It seems that just about everyone in Eau Claire has a pagoda memory.
For more than 60 years, the ornamental pagoda that sat on top of the former Jimmy Woo’s Restaurant welcomed area residents and visitors alike. Situated along one of the city’s main drags, U.S. Highway 53 (now Hastings Way), it was pretty hard to miss the thing.
“It told you that you were in Eau Claire,” said Susan McLeod, director of the Chippewa Valley Museum. “It had a lot of significance to a lot of different people.”
McLeod also noted that the softball team that plays in that area of town calls themselves the Pagodas.
But with new construction on the way for Eau Claire, the pagoda recently came under threat of being demolished, which has drawn a great deal of attention to the unusual local landmark.
The restaurant itself was built in 1950. It was the creation of Woo, a Chinese immigrant who ultimately ended up in Eau Claire. After years of working in the restaurant industry, he decided that he wanted his own, and Jimmy Woo’s Restaurant was born, though without the pagoda.
McLeod said there’s various tales as to what happened next, but the most common story suggests that Woo was approached by someone shortly after the restaurant opened who suggested business might improve if he had something more eye-catching on the building.
“And the suggestion was a pagoda,” McLeod said.
The pagoda structure was built shortly after. Made of wood and steel and standing about 20 feet tall, it was unlike anything else in the city and attracted people to the restaurant for decades.
After a few changes in ownership, and a new Highway 53 that bypassed the city, Woo’s Pagoda closed in 2008. It was soon reopened and rebranded as the Red Parrot Nightclub and Lounge, which would last until 2012 before closing its doors, and would remain vacant after that.
Earlier this year, plans were announced that the building would be demolished and a pharmacy would be built in its place. That meant the pagoda would go down with the building, which didn’t sit well with some residents.
McLeod said she had been getting calls for years to have the museum step in and preserve the pagoda, but they really started to ramp up once the news of the demolition came down. She said she wasn’t surprised at the response.
“I feel that people do often feel the loss of things that helped them identify themselves with their community,” McLeod said, which led her to want to help.
But as the director of a museum, she had concerns. “You always have to question an object like that, whether you as a museum can handle something that is that big and whether you can take care of it,” McLeod said.
With the clock ticking on a pending demolition, the decision was made to rescue the pagoda from the top of the building. McLeod said she had a little over two months to put together a plan and execute it, and that’s when people from the community came forward to ask how they could help.
Their first challenge was determining whether or not the pagoda could even be moved. Once they confirmed that it could, it became a question of logistics.
“You can’t just walk over and pick up a 20 foot high pagoda,” McLeod said. “That’s a big operation.”
Ultimately, a handful of local businesses came together offered up their services and heavy equipment to get the pagoda moved. After being removed from its foundation, a crane was used to lift the pagoda and place it horizontally on a trailer. Due to the fragile nature and the unusual shape of the pagoda, it was a delicate operation. One company sent over cribbing, or links of timbers, to prevent damaging the pagoda on the truck.
“It was like playing Lincoln Logs, placing them all along this tapering form, so that the pagoda could be solid on the flatbed, laying on its side without any of those curved projections touching,” McLeod said.
It was driven to a temporary storage space, and unloaded, and will remain there until McLeod can figure out what to do with it. She said that due to its large size, it won’t fit inside the museum. But the museum is planning an exterior expansion, including outdoor seating, and she thinks the plan can be adapted to incorporate the pagoda.
The pagoda-less restaurant building was demolished just days later. McLeod credits the community for stepping up and coming together to just barely escape the bulldozers.
While the location of the pagoda will be different, for its many supporters, it will remain a towering reminder that yes, this is Eau Claire, and this is home.