Third Street South in Wisconsin Rapids is the location of a string of mansions that once were the homes of the leading citizens of this city. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the former Witter House that now serves as the headquarters of the South Wood County Historical Museum.
The former Witter House on the right adjoining the former Lawrence E. Nash House on the left circa 1912.
The South Wood County Historical Museum at 540 Third Street South was the former Witter House and also was used as the T.B. Scott Library.
Missing from the mix today is one of the showpieces of the street and the city, the Rogers House. Located at 570 Third Street South, some may remember it as the American Legion Clubhouse which it served as between 1949 and 1964. It was in this form that I encountered it as a child in the late 1950s. My parents rented it twice, in 1958 and 1959, to serve as the site of the wedding receptions for my two older sisters.
Driving by the location today we see the Imperial House Apartments. This building was built in 1965 on the site of the destroyed mansion.
The Imperial House Apartments
This complex, while functional, is very different from the mansion that once stood on the site. It raises the questions:
o Who built the original house and when did they build it?
o What role did they play in the city?
o What did it look like?
o Who was its architect?
o How was it arranged internally?
o Who owned it besides the original builders?
o When and why was it destroyed?
Finding the answers to these and other question has proven to be a tantalizing quest.
To begin with the location number of the Third Street address changed three times in the twentieth century. (In 1918 it was 981, in 1929 it was 940 and since 1962 it has been 570.) Thus searching for legal documents such as deeds in the courthouse requires knowkledge of the specific time period involved.
Compounding the problem online searches of the name of the city has also changed three times as well. (Grand Rapids, for the east side and Centralia for the west side to 1900, both as Grand Rapids from 1900 to 1920, and finally both as Wisconsin Rapids from 1920 to the present.)
Never-the-less the location itself is still recognizable on street maps. The Sanborn maps of the street developed for insurance purposes and roughly outlining the homes for fire access provide a clue to ownership by year.
The Sanborn Map of 1919 shows the outline of the house as built.
Who built the house and when was it built?
The Sanborn maps indicates that R.M. Rogers was the owner of the property in 1919. (The outline of the house provided coincides with my memory of the house that I encountered in the late 1950's.)
The house was built in 1915 according to an article in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune. (An earlier frame house may have stood on the property but was sold to Riverview Hospital where it was moved to provide housing for nursing staff.)
Checking the records in the County Courthouse Office of Registraion and Deeds I found that R. Rogers and his wife Millie purchased adjacent Lots 11, 12 on Third Street and Lot 17 adjoining at the bottom of the hill on First Street on July 2, 1914 for $9,500.00 from Rachel Gardiner, widow and the estate of her late huband. The significant price indicates to me that there was a home on the property which was probably the frame house moved and sold by the Rogers to Riverview Hospital.
Riverview Hospital circa 1922. The white frame house on the left of the red brick hospital was purchased from R. M. Rogers and moved to the
Riverview location to provide housing for the nursing staff. Taylor Photo Collection McMillan Library.
Further searching shows that R. M. Rogers stood for Roye Mortimer Rogers. Rogers was born in Adrian, Michigan, on July 16, 1871, (or 1870 according to Find a Grave Memorial), and came to Wisconsin Rapids in the fall of 1914 to become associated with E.W. Ellis, of 1250 Third Street South, serving as secretary treasurer and then president of the Stange Ellis Lumber Company before it closed in 1924. His wife, Millie Stange Rogers, born in 1882, was a sister of Mrs. E.W. Ellis.
The Rogers were married in 1907 and adopted two boys, brothers aged 3 and 5 years old, from the Sparta Orphanage in 1918. The oldest was Robert M. Rogers (1913-1993) and the younger one was John S. "Jack" Rogers (1915-1936).
Photo of Robert "Bob" Rogers from the Lincoln High School yearbook of 1931.
Photo of Jack Rogers pending.
What role did the Rogers play in the city?
Associated with the lumber industry, the Rogers were leading citizens and were extremely well off. They ultimately owned a home in Beverly Hills, California and maintained a residence in New York City at the same time that had their main home in Wisconsin Rapids. Mr. Rogers previously owned a lumber company in Michigan and his wife was the daughter of August H. Stange, the founder of Stange Lumber Company in Merrill, Wisconsin that employeed over 1,000 people. His brother-in-law was president of the Stange Ellis Lumber Company in Wisconsin Rapids. Stange Lumber moved operations to La Grande Oregon in the mid 1920's when the lumber supply in Wisconsin became depleted. It is now part of Boise Cascade.
The Rogers entertained regularly in their home. Society columns in the local newspaper indicated that they also traveled extensively in the United States, Europe and throughout the world. They spent winters in Beverly Hills, Cal. Mrs. Rogers served as president of the Tuesday Club in Rapids. They were members of the Episcopal Church, St. John the Evangelist to which they donated one of the stained glass windows . Mr. Rogers bred dogs that were in competition. He also was a founder and early president of the corporation that founded the airport in Wisconsin Rapoids known as Alexander Field.
Both of their sons graduated from Lincoln High School. The younger of the two, Jack, a Lincoln High School tennis champion, was tragically killed in an auto accident in Plover, Wisconsin when he was twenty years old and about to enter his second year at Marquette University in pre-medicine. He is buried in Wisconsin Rapids' Forest Hill Cemetary.
(Photo from Find a Grave Memorial John Stange Rogers.)
The Rogers owned the house until 1944, however they moved permanently to Beverly Hills, California in mid-1941. Mr. Rogers died in 1949. Mrs. Rogers died in 1961. Both are buried near the Wee Kirk of the Heather in Forest Lawn Cemetary, located in Glendale, California.
A photo of the widowed Mrs. Rogers taken at the opening of the LaGrande Country Club in Oregan, October, 1949. Millie, Mrs. Rogers is on the right.
What did the house look like?
Photo by Daily Tribune staff photographer, 1949.
(Better image pending.)
This Daily Tribune photo from 1949 is the first semi-clear image that I've been able to locate of the Rogers House. The architecture reflects the period in which it was built which was in 1915. Neither a colonial nor a Federal revival, it incorporates elements of the arts and crafts style with those of the Prairie School of architecture made popular in the mid-west by Frank Lloyd Wright. Its hipped roof and overhanging eaves, symmetrical window arragement and wide horizontal terrace in front are indications of Prairie School of architecture. The base and the first floor were brick and second floor and raised attic appear to be shingled. Properly set on its lot, it was an imposing home without being pretentious.
Who was the architect?
The architect is yet to be determined. However, the style of the house, Paririe School with arts and craft details leads me to believe that Geoge W. Maher may have been the architect who designed or inspired the design of the Rogers House. Maher worked on the design of several houses in Wausau in the period when the Rogers House was built. And the families were in the lumber business and were probably people with whom the Rogers were acquainted.
Attached is an article on the history of this prominent mid-western architect.
How was it arranged internally?
The Rogers House was designed both as a family home and for large scale entertaining. The following are layouts are my memory of what I first encountered there in 1958 at age eleven. The room designations reference their original uses. I recall the details as it was the most impressive house that I'd ever seen up to that point. And the layout still serves as a standard by which I judge other large homes that I have visited since then.
The first floor contained a vestibule with entry to the basement and its large scale socializing area on the right. This was followed by a formal foyer with a grand, possibly split staircase to the left and to the right of the entrance. (The foyer and the staircase were wood paneled in quarter-sawn oak as I recall.)
To the left was a library/music room with grasscloth wall covering and wood moldings as trim. To the right was what had been the spacious living room. It was abutted by a large sun room on the end. I recall that the walls of the sun room were painted with Chinese paintings and the rattan furniture, that I took to be original to the house, had an oriental motif.
Forward of the foyer was what had been a formal dining room, also panelled in oak. (On touring the house before renting it the custodian told my mother that while in use as a residence the dining room had tapestries on the walls and contained an abundance of fine silver.) And just beyond the dining room was a smaller eating area that probably served as a breakfast room or family dining room. A fountain lined one of the side walls of this room.
(As recalled by the author.)
As the American Legion Clubhouse between 1949 and 1964, the second floor housed the ladies room and lounge. All of the other former bedrooms served the American Legion as offices and were kept locked except during business hours and were off limits to a very curious eleven year old.
Second floor layout pending.
The basement contained a large entertainment area featuring a bar and large socialiizing and dance foor. Men's rooms were on the left in former servants quarters. The upper left area was a utility area that I did not explore in 1958.
(As recalled by the author.)
Who owned the house?
1915-1944 Roye M. Rogers
A feature during the residence of the Rogers was a pipe organ in the music room installed by the Hook and Hastlings Co, of Boston when the house was built in 1915. It was moved by the Rogers to their home in Beverly Hills, Cal. when they left Wisconsin in 1941. (Gerald Meyer, The Daily Tribune, November 27, 1992.) Also moved to California along with many furnishngs were two antique ceramic lions that framed the entrance terrace to the house.
1944-1949 Otto A. Backus
Dr. Otto A.Backus bought the Rogers House in 1944 and sold it to the American Legion in 1949. Dr. Backus and family lived there for five years. He practiced medicine in the tri-city area for close to 30 years. On retirement in the 1960s, Dr. Backus, his wife Ruth, and their family moved to Arizona.
1949-1964 - American Legion Post # 9.
The American Legion Post 9 opened their clubhouse just before Christmas in 1949. It was both the headquarters for their social events and housed offices for their activites including auxillary activities and Drum and Bugle Corp. In addition they rented out the facility for weddings and even held boxing matchs possibly in the downstair bar or in the large garage.
These photos taken during rental use for weddings in the 1950s provide tantilizing glimpses of the house.
A closer look at the horizontal terrace in front of the house.
Photo of the front of the Rogers House as the American Legion Clubhouse.
Wedding party of Carol Cwiklo Torresani, June 7, 1958.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Rossman.)
Note the stained glass window on the left.
Photo taken June 7, 1958 of the Wozniak family at the wedding of my sister Carol Cwiklo Torresanii on the left. Stella Wozniak Cwiklo is third from the right.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Rossman.)
Photo of Carol Cwiklo Torresani and Jack Torresani taken June 7, 1958 in the former living room of the Rogers House.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Rossman.)
The photo inside the former Rogers House Dining Room. Note the beautiful quarter sawn oak paneling.
Taken in October 1959,.
The photo commemorates the 25th wedding anniversary of Frank and Stella Cwiklo.
When and why was it destroyed?
By the beginning of 1965 the house was 50 years old and deferred maintenance issues and their associated costs were accumulating. Moreover the period of growth that the post saw after World War 2 was waning.
On May 25, 1965 the Haagerstom-Rude Post # 9 of the American Legion sold the house and property to Bockl Development Corporation of Mlwaukee for $31,700. The president of the post was Earl Appel and the secretary was Mary Cottrill.
in July of 1965, little more than a month later, Jerome H. Berman, president of Bockl Development Corporation used the poperty as collateral for a $160,000 loan. (Bockl again used it as collateral in 1971 for another $198,000 loan.)
Immediately thereafter the Rogers House and garage were demolished to make way for the apartment building that bears the name The Imperial House Apartments.
Sadly, because neiher the seller nor the purchaser had any particular sentimental attachment to the house nor appreciation for its cultural value, neither photographic records nor architectural drawings were kept to document the building that they destroyed.
References and aknowledgements
Lori Brost, administrator, South Wood County Historical Museum. Ms. Brost assisted me with significant online searches and wonderful encouragement.
Dave Engel, historian and past president, South Wood County Historical Museum. Mr. Engel served as a sounding board and advisor in my research.
Andy Barnett, director, McMillan Public Library. Mr. Barnett graciously provided his assistance with access to the Sanborn maps online and to the Taylor Collection of photos and historical notes.
Sarah Rossman provided the clear copies of family photos from her parent's wedding album taken in the Rogers House when it functioned as the American Legion Clubhouse.
Catherine Geppert identified George Maher as the probable architect. Cathy worked as a docent at the Marathon County Historic Museum, a George Maher designed home, during the summers of her years as a college student at Lawrence University. George Maher the the subject of her thesis. Cathy is the eldest daughter of the late Jack and Carol Torresani.