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Iconic Wausau Depot To Become Craft Distillery And Cocktail Lounge

Depot Used In National Advertising Campaign For Wausau Insurance

Wausau's Milwaukee Road depot
Wausau’s Milwaukee Road depot on Grant Street was built in 1901, it became nationally known when Wausau Insurance adopted it as its symbol in the 1950’s. Glen Moberg/WPR

An iconic train depot in Wausau is finding new life as Central Time Distillery, the city’s first craft distillery and cocktail lounge.

The Milwaukee Road depot was built in 1901 and designed by Frost & Granger, a Chicago-based architectural partnership between brothers-in-law Charles Sumner Frost and Alfred Hoyt Granger. Frost worked on more than 100 train depots, and would later design Chicago’s Navy Pier auditorium.

A train approaches the Milwaukee Road depot in Wausau. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

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The depot’s new owners, local brewer Dan Weber and his wife Kimm VanDenHeuvel, said they will be true to the building’s history as they renovate it for a new use.

“We’re actually moving forward to put it on the National Historic Registry,” Weber said. “We’re really trying to encapsulate the ambience and the old feel of the train station.”

“Our whole goal is to restore it to its former glory,” VanDenHeuvel said. “It’s been a lot of different things since it’s been a train station, and they covered up a lot of the unique pieces of the building, so we’re uncovering the brick from 1901 and exposing the original floors”

The owners received a $200,000 loan from the city for the project. They estimate their total cost for the business at just over $1 million. They hope to open by next fall.

Gary Gisselman, historian for the Marathon County Historical Society, said the station used to be a busy place.

“It was used by central Wisconsin residents up until 1970 when passenger service ended at that depot,” Gisselman said. “For all those years, it was quite the hub for passengers as well as freight. A good part of our history revolved around that railroad depot there on Grant Street.”

The station became nationally known when Wausau Insurance featured it in a television marketing campaign in the 1950s.

“That depot became the symbol of Wausau Insurance and really Wausau. It put Wausau on the map for many years,” Gisselman said.

The insurance company later built a second, identical station on its campus on the west side of the city.

Weber said the Milwaukee Road depot, more commonly referred to as the Grant Street depot due to its address, would become a craft cocktail lounge, while the adjacent luggage building would be home to the distillery.

“We want to do vodka, gin, rums, whiskeys, brandies, bourbons and we want to start getting into other fun spirits, such as absinthe or chartreuses, in which you’re using local herbs and spices to make a Marathon County liqueur,” Weber said.

VanDenHeuvel predicted that the distillery would become a tourist attraction.

“I think this is an industry in its infancy in terms of distilleries where people can visit,” she said. “And we have the iconic train station.”

Gisselman, who is also a Wausau alderman, said he is happy that the new owners are restoring an important part of the city’s past.

“They’re working with the state historical society in Madison, so I know they have a keen sense of history, a keen sense of what that landmark has meant for the city of Wausau, so I think it’s a good thing,” he said.

There are a number of historic buildings in other Wisconsin communities that have been repurposed for distilleries and breweries.

Titletown Brewing Company in Green Bay also occupies an old train depot. Minhas Micro Distillery in Monroe is in an 100-year old historic building. The City Lights Brewing Company occupies Milwaukee’s old West Side Water Works plant. And in La Crosse, Pearl Street Brewery occupies the old LaCrosse Footwear factory.