Not a mafia heist, but a ‘hoist’ could save historic Madison bar with mob ties

MADISON, Wis. – As a proposal to build an 18-story housing complex adjacent to John Nolan Drive and the Alliant Energy Center moves closer to reality, the future for Madison’s ‘Wonder Bar’ begins to look more bleak.

The proposal, which would create 291 apartment units, several floors dedicated to 12,500 square feet of commercial space and offices and a three-story parking garage, would break ground in September in preparation of a 2023 opening.

It’s a balance,” said Bob Klebba of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. “Historic preservation and new development are almost always at odds, particularly in situations like what we’ve had on State Street, or on Langdon Street, or here on this parcel where the Wonder Bar is located.”

Preservationists like Klebba, or Madison Trust for Historic Preservation President Kurt Stege say the story behind the Wonder Bar is what makes it worth saving.

This place was built in 1930, It was built by a guy who had a number of brothers who were in the mob – were gangsters in the Chicago area,” Stege said. “It was during the (Al) Capone era. They were viewed as competitors…You can walk by it, you can drive by it, and if you know the story, if you know the connection, it comes out and you remember it. It takes you back, connects you to a different era.”

Related: Wonder Bar tales will live on

In recent days, however, Klebba and Stege have learned there’s a possibility of saving the building, but it won’t be easy.

The building can be lifted and moved,” Klebba said. “But that’s not the issue. The larger issue in this site is finding a landing site for it.”

Klebba says ideally, they’re looking to keep the building within a mile of it’s current location.

It’s not about the willingness of the developer and the neighborhood to preserve it, it’s really about open space,” Klebba said. “And there’s less and less open space in Madison these days.”

To move the building further away would require more resources and drive costs significantly. Klebba says while they’re no set deadline to find a new home, it’d likely have to be solidified sometime over the next few months.

Both men say they’re hopeful for a solution, which can preserve the unique history of the building itself.”

All around the city, there are things that remind me of important things,” Stege said. “Here, this connects you to prohibition.”