Historic School Building Becomes a Thriving Arts Center | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Dogged Determination Saves Historic Chippewa Falls Building

Sustained Community Effort Turns a 1907 High School Building into a Thriving Arts Center

Historic School Building Becomes a Thriving Arts Center | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeInterior of Heyde Center for the Arts. Group of school children standing in a circle in the former high school gym learning about theater.

Children attend a theater class at the Heyde Center for the Arts.


Like many historic preservation groups in the 1970s, the Chippewa Valley Cultural Association (CVCA) got its start with a vision to restore an old building to a productive use. Since that time, the CVCA has transitioned through several stages of growth. Today, it is a stable nonprofit organization with a thriving arts center that is looking to secure more partners and provide help to other groups.

However, during its decades of growth, the association dealt with plenty of setbacks and conflicts. Read how it progressed gradually and successfully through each of its challenges to overcome adversity.

Strong Community Vision Keeps Volunteers Engaged

The CVCA began with a community vision to turn a beautiful, deteriorating old school on a hill into a regional arts center, the Heyde Center for the Arts. McDonnell Memorial High School, built in 1907, was closed in 1964. For 10 years, the neoclassical school sat vulnerable to vandalism and natural elements. The initial effort to raise funds for the school's renovation included alumni who had maintained a strong connection to the building.

The scope of damage to the building was immense. Leaks in the roof had warped the hard, thin-gauge maple floors so badly that children could crawl between the wavy wood and the subflooring. But with a lack of organizational structure and hierarchy, the group's progress was stop-and-go. Everyone involved in the renovation effort recognized the need to form an organization through which they could continue their work.

The CVCA was chartered in 1976 to rehabilitate and convert the 30,000-square foot school building into a performance space. The founders formed a 501(c)(3) organization, maintained a strong vision, and kept volunteers engaged in the enormous task of stabilizing the building. The local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops helped. According to Executive Director Deb Johnson, "Over the decades that volunteers helped out on the project, nearly everyone had to shovel pigeon poop at one point or another."

Challenges Strengthen the Resolve of Volunteers

As renovations slowly continued, the situation grew desperate. The group discovered more problems, and their ongoing grant requests were denied due in part to the lack of matching funds for such a sizable project. However, some funding began to trickle in from diverse sources.

The Chippewa Falls community is small (around 13,000 residents) but generous. Local businesses such as Mason Companies Inc., Kell Container (now called Great Northern Corporation), and Northwestern Bank started to contribute. Music concerts hosted throughout town brought in funds. Each performance helped raise awareness and provided a preview of what might happen if the community came together to support the project. The group's persistent efforts began to show in the old school.

In the early 1980s, the CVCA commissioned a feasibility study to assess whether the Chippewa Falls community could raise enough money to support the cultural center. The study, based on interviews with locals, was resoundingly negative. Few people thought the project would actually happen. Their reasons included "not enough enthusiasm" for the project and "nice, but I don't want to pay for it."

Instead of dousing the CVCA's hopes, the study results sparked both action and a revolution within the organization. The CVCA did not ignore the lack of faith from potential supporters. Instead, they confronted each perceived problem and set out to prove that preservation and art were viable players in the Chippewa Falls community.

Relentless Efforts Lead to an Inspiring Success Story

The CVCA's leadership also shifted over the years. The new leadership brought a background in contracting and connections suitable to secure donated or reduced-rate contracting services. Skilled and unskilled volunteers, including licensed electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, contributed well over 100,000 sweat hours toward the building's restoration. Other leaders with expertise in fundraising worked in tandem with the building's physical progress. The CVCA finally opened the doors to the new Heyde Center for the Arts in 2000.

Today, the Heyde Center is a true community participant and partner. More than 16,000 participants take part in art shows, workshops, poetry readings, dance recitals, concerts, and theater performances. The CVCA has attained an annual budget of $290,000 a year. These funds allow the group to support two full-time staff and additional ad hoc staff. The organization focuses on cost-effective fundraising and regularly rents out its facility as a major income stream.

The CVCA has become stable enough to consider helping other groups succeed. The association collaborates with local and state agencies and organizations, including the Chippewa Historical Society. Membership dues are kept low to maintain the high level of engagement the organization enjoyed during its early decades. The group is proud of its volunteer-based heritage and continues to offer volunteer opportunities to meet critical operational needs.

Over the course of the CVCA's decades-long history, each of its leaders had a unique skillset necessary to tackle the organization's needs at that stage. The ongoing struggle and conflicts are a part of the CVCA's scrappy and inspiring story of adversity overcome. Because the CVCA progressed gradually and successfully through each of its development stages, the group will no doubt continue its success as a leader, innovator, and source of inspiration for other groups.

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