Cedarburg has formula for model downtown

A Walk Through Yesterday” is the title on a pamphlet describing Cedarburg’s historic downtown. Antique, quaint, charming and cozy are words used to paint the picture of the community that effortlessly seems to attract tourists yet retains the dignity of a small town.

The interesting aspect is how the Ozaukee County community of 11,000 has created a standard that other towns strive to emulate.

“The unique thing about the downtown is it’s more historically intact then any small town in the state,” said Tom Kubala, principal of Kubala Washatko Architects, which operates out of the remodeled brick Cedarburg Power Plant. 

Kubala has been in Cedarburg 26 years. The “walkability” of the community is what initially attracted him, but the “psyche of Cedarburg” is the intangible quality that keeps him.

“One of the neat things about Cedarburg was the mixture of residential and commercial. It never was a fully homogeneously commercial place,” said Kubala, noting amenities such as the informal nature of the downtown; the mix of limestone homes; three-story mills;  a riveted iron bridge; a classic, cast iron clock; and sandwich boards with white-chalk menus perched by storefront doorsteps.

“Modern communities are so well-planned that they lose a kind of spontaneity to them, an unexpectedness or surprise. Here, there are so many interesting places next to one another that it creates these wonderful spaces,” Kubala said. “If you walk downtown, the house is on one side and a business on the other, and there’s an unusual space between them. It’s not typical.”

According to Kubala, that kind of mixture is normally zoned out of a modern community.   “Zoning wouldn’t allow the two to mix, whereas here they do.”

Kubala said the secret to Cedarburg’s success is a combination of factors, including a downtown that has not been “killed by strip mall development or big box retail.”

He said, “Part of it is when you walk downtown, the pedestrian is the main player, and the car is not. In other places, the pedestrian is dwarfed by the presence of automobiles and people can feel that, so when they come into an environment where the buildings are interesting and there’s some integrity to the quality of the place, the pedestrian is the major player, it makes a huge impact on their psyche.”

Former Mayor Stephan Fischer is credited with uncovering the building stock in Cedarburg and making a point to preserve it.

“He was enthralled with Williamsburg, and he knew the effect it had on him to walk in that environment. He realized Cedarburg had that quality too,” Kubala said. “It has a lot to do with how you perceive something through your feeling, rather then just your eyes or nose. It’s an intuitive perception that’s at work.”

“I love the age of the city and the people in the city, and it’s nice it was preserved,” said Lawrence “Red’ Entress, citing the mills as community landmarks. “They represent the history of Wisconsin, when German settlers came here 150 years ago.”

Two of the mills, a feed mill and a woolen mill, remain in Cedarburg, although the buildings have been converted to artists’ studios and restaurants.

“In the 1950s, there was a thought process to tear St. Francis Borgia church, and they also wanted to tear down the mill,” said Entress relaying a story of preservation history. “But Steve Fischer told the men they had to have a demolition permit. There really wasn’t such a thing, but it bought him time to call a friend. He saved the buildings.”

A black and white photo of downtown Cedarburg is taped to the wall at the town barber shop. The picture from the 1900s shows a dirt road running up Washington Avenue. The outline of the buildings are the same as today, except there is now more lighting and landscaping.

“I bought this barbershop in Feb. 14, 1977.  It was my Valentine Day gift to himself,” said Victor Krause, with a deadpan delivery. “Why do I like it here? I have to, I work here.”

Krause was as much a part of the shop as his sparkly old avocado green barber chair that dates back to 1961. “Years ago, they used to have 18 advertising signs above the mirror in here,” said Krause, thumbing through a crusty brown book that listed local accounts going back as far as 1919. “Wirth’s Department Store,  Lauterbach Sales, Lehmann Hardware, Kessel Radio Shop, Ray Goll Oil Company …”

Krause credited the success of the downtown to the local tourist industry and community festivals.  He said the changing landscape also keeps people coming back.

However, Cedarburg is on the cusp of additional transformation. What was once “the antique capital of the world” is now changing to have more trendy businesses, a renovated theater and discussion of hiring a marketing director.

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