The mystery-laden offices of Baraboo’s fabulous Ringling Bros. Circus just won $500,000 for restoration and preservation. That’s the good news.
The bad news, and first of several mysteries: Why does a modest, house-like structure — a National Historic Landmark — require the lofty sum of $500,000 for repair? Its interior is only 1,680 square feet, not counting the porch, cellar or — another mystery — the circus’ attached 240-square-foot vault.
“To save the 1901 Ringling Bros. Office from irreparable damage, efforts are needed to stabilize its rapidly deteriorating foundation and to rectify significant structural damage caused by water, mold, and age,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s recent announcement of its Save America’s Treasures Grant, administered by the U.S. National Park Service.
“Without swift action to save one of Circus World’s most historically significant buildings, a piece of circus history will be lost,” announced Angela Titus, assistant deputy director and chief program officer for the Wisconsin Historical Society, which owns and operates the 60-acre museum.
The site was headquarters and winter home to “The World’s Greatest Shows” starting in 1887. Locals nicknamed the self-contained community “Ringlingville.” In 1918 the circus merged and moved in with its top competitor, Barnum & Bailey’s, based in Bridgeport, Conn. (In 1927 headquarters were moved to Sarasota, Fla., where the circus suspended operation in 2017. Rumors of its return were first reported by The Wisconsin Examiner in 2021.)
The entire project, matched by state contributions and private donations, is expected to cost $1.5 million, including an historic structures report, documenting every aspect of the seven surviving winter quarters buildings.
But there are perhaps even more urgent concerns.
During a recent tour, The Wisconsin Examiner documented what appeared to be more than a dozen fire-safety concerns, including open electrical junction boxes, dangling wires, extension cords plugged into inaccessible outlets, an uncapped container of gasoline, and a fire-alarm pull that was blocked. All were in the museum’s 1969 W.W.Deppe Pavillion, potentially threatening at least 50 historic circus wagons displayed there.
On Tuesday Baraboo Fire Chief Kevin Stieve responded to an inquiry by the Examiner, stating that, following investigation of the Deppe Pavilion, he found “the violations were unfounded and/or in the process of being corrected.” (Circus World director Scott O’Donnell earlier said he was aware of the problems, that the building passed its May 15 fire inspection, and that fixes were being made. In August plans for a $1.6 million sprinkler system and mold abatement program were unveiled…)
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