The city of Winona is nominating the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Nothing really compares to it anymore. During the Winona Athletic Club’s heyday, over a thousand people gathered for the club’s annual picnics and young Winonans strutted their stuff in New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day balls. Bowling tournaments drew teams from five states, weddings were booked two years in advance, and hundreds of children lined up for Christmas goodies.
“The Athletic Club — geez, that was the hub of the East End and probably the hub of Winona because the Christmas parties and New Year’s parties — you couldn’t park for blocks,” longtime club member Mike Yahnke said.
Founded by a handful of young men in 1898, the Athletic Club’s current building was built in 1930 and the club’s membership grew to a peak of 1,200 in the 1960s. The group raised money for scholarships, for soldiers overseas, for the family of deceased club members — even for club members’ kids’ sports tournaments. “The club was so, so generous,” Yahnke said.
Nicknamed “The Polish Embassy,” the Athletic Club served as the unofficial capitol of the East End’s Polish-American community. According to club records, the organization even raised money for the Polish Army during World War I — as well as selling U.S. victory bonds and sending cigarette-laden care packages to U.S. soldiers — at a time when Poland was not an independent country but Poles were fighting with the Allied Powers in Europe.
“Everyone went to the club, and everyone belonged to the club,” Winona City Council member and long-time club-goer George Borzyskowski stated. Unions met there, professional sports players made appearances, and Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey was a member. It was a mandatory stop for political candidates. “Anyone running for state office — you made a stop at the Winona Athletic Club,” Borzyskowski said. “It was a working man’s club and an executive man’s club and they meshed together,” he added.
For many Winonans, Fifth Street and Mankato Avenue was the city’s social center.
“The Athletic Club was one hell of a big deal,” Yahnke stated.
Now, the city of Winona is preparing to nominate the Winona Athletic Club to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. If awarded, Winona Heritage Preservation Commission Chair Kendall Larson said a spot on the National Register would be an honor for the Athletic Club. “If we don’t designate these places, they sometimes get forgotten,” she added. Club manager Terry Howell said that recognition could help the club as it aims to restore its historic, but aging building and revive its status as a social hub.
The Athletic Club is still a gathering place. The River City Ballroom Dancers still carve up the dance floor upstairs, local unions use it as a meeting hall, the club’s age-old Christmas parties still give out treats to local kids, a recent Polish dinner sold out, and of course the bar serves the public and loyal regulars. However, the six-lane bowling alley in the basement has been out of commission for years, and the club’s membership is now down to 125.
“It’s happening to every club across the U.S.,” Yahnke said. “The old members pass away and us guys … you try and you try and you try, but you can only do so much.” Younger generations aren’t joining bowling leagues, Elks Lodges, and other civic and social organizations like their parents and grandparents did. “I just think nowadays, people are more family-oriented,” Howell said. “Nowadays, both the husbands and the wives have to work 40-50 hours.”
“A lot of people think we’re going to be closing because Rocco’s [Pizza] moved out, and that’s a fallacy,” Howell said. “We’re doing good considering. We have a good following that comes in, but we just need to do more.”
The club needs to do more to draw people, and it needs to spruce up the building, Howell explained. “Father Time is starting to catch up,” he said of the place’s appearance, while also noting, structurally, the place is built like a fortress. “We’re trying to get on the National Register of Historic Places so we can start making the place look nice and making it so people want to come in,” he stated. Howell said he would like to replace the roof, put fresh paint on the interior, rehabilitate the bowling alley, and get the club’s kitchen up and running again.
During the city of Winona’s recent East End Neighborhood Study with Engage Winona, numerous East Enders also said that seeing the Athletic Club restored was one of the top dreams they had for their neighborhood. Wishes to see more vibrant businesses on Mankato Avenue north of Sarnia Street was another common thread. “Many said a Mankato Avenue transformation starts and would be sustained by a revitalized Athletic Club,” Engage Winona’s Brian Voerding wrote in a report on the East End public outreach effort. “[Residents] described it as a business and cultural institution that’s long been a neighborhood cornerstone, and represents a big opportunity to be reimagined to serve the diverse social and cultural needs of the neighborhood.”
The club building certainly has a lot of space. The ballroom holds 300 people and the building has two kitchens. “There aren’t too many places that are this big where you could have big dinners or big dances,” Howell said. “I hate to say it, but it’s almost like this big building — it’s seen its better days, but I could see people coming back, because it’s so big, if we’d just fix it up again,” he added.
Borzyskowski said that in the past, club members would volunteer their time and expertise working on the club building. Howell said he has gotten some members interested in volunteering to paint, and that he hopes to capitalize on more volunteerism. “That’s what it takes to be a good club is good members. You’ve got to have good volunteers to have a successful club,” Howell stated.
“It was a very, very important piece of Winona’s Fourth Ward. I hope we can save it,” Borzyskowski said.
“If the club is going to survive, it’s going to be at the hands of people who are willing to put the money into it to make the club survive,” Yahnke stated.
The Athletic Club has made comebacks before. A 1954 fire burnt a huge hole in the dance floor and left the building smoke- and water-damaged, but it was rebuilt with even greater splendor, according to local newspaper articles from the time. In 1969, the Winona Daily News reported that financial challenges forced the club to temporarily close, but dedicated people righted the ship and ushered in a “resurgence of activity” at one of the city’s longest-standing social organizations.