Proposal could demolish Wonder Bar and Coliseum to make way for mixed-use high rise

Development could start as soon as Sept. 1 on 18-story housing project near the Alliant Energy Center.
An outdoor shot of the Wonder Bar by night, with its iconic red sign glowing above the entrance and reflected onto the pavement below.
Photo by Patrick Stutz.
The Wonder Bar has an infamous 92-year history with legendary stories.

A development proposal by the McGrath Property Group would replace Coliseum Bar & Banquet and the Wonder Bar steakhouse with a $40 million, 18-story housing project.

The proposal comes as one of the latest additions to transform the area surrounding the Alliant Energy Center into a “Destination District,” a collaborative effort between the city of Madison and Dane County. The proposed structure would create 291 apartment units, several floors dedicated to 12,500 square feet of commercial space and offices and a three-story parking garage.

The location of the suggested project on John Nolen Drive and Olin Avenue will cover 1.5 acres of land and is situated close to parks, bus lines and more. The nearby Alliant Energy Center, along with Lake Monona, the Beltline and the Capitol Building, make this concept an amazing opportunity at a great location, Lance McGrath of McGrath Property Group told the Wisconsin State Journal.

The Coliseum and the Wonder Bar, located respectively at 232 E. Olin Ave. and 222 E. Olin Ave., would be demolished with the new proposal plan.

The historic Wonder Bar has roots that go back to 1929, when it was opened by Eddie Touhy, the brother of American mob boss, Roger Touhy. Named “Eddie’s Wonder Bar” and used to brew beer and distill illegal spirits, the space was home to underground tunnels and gambling — more nods to the Prohibition era of when it was built. After undergoing several owners and name changes since then, it officially changed back to the Wonder Bar in 2009. Though the smuggling tunnels have since been filled in, stone fire places and old photographs add to the 1920’s ambiance of the intimate two-story setting, a spot that both Madison natives and visitors frequent for steaks, seafood and cocktails.

The neighboring Coliseum is another popular spot for visitors moving in and out of Madison for Badgers games or events at the Alliant Energy Center. Built in 1995, it is a much larger space in comparison to the Wonder Bar, with the ability to host more than 500 people. The venue also has a second-floor banquet hall, usually reserved for holiday parties, wedding receptions and other events.

Both buildings are currently owned by Jim Delaney, who purchased them back in 2017. Though COVID-19 heavily impacted the capabilities of both establishments — both closed in March 2020, but Wonder Bar reopened in September 2020.

Currently, the project still requires approval from the City Council and the Plan and Urban Design commissions. At 18 stories, the new building would be the third-tallest in Madison, behind the Capitol building and Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Following approval, construction is planned to start around Sept. 1, with the building project finalized in the spring of 2023.

Hannah Twietmeyer is a contributor for Madison Magazine. 

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