When I raid the old blog for material, I tend to recycle film reviews. It’s part of my ongoing effort to get the bulk of my digital film writing swept into this corner of the internet. This week, though, the timing calls for something else. A few days from the posting date of this particular “From the Archive,” we will come upon the twentieth anniversary of the loss of one of my favorite Madison landmarks. In commemoration, this is a piece I wrote as a part of “Flashback Friday” series I was doing for a while. Normally, I’d take this italicized space to expound on some personal background related to the transferred writing. This time, it’s all in there.
1996: Madison’s Hotel Washington burns down
In February of 1996, I was working weekend overnights at a commercial alternative radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. It was pretty rare, then, that I’d get visitors on a Sunday morning. That’s when I was catching up on my sleep, after all. So it was a surprise when a couple of friends showed up, roused me from my bed and announced gravely “We’ve got to show you something.” I was living on East Washington Avenue at the the time, making the trip to our destination markedly easy. We just drove the few blocks up to the capital, looped around it, and headed a short distance down West Washington. We got out of the car and stood along with several other similarly forlorn residents in front of the smoldering remains of the Hotel Washington.
In it’s first life, it was a massive hotel, conveniently located near the Milwaukee Road railroad depot. As that became a far less viable business model, the place needed to transform, and it did exactly that. Rodney Scheel was the man who transformed it, buying the building in the mid-seventies. By most accounts, the first business he opened in the reconfigured facility was a gay bar that bore an especially convenient version of his first name. Rod’s was a major success and helped spawn the opening of several other bars and clubs within the building, including The Barber’s Closet, The New Bar and, the place nearest to my heart, Club de Wash.
I didn’t get to go there much, but it still loomed large. When I finally found my way to the radio station that played good music during high school, the concerts they were touting most breathlessly always seemed to take place there, and I was equally envious of those with ready access to the club when I checked tour schedules from my close but still too distance perch at college in Stevens Point. Finally, when I moved to Madison after college, I could go see show there, except for the little problems of not enough time and not enough money. That may explain why the first concert I saw there was the understandably forgotten band Dink. I got free tickets through the radio station. I believe the last show I saw there, just a few weeks before the fire, was Ben Folds Five. In retrospect, I wish I’d been one of those people who was willing to check out anything and everything they had, a patron who practically haunts the place. The couple of times I went there and just sat at the bar for a bit, usually grabbing a beer or two while I purchased tickets for an upcoming event, I plainly liked the vibe of the place. It wasn’t trendy or edgy. It was simply a good bar wedged into an odd corner of an old building. Like a lot of places in that part of the country, it felt like people making the best of something, both preserving the past and moving forward in an unfussy way.
Rodney Scheel didn’t live to see his building disappear from the landscape. He died at the too-young age of 39 in 1990, a victim of the AIDS epidemic. He didn’t go through the hopes and promises of rebuilding that were never realized, and he never got to see his landmark venue reduced to nothing more than a historical marker bolted to an outdoor pay phone at a gas station.
It was a terrific place that truly typified the diversity, openness and community spirit of the marvelous city where I was born. It’s not the only landmark that’s gone, but it may be the one that means the most to me.