by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org
Whenever Helen Falk Schmidt climbed the stairs to the big room in her father's building, she saw her way around with a flashlight. Her day job didn't leave much time to come there when the sun was still out. And for thirty years or more, her dad only used the big room for storage, so he didn't care that it had no working lights.
As a result, the building didn't seem remarkable to Helen, who says, "I almost had it slated to be torn down."
Then one day a reporter from a local paper asked to write a story about the artwork on the second floor. Recalls Schmidt, "I said, 'What artwork?'"
That second floor was the dance hall of a building that opened as Two Rivers' first hotel in the 1850s. The ballroom doubled in size in 1902, and, in 1906, unknown painters added a grand ambience with a passel of murals, mostly of Wisconsin life, but also including a picture of George Washington. Helen might not have known about the murals, but the Two Rivers Historical Society did. It raised a bundle of money to buy the Washington House from Helen, preserve it, and convince the city not to tear it down. The society paid a Madison art conservator to restore the murals. The only thing beyond saving was a painting of trees on the ballroom's stage, which had to be recreated.
The society's past president and current administrator of the Washington House, Walt Vogl, says the group's membership increased once people found out about trying to save the Washington House. Thanks to this enlarged pool of dues and donations, plus other income, the sizeable building is now bought and paid for.
Now, the ballroom welcomes speeches, talks, private functions, and musical events including a popular monthly bluegrass jam. True to its past, the room's acoustics are "perfect," according to musicians who have played there.
These days, the work of local artists hangs below the murals, the most remarkable artist being Two Rivers' famous son, portrait painter Lester Bentley. Bentley painted pictures of the likes of President Dwight Eisenhower, three Wisconsin governors, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and the anonymous subject of a recruiting poster for SPAR, the Coast Guard's women's unit in World War II. It's the original for that ad which now represents Bentley in the Ballroom.
In the lower floor, the Society runs a historical museumwith a mouth-watering addition. Two Rivers makes a very good claim to being the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. Walt Vogl says the ice cream parlor that started the idea stood just down the street, but was torn down in 1979. So his group has made a stand-in at the Washington House, where customers can sit on wire-backed chairs and get neighborly service reminiscent of the days when pouring syrup on ice cream was still a novelty.
Now Helen's glad she let her local historical society change her mind about tearing down the building. At the Washington House, she says she's met people from all over the world who've stopped by the place, hailing from places as far-flung as Israel, Australia, the British Isles and Sri Lanka.
Visitors to the house are also finding their worlds enriched with every admiring gaze to the walls, every beat-loving toe tap, and every spoon of blue moon ice cream.
Two Rivers is located in Manitowoc County, near Lake Michigan on the eastern side of Wisconsin. The Washington House is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., May through October, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., November though April. For information on events, directions, and other questions, call the Two Rivers Historical Society at 920-793-2490.