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Former Elks Club manager remembers Heritage House as elegant

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KENOSHA — Thursday night the Historic Preservation Committee will consider the future of a building that has stood vacant for years and been damaged by fire, broken water pipes and vandalism.

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But the building Ron Slaght remembers managing for 15 years was much different. It was a bustling place of activity, with elegance found nowhere else in Kenosha.

That building, the Heritage House and former Elks Club at 5706 Eighth Ave., was recommended for demolition by the city toward the end of December. The Historic Preservation Committee will meet Thursday night at the City Municipal Building to decide whether to agree with that order or to spare the building, which was constructed in 1919 and is on the city’s list of historic buildings.

Slaght worked as club manager for the Elks Club from 1971 to 1986. When he saw the pictures of the state of the building, Slaght looked back to his pictures and memories of better times.

“It hurts me to see what happened to it,” Slaght said. “In the glory days we had five bands playing on New Year’s Eve with five different kinds of food service. We served 1,100 people on New Year’s Eve and employed 125 people.”

Slaght said the Elks Club was home to constant activity. The building and its air-conditioned ballroom with space for 500 guests hosted fancy parties, elaborate wedding receptions, bands and entertainers from Chicago and Las Vegas, events for the thriving industrial companies of Kenosha and many fundraising opportunities for local schools and charities. Kentucky Fired Chicken founder Harland David “Colonel” Sanders visited the kitchen in the 1970s, and Mel Torme held a concert at the Elks Club.

“It was the civic center of Kenosha,” Slaght said. “It was so elegant. There was no substitute for that ballroom.”

Slaght still remembers arranging a duck dinner for hundreds of people at a Ducks Unlimited event.

“They said nobody would be able to do that; I said ‘We can,’” Slaght said.

Even without a buzzing party, the club was a source of activity.

“We would have 300 to 400 people coming in for lunch at noon during the week,” Slaght said. “Even on a Thursday at noon we would have at least six, maybe eight bartenders working.”

Slaght said he always wanted the club to be open for charitable causes, and he was impressed with what the capacity and support of the Elks Club could provide.

“We raised $18,000 for a cancer benefit on a Wednesday night in 1983,” Slaght said.

Supporting local schools was also a priority for the Elks Club, with the site being used to raise money for music programs, offering pool space to special education programs and hosting dances and other school functions.

The Elks Club faced financial problems and was forced into bankruptcy. The club sold the building in the early 1990s.

“I wish it could have kept going,” Slaght said. “It was like the end of an era. With the position it’s in, it could have been outstanding. People still need an elegant place to have a wedding. I think the clubs still need someplace to go.”

The building later reopened as the Heritage House, before closing again. It has been vacant for about a decade, during which vandalism and broken water pipes have heavily damaged the interior of the building. An October fire caused further destruction.

“It would take a lot of work and a lot of effort to bring it back,” Slaght said. “I don’t know if it would be possible.”

Such an investment into this property would not be unprecedented, Slaght said. The Elks Club paid $41,000 for the site in 1916 and more than $230,000 went into the construction of the property by the time it was completed three years later.

But Slaght said before a final decision is made on the building, he would at least like to see what the feasibility of a newly revived Elks Club could be.

“I think it would be worthwhile to have a study to see if someone is willing to put the money into it,” Slaght said. “I would hope we have the resources that will support something of elegance.”

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