Historic Downtown Sun Prairie: Vibrant Past, Vibrant Present

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Comprised of portions of four city blocks consisting of 28 buildings facing onto the 100 and 200 blocks of East Main Street, the Sun Prairie Downtown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019. According to the National Register nomination, “Collectively, the buildings in the district have a significance that is even greater than the merit they possess individually because surviving streetscapes of such buildings are rapidly nearing extinction in the changing economic and social reality that characterizes the downtowns of Wisconsin’s cities today.”

The story is told that a group of men led by Augustus Bird traveled from Milwaukee to Madison to build Wisconsin’s territorial capitol. On June 9, 1837, they arrived to sunshine at the edge of a large prairie after days of rain. There they carved the words “Sun Prairie” into a tree.

In 1839, Charles Bird, Augustus’ younger brother, became the first settler in Sun Prairie. It was on his land that the future downtown was established. Commerce developed as local merchants opened businesses to serve the farmers who arrived nearby. Work on a railroad from Milwaukee to the Baraboo Valley stopped at Sun Prairie in 1859. For the next 10 years until the railroad was completed to Madison, Sun Prairie prospered and became the shipping point for produce from the surrounding area.

Once the railroad no longer ended in Sun Prairie, trade in the village waned until late in the 1800s. Commerce finally picked up, necessitating new buildings in the downtown district. One of the first to be built in the commercial vernacular style in 1878 was the George Maloney block at 223-225 E. Main Street. Today, Nest Interior Design is in one-half of the building, at 223.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

In business since 2005, Nest Interior Design has been at its current location since 2014. Owner Nicole Fulton is proud to have her business in a historic district. She says, “For us as interior designers, obviously, we’re heavily invested in the aesthetics and history of the space. The building has texture and character. Amazingly, all the timbers east to west are single logs. It’s a beautiful building. When constructed, the basement windows were above grade. The street was built up to allow for modern utilities, and now the basement is below grade.”

Nicole adds that J.J. Stitches, the business next door, has an even larger lower level that can be driven into. In the 1920s, Nest’s side was a grocery store with a meat market next door. Apartments now occupy the second floor.

Like the building housing Nicole’s business, structures in the Sun Prairie Downtown Historic District are all second generation, having replaced earlier buildings on their sites, and are all built of brick. Many of the first-story storefronts have been lost to renovation, but the upper floors are all largely intact and retain original decorative brick, wood, and metal cornices.

Adriana Perez is co-owner of Abarrotes El Primo, 105 E. Main Street, originally the Queen Anne style Hotel Kleiner, built in 1896. The current enterprise is both a market and a taqueria and has been in business since 2006.

Adriana comments, “I feel grateful and honored to be in this building that has been here for so long. Our business will be part of Sun Prairie’s history in the future. Researchers looking into the history of the building will learn that people from another country came here seeking a better future. They will know that we worked hard, and that people came from all over the area to eat our food and see the town.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Hotel Kleiner was designed by Madison architect John Nader, who also devised Madison’s first sewage treatment plant as the city’s engineer. Another Nader structure in the district, the Charles Britton block, 209-211 E. Main Street, is also a Queen Anne style building from 1899. Like Hotel Kleiner, it has oriel bay windows on the second floor—a signature characteristic of the style.

Eddie’s Alehouse & Eatery, 238 E. Main Street, has always been a tavern, according to owner Dan Callies. It was built in 1891 for Matthew Dott to house a saloon, one of almost half of the historic district’s buildings built in the 1890s. Dott was also a first cousin of Dan’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Eddie’s, in its location since 2008, is named after Dan’s father, who had a grocery store in the downtown from 1950 to 1962.

Dan says, “Buildings of this era were built with a lot more character. This building is in really good shape; it’s like a fortress. The walls are 16 inches thick. Bricks cover concrete blocks on both the inside and outside. Original beams, virgin pine logs, span the 21-foot width of the building.” There’s a 12-foot ceiling on the first floor with one-and-a-half-inch, hand-pressed tin that Dan restored and a 10-foot ceiling on the second floor. He says it’s much like the ceiling in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater in downtown Madison.

As president of the Sun Prairie Historical Library and Museum, 115 E. Main Street, Dan is connected to another building in the historic district. The original Georgian Revival style Sun Prairie Public Library was built in 1924. The architect was Alvan Small, Sun Prairie native who practiced in Madison. Small is best known for his outstanding Prairie style homes, but who, according to the National Register nomination, “clearly had a solid grounding in the period revival style designs that became fashionable after World War I.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Prairie Flowers & Gifts, at 245 E. Main Street since 2012, has been in business for 40 years. Dina Pocernich has been the owner since 2006 and building owner since 2017. Her commercial vernacular style building was constructed in 1887 and reconfigured in 1901, when two buildings next to each other were combined, a second story added to one, and first-story storefronts remodeled. Dina says, “I love the building. It’s beautiful with its exposed brick and original wood floors. When I had the building inspector here prior to purchase, he said it was solidly built. Trucks may have driven into the back of the building when it was a feed store.”

Occupants of the building since it was first built as a general store included the Dane County Co-op General Store, operated by the Dott family; the Fuhrman Canning Company; a feed and seed store; garden store and water softener salt service; and Holt Pharmacy, a business that old-time Sun Prairie residents remember. The Catholic Order of Foresters, a fraternal benefit society, held meetings on the second floor. Later, it was a dance hall. Today, three apartments are above the flower shop.

When businesses are located in a historic district, the owners generally have a strong sense of community. They care about people and properties in the district, about the neighborhood as a whole. This certainly rings true in the Sun Prairie Downtown Historic District.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photograph by MOD Media Productions