A 169-year-old mansion that housed Janesville’s first surgical hospital stands on a little-traveled street on Janesville’s near-east side.
The house was designed by the same architect who designed the famed Tallman House across the river.
It once housed an asylum for people with mental illness, and it was a drama school that produced a silent-film actor.
With a history like that and the house’s Italianate good looks, it’s no surprise some believe ghosts haunt it.
But this story is not about any of those fascinating topics. It’s about the house’s residents for the past three decades.
Their story began when Alan Callies bought the run-down, abandoned house in 1990. Windows were broken. Youths had played inside.
Callies, an architect, fell in love with the place. He was joined by Randy Gurney and Lisa St. Clair and others over the years who paid rent but also formed an unusual family unit.
This was at a time when gay people were not always welcome to be themselves in local society, they said.
The three and another longtime house resident, Robert Wendt, sat down to reminisce with a Gazette reporter Saturday.
Their close bonds were evident as they told stories and joked about days gone by.
“They are my brothers,” St. Clair said. “They’ve been there through every good and every bad thing that happened.”
“That’s what family does,” Gurney said.
Gurney and Callies, a divorced couple who still live together, raised five children in the house. In 1996, they threw a 30th birthday party for St. Clair.
They liked the result so much that they all decided to hold more lawn parties, but in the summer.
That was the origin of the Sutherland Family Party, which happened each summer from 1997 through 2019.
Two former residents, Jen Schuler and Kevin Ruff, were also key to getting the party started, the group.
The party was a gay party, in all the senses of the word, although all were welcome.
“Today, you can just be gay anywhere. But back then, you just couldn’t. This was where it was OK to be gay,” said St. Clair, who no longer lives in the house.
Local gays would often socialize in Madison or Rockford to get away from socially conservative Janesville, the Sutherland House residents recalled.
While fun was a big motivation, and drinking was as prominent as in any summertime Wisconsin party, Sutherland House organizers had counseling available, as well as the AIDS Resource Center from Madison, which offered confidential HIV screenings in a secluded room.
House residents made all the food and provided the drinks in earlier years. More recently, it’s been bring your own booze and a dish to pass.
Guests came from far and wide, including a few from Colorado and Texas. Quite a few people who met at the parties later married, Gurney said proudly.
Wendt attended his first Sutherland House party in 2000. He remembered thinking, “I’m going to live there someday.”
And so he did.
During the peak years of the mid-2000s, 550 to 600 people attended, Wendt said.
They invited the neighbors and always told police, who on occasion turned up to tell them to turn the music down when it got late.
In all those years, Callies could remember only one unpleasant incident. It came the day before the party, when kids playing in the street used a slur for gay people while harassing a friend of theirs.
The Sutherland House residents would post signs around the 3¼-acre property on party days that said: “Some are; some aren’t. Some do; some don’t. Some will. Some won’t. Please respect everyone!”
The signs might have been superfluous. Gurney said the event became a great way for people to meet others of different lifestyles.
“It was always a party of love,” St. Clair agreed.
More than a dozen squad cars showed up one year when two straight people got into a fight, Callies said. The police apparently thought they were coming to the rescue in a gay-bashing incident. But it was a personal dispute, Callies said.
Parties featured “drag races,” in which participants dashed from station to station around the yard, donning an article of women’s clothing at each stop.
Drag queens put on shows. Other fun included corn-bag tossing tournaments, volleyball and lounging in the above-ground pool.
The group fondly recalled the lesbians beat the straights three years running at tug-of-war.
The house needs work, its residents freely admit. Paint is peeling, and it needs fixing in many places. They are working on it, bit by bit.
They recently built a fence around their vegetable garden, and someday, they’d like to re-build an octagon-shaped addition that was the hospital’s operating room.
They stopped holding parties when COVID-19 got in the way, but they hope to revive it when the pandemic allows.
The Sutherland House family learned this summer about younger people organizing a gay pride event, set for Saturday, Oct. 9, in Lower Courthouse Park.
They enthusiastically offered their advice, ideas, tables and drag-race clothes.
“Whatever they needed to keep the pride going,” Gurney said.
The Sutherland House group, like the house, is aging. And they’re mellowing.
“Instead of a drag show, now we end the night with dancing on the patio,” Gurney said.
They hope to throw many more parties, starting next summer, COVID-19 permitting.
For now, they’re excited to show up for a more public gathering of LGBTQ folks and other friends next Saturday.
A report published by the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows the state’s bars and restaurants are recovering, but have not reached pre-pandemic levels.
This is not because of a lack of customers or jobs, the report shows. It’s because restaurant and bar owners can’t find enough willing workers.
“We have seen customers coming back, and we’ve seen a lot of our long-time regulars coming back. The biggest problem that we’re having is staffing and having enough staff to handle the demand,” said Chris Wiken, owner of The Packing House in Milwaukee.
On a busy night, Wiken has to let tables sit empty, simply because he doesn’t have the staff to serve them.
Food service has been one of the hardest-hit industries during COVD-19, with employment at bars and restaurants plummeting by nearly 50 percent in April 2020. According to last week’s report, employment was still down 8.8 percent in August compared to pre-pandemic levels in August 2019.
“Overall, what we’re seeing is the restaurant and bar industry in Wisconsin has recovered quite a bit, but that it’s recovery is not quite as strong as the economy overall,” said Joe Peterangelo, a senior researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum and author of the report.
But while employment may be lagging, business is booming, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Omar Shaikh, partner at Carnevor in Milwaukee. “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been.”
Like most restaurants, Carnevor had to close during the pandemic, and when it did reopen last summer, it was with limited capacity for five days a week instead of the usual seven. But Shaikh said business has grown steadily since then as restrictions have lifted and more people have gotten vaccinated. The Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA championship didn’t hurt, either.
“We’re probably doing as much in five days a week, revenue-wise, as we were doing in seven days a week pre-pandemic,” said Shaikh.
July sales tax revenues in the industry were actually up 6.8 percent compared to July 2019, according the report.
This boom in sales should help restaurants and bars recover from a difficult year and a half, but it’s not. Owners must contend with supply chain shortages, and any increase in sales revenue has to cover much higher food costs and increased wages.
According to the report, wages have grown faster in this sector than in any other. The average hourly wage for restaurant and bar employees nationally rose by 11.4 percent to $17.27 between July 2020 and July 2021.
Both Wiken and Shaikh have increased pay across the board.
“We have a lot of good employees, and we want to take care of them,” said Shaikh.
He added that remaining competitive right now is key.
“It’s a bidding war for employees right now,” said Shaikh. “They’re the hot commodity.”
But even higher wages have not proven to be enough to lure staff back to jobs in an industry where many people say they have been overworked and underpaid.
According to the report, 39.1 percent of workers in Wisconsin’s accommodations and food services industry filed initial unemployment claims between March 15 and July 5, 2020, which was the highest among all sectors. With those benefits ending nearly a month ago, bar and restaurant owners expected to see a surge in applicants, but that just hasn’t happened.
“We’ve been advertising. We’re doing everything we can to try to get the word out that we’re looking for people. We’re just not getting applicants. Period,” Wiken said.
Before the pandemic, The Packing House had about 60 employees. Now it’s forced to get by on half that.
The staff Wiken does have are already working extra hours, often putting a strain on themselves and their families, he said. So he’s cut back the number of days he’s open to five.
“If we could open seven days a week, we would be,” said Wiken. “We just don’t have the staff to do it.”
This is happening a lot of places, said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
“There’s a lot of restaurants that their sales are doing well, but they could be doing a whole lot better if they could find product and if they could find staff so they can really fully open,” Hillmer said.
This is a trend happening across the country, not just Wisconsin.
“The number of job openings in the sector is so much higher than it’s been, even before the pandemic,” said Wisconsin Policy Forum’s Peterangelo. “The number of openings nationally has almost doubled what it was before the pandemic.”
Still, Wisconsin is lagging behind the national average. According to the report, employment in the food service industry was down 6.1 percent nationally, compared to the 8.8 percent in Wisconsin.
“Right now we are at a crossroads with the industry,” said Hillmer. “Will there be an industry and will there be great restaurants and great bars as we come out of this pandemic? Absolutely. But it might just look different.”
A former School District of Beloit employee who allegedly covertly recorded a female victim faces additional charges after more videos showing other victims, including an underage female, were identified, according to an amended criminal complaint filed in Dane County Court.
Andrew P. Liebergen, 49, of Verona, allegedly used a device to record videos of a female victim without consent from November of 2020 until January of 2021 in the bedroom of a Madison-area home.
Liebergen allegedly used a hidden camera hidden in a wi-fi signal repeater and a night-light hidden camera, the complaint shows.
As part of the investigation, multiple laptops, including those belonging to the School District of Beloit, were seized.
The new complaint claims evidence recovered during a forensic exam of the computers found “hundreds of videos from a hidden camera” in a basement bedroom and two bathrooms of the home, according to the complaint.
The videos allegedly showed the original female victim—whose age was not listed in the complaint—a 12-year-old female and the victims’ mother, the complaint states.
Liebergen was originally charged with capturing an intimate representation without consent and misdemeanor invasion of privacy by use of a surveillance device. He now faces two additional counts of capture an intimate representation and capture an intimate representation of a victim younger than 18.
Liebergen was arrested March 19, 2021, while at Converse Elementary School in Beloit. Before his arrest, Liebergen served as a literacy instructional coach at Converse. He was placed on paid administrative leave.
On Monday, School District of Beloit Executive Director of Business, Human Resources and Operations Jo Ann Armstrong said Liebergen resigned from the district on April 14, with the Board of Education accepting the resignation at its April 27 meeting.
Liebergen was released March 23 on a $500 signature bond as the case remains pending. He will appear next on Dec. 10, in Dane County Court for a pretrial conference, court records showed.