The Eagles Club, a 90-year-old landmark structure in downtown Oshkosh that has fallen into disuse, is about to undergo a major renovation by a group of new owners who are planning to refurbish the ballroom, restore the basement bowling alley and open a “quick-serve” restaurant on the first floor.
The restoration of the building will proceed in phases. By next summer “the ballroom will be completely refurbished,” said Carey Sharpe, one of the new owners.
The ballroom will be available for weddings, but she said the space could be used for other functions, including fundraisers and possibly dinner theater. “If we are going to invest in refurbishing it, we’d like it to get used as much as possible.”
The basement bowling alley is in “very bad shape” and may take longer to renovate, she said. “A couple of years ago the boiler flooded, and the lanes are warped. That’s going to be a major project.”
The goal is to have the bowling alley open “maybe by next fall.” The restaurant, the exact format of which is still being worked out, is also expected to open next year.
“I think it’s a great project, having another historical venue for local, regional and touring acts to perform,” said Joe Ferlo, director of the Grand Opera House. “This is a great and unique venue with lots of different elements to it.”
He said he expects to work in partnership with the Eagles Club just as the Grand is planning to work with the new Oshkosh Arena that is opening this fall. The Arena also expects to book live entertainment in addition to hosting the Wisconsin Herd minor league basketball team.
“It’s just great for the central city,” said Mayor Steve Cummings. “This is one of the last major pieces in the puzzle as far as bringing things back to life.” He expects this project to help spur additional renovation of historic residential properties that are nearby.
“It’s a spectacular building.”
The Eagles Club project will help add to the momentum that is building in the city and helping to upgrade its image, Cummings said. “The whole area is changing and changing rapidly. There’s been a major shift in the community, and we are being watched by the rest of state.”
Projects like this are helping to make Oshkosh attractive to the younger generation, he added. “It’s a fun place to be.”
Sharpe said the Eagles Club will prioritize “family friendly” events and is looking into “sober nights” where no alcohol is served. She plans to work with the Grand to book events, such as dance parties, that would not be suitable for the opera house.
The Eagles Club was designed in the Old English/Tudor Revival style and completed in 1928, according to the Historic Oshkosh website. “The brick building is symmetrically composed with two story bay windows dominating the front projecting wings,” the site says. “Stunning woodwork and amazing architecture details grace almost every corner of this building.”
The building was a community assembly space that was used by unions, political parties and schools. “Boxing and wrestling matches were popular events and the location of the old ring posts might still be seen on the hardwood floor in the main ballroom,” the website says. In 1935 Duke Ellington and his jazz orchestra performed there.
The local Eagles Club sold the building in 2002, in part because of rising operating costs and an aging membership.It was used as a the site for an alternative high school for at-risk students from 2004 until 2010.
The new ownership group, which includes Sharpe’s sister, Jenna Golem, and her brother, Ben Johnson, have purchased several adjacent properties, which they intend to turn into parking lots and green space.
The three are the children of Sen. Ron. Johnson, although he has no involvement in the project, Sharpe said.
“We are all very involved in the community. We were born and raised here, and my siblings have all moved home,” Sharpe said.
Golem, who operates Lyndale Acres Studio & Gallery in Ripon, currently serves on the board of the Paine Art Center and Gardens and as the secretary of the Grand Opera House Foundation. Sharpe, who works as a pediatric nurse practitioner, is secretary of the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra and a member of the board of the Oshkosh YMCA.
The downtown Y is across the street from the Eagles Club and just completed the first phase of a multimillion dollar renovation. Sharpe said this activity helped spur her family’s interest in buying the historic structure. “We were just really excited by the efforts going on there.”
Photo: The Eagles Club on Washington Avenue is under new ownership. Photo by Miles Maguire.