Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Grand as Oshkosh's Mirror

When the Grand first opened in 1883 Oshkosh was a boom town. It was the second largest city in Wisconsin and a popular destination for ambitious entrepreneurs and immigrants from the east who saw endless opportunity in the city's potential. Oshkosh was no different than the California gold rush towns of the prior generation, only instead of gold it was Northwoods timber that seized the imaginations of the new settlers.

Over the following 40 years the Grand stood as the city's foremost symbol of what today could be termed "soft power." It was a mandatory destination for the biggest and best touring acts of the age and proof that a small town with a funny name at the edge of civilization could do what it took to bring the best of what the world had to offer to our downtown and in that capacity the Grand's most important function was to serve as the window through which Oshkosh viewed the rest of the world.

In the 1920s the lumber industry's influence on Oshkosh began to wane at the same time the advent of cinema began to radically change the way Americans entertained themselves. Live theater fell out of fashion and became next to financially impossible by the time the stock market crashed in 1929.

Oshkosh never really recovered from the Great Depression. The city has never seen the kind of growth that it experienced in the last decades of the 19th century and fell into a stagnant malaise that lasted for much of the middle of the 20th century. Accordingly, the Grand fell into disrepair and ownership was passed on to a series of sketchier (yet colorful) characters until by the end of the 1970s it became clear to everyone something needed to be done with the building.

By that time, the last of the lumber mills were leaving town or closing up shop and the last vestiges of what was the Sawdust City were nowhere to be found. But Oshkosh was in the process of reinventing itself and the restoration of the Grand was an important symbolic parallel to a city-wide effort of renewal. In the 20+ years since the Grand has been a bridge the city's past while remaining a projection of Oshkosh's hopes and ambitions.

More so than any other person, building or institution in Oshkosh the Grand has been a mirror onto the soul of the city. When Oshkosh thrived, so did the Grand; when Oshkosh stagnated, the Grand did as well. There are few buildings like this anywhere in the world. Most "statement buildings" achieve fame and then decline. The Grand has been reanimated over the years by the people of the city and deserves to helped through its current crisis.

Most importantly, it has a promising vision for the future and an important role to play in civic life. The leadership of the Grand has demonstrated in recent years that it does not merely want to "put on plays." The Grand now features musical acts, films (indoor and out) and a rotating cadre of artists in residences that work with students to enhance their artistic education. The Grand knows it has a responsibility to reach as many people as possible in the community and has gone out of it's way to do so.

Two years ago, if a tornado or earthquake or flood -- or some other freak occurrence of nature -- would have wiped out the Grand in a single moment, it would have been deemed a tragedy that would have gutted a significant source of municipal history and pride from the city. That's exactly what's happening today, only the means of destruction isn't anything nearly as dramatic, it's merely the corrosive effects of time. However, this affords us the opportunity to do prevent the tragedy before it can occur.

The Grand is important for countless reasons. It keeps people circulating through downtown. It gives the community an artistic outlet to express themselves a unique venue. It's a rich legacy from the city's past. But most importantly, it's a reflection of the better angels of Oshkosh's character. How we treat the Grand ultimately tells us about who we are as a community and it would be nothing short of a civic travesty to let that essential element of the city crumble on our watch.

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