The rapidly-built Ringling Theatre is rapidly & beautifully restored in Baraboo, Wisconsin

Built in less than 12 months back in 1915 the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, Wisconsin was a gift to the city from the eldest of the Ringling Brothers of circus fame.

The elaborate 16,325-sq.ft. oval-shaped theater was one of the earliest theaters designed by Rapp & Rapp of Chicago, and is adorned with ornate features such a domed ceiling with a cloud painting, a series of historic murals, velvet draperies and a rare fire curtain with a hand-painted mural.

Its recent restoration was also completed in record time (8 months), and within a very tight budget ($3.2 million). “The theater is known in the community and they wanted to give it what it needed for some time,” says Peter Rött, AIA a principal at Isthmus Architecture, which was contracted to do the restoration

He explained that—during the 2008 recession—he was initially called in to consult on replacing the central portion of the leaky auditorium roof to prevent further damage to the interior, but “they had much more than a roof problem.”

The theater before restoration.

Once the roof was replaced, we re-invigorated the idea that the restoration was possible,” says Rött, adding that tax credits and a generous donation from the Jeffris Family Foundation made the project possible. “Wisconsin offers a state historic preservation tax credit (20%) and federal is 20%, so that adds up quickly.

We couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Stephanie Miller-Lamb, Executive Director of the Al. Ringling Theatre. “It was a public/private project, using both federal and state preservation tax credits and the city made a nice contribution. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation assisted as well.

Today, this beautifully restored theatre is a live performance, music and film venue. Created with the intention of providing Baraboo with a multi-purpose entertainment facility, the Al. Ringling Theater Friends purchased the historic theatre in 1989.

Now, ART Friends carries on Al. Ringling’s legacy, striving to develop the facility as a premier cultural center offering diverse local,regional and national cultural programs.

Isthmus Architecture is a collaborative of architects and design professionals dedicated to preserving architectural resources in a manner that respects original context and design intent. Their work is predicated on the surveys of building systems and settings, research into historic documentation, interaction with clients concerning planning issues and programming needs and an understanding of the technologies and methodologies that facilitate the rehabilitation and maintenance of buildings and settings. They say that historic preservation and restoration is inherently sustainable through the reuse of buildings, components and materials and wise utilization of resources.

The mission of the Jeffris Family Foundation is to preserve the cultural history and heritage of the Midwest through the preservation of regionally and nationally important historic buildings and decorative arts projects. They support the preservation of history and culture and the unique sense of place in small towns and cities, and have helped renew significant historic sites in eight Midwestern States.

They are dedicated to sustainability and quality restoration through good research and planning, and they try to inspire and motivate community leaders and local families to support historic preservation in their towns. The Foundation supports significant projects that strive for high preservation standards and show a strong degree of local support.

Photos are by Bill Johnsen, courtesy of Isthmus Architecture.

See article by Martha McDonald in Traditional Building.

See the Al. Ringling Theatre website.

See Isthmus Architecture website.

See Jeffris Family Foundation website.

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