize, decide how the building should be used and determine a budget.”


Draeger said tax credits, matching grants and other programs are available.


And he believes the Israel Stowell Temperance House is worth fighting for.


“It tells the story of the founding of Delavan,” he said. “You’ve lost that story when the building goes down.”



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