Kewaunee history comes alive during renovation of old Selner building
KEWAUNEE — Not many people have seen the inside of the tallest building in Kewaunee, overlooking Harbor Park where the tug Ludington calls home.
“Can you imagine,’’ said Tom Skubal, a board member of the Kewaunee County Historical Society, “constructing this building in 1881 and watching the steamers and schooners on the river (in the busy Kewaunee Harbor)."
For the past 93 years of its 137-year life, the three-story, red brick structure at 402 Milwaukee St. was headquarters of W.J. and W.F. Selner Plumbing & Heating, containing four floors (including the basement) of mostly office, supplies and storage.
When the family retired the business, Art and Sarah Schiller of Silo Ventures LLC purchased the building with hopes of transforming the Romanesque Revival building with its arched windows into a renewed business/commercial/residential center.
Where to begin with a 137-year-old building that survived the Great Kewaunee Fire of 1898 that leveled the town?
History hobbyist Skubal was hired to gut the building by hand. As a result, Skubal has been discovering evidence of a timeline that both changes and reassures history.
“I’m finding out the building had lots to say and is still talking,’’ he said with a smile.
Peeling back the six false hanging ceilings on the first level revealed cathedral ceilings topped by a traditional, turn-of-the-20th-century tin ceiling. The tin squares are a pressed floral design that appear to be daisies or sunflowers surrounded by circular ornamentation.
“My father (Frank) put in that ceiling,” said 100-year-old Maynard Lufter of Kewaunee. It happened in the early 1920s and the young Lufter was about eight years old.
“I don’t remember specifically the installation but records show my father was one of the workers,’’ he said.
Lufter remembers a restaurant occupying the back of the building when he was a young boy.
“I was 7 or 8 years old and would come down here from school to eat my lunch,’’ he said, adding, “My father was a member of the Modern Woodmen and they had a meeting place upstairs.’’
However, it was a discovery behind the ceiling tins that stopped the excavation in its tracks — signs of a fire.
The original ceiling and a good chunk of the original brick wall was charred black. The building didn’t escape the Great Fire of 1898 after all. But why didn’t it burn down like the others on the block?
It was likely the fire-resistant masonry construction, helped by tongue-and-groove board installation. The soot pattern shows heat transferred through the brick.
The building was originally built in 1881 as J.A. Ballering & Co., where shoes and boots were manufactured. It went out of business eight years later.
Kewaunee business executive and State Sen. George Grimmer bought the building in 1890 and substantially remodeled the tall structure into offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists, reserving the top floor for a ballroom. Grimmer’s Hall, as it was called, became the town nucleus for dances and social events under the glow of gas chandeliers.
By removing more ceiling tins, Skubal uncovered the outline of the freight elevator that would have been removed after the original shoe company went out of business in 1889.
Selner Plumbing & Heating purchased the building in 1924 with more remodeling plans to fit its business needs. It, too, rented out space for upper-floor businesses.
The building went through many interior face lifts. Skubal uncovered classic 1890s wallpaper to see light for the first time in more than 100 years. The arched framed windows were walled over and then opened, then walled over again. There was a pile of sash weights for opening the large windows. A box of paperwork found upstairs showed the building also contained a beauty salon and bakery.
Skubal said the sweet spot was discovering the signature “C. Pavlick’’ and a partial hand print while chipping away at the plaster within the walls. Detective work revealed the wall hanger autographed the plaster the 1930s. They have an idea, but are not certain who “C. Pavlick’’ could be. Skubal also located a crumpled Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper page filling a small hole, dated June 26, 1939.
“It a historical timeline for Kewaunee,’’ Skubal said of the discoveries he's made during his work. “I received a lot of information from the Selners to help fill in gaps. There is so much more that could be hidden in the walls.’’
Art Schiller said with the building's proximity to the water, “We’re hoping it will attract a business capitalizing on the waterfront such as a fishing business, kayaking or any water sports." He pointed out the construction of a new $800,000 boat landing across the Kewaunee River that will incorporate a kayak landing, one of two in the harbor.
The second and third floors are expected to be residential.
Schiller also owns the old Kewaunee Enterprise building that accommodates Forward Kewaunee, a Wisconsin nonprofit business incubator and co-working space. Silo Ventures holds title to another building on the block at 211 Ellis St.
Update on the progress of the renovation of the Selner building can be found by visiting the "402 Milwaukee Street, Kewaunee, Wisconsin" Facebook page.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee history comes alive during renovation of old Selner building