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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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‘The story of our country’: 111-year old Italian Workmen’s Club seeks national historical certification

Nestled on Regent Street, the Italian Workmen’s Club is seeking registration with the National Register of Historic Places.

Dotted on the walls of the Italian Workmen’s Club (IWC) on 914 Regent St. in Madison are photographs, memorabilia and artifacts — a group photo of club members estimated to be from the 1930s, letters from grateful scholarship recipients and a memorial to club members lost in World War II. 

Together, these photographs tell the story of a community hub with more than a century of history, stories and legacy on its walls.

That history is exactly what’s driving the club to seek registration with the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the United States National Park Service.

“It’s a pretty amazing story for a little clubhouse built by hand during nights and weekends by club members, that [over 100 years] later the clubhouse is still operating,” IWC Vice President Joe Tripalin said. 

Italian immigrants, mostly from Sicily, formed the club in 1912 to “support and nurture the [Italian] immigrant population” who comprised much of the Greenbush neighborhood at the time, Tripalin explained. When the club first began, its focus was on assimilation — providing resources for the often impoverished club members to learn English and support each other.

Since the 1960s, the club has been more focused on maintaining members' heritage and “memories of the area.” “Urban renewal” demolished the area in the 1970s to make way for new real estate development the city of Madison wanted. The club existed throughout decades of development and building teardowns in the Greenbush neighborhood, said Tripalin, with many people “having to give up their homes and relocate.” 

“But for the whole, now, 111 years, this has been a men’s club devoted to the Italian community,” he said. There is a separate women’s club.

These days, the club offers Italian language classes, assistance in applying for dual citizenship with Italy and community events. Currently, there are about 160 members in the club.

“We’re always working on maintaining our club with a sufficient number of members that allow it to be an effective organization,” Tripalin said. 

Applying to the registry

The idea to apply for National Register placement started with a successful 1990s effort to have the clubhouse designated as a Madison historical marker, Tripalin said. 

“For the last 30 years, it’s had that designation, and recently, that brought forth an idea that maybe we should seek national recognition,” Tripalin explained.

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ItalianWorkmansClub.jpg

Courtesy of Delia Langefeld


In 2022, Tripalin and fellow members collected documents laying out reasons the clubhouse should be considered for national recognition and shared them with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) as part of seeking Register placement.

SHPO decided to continue working with the club to create a “more in-depth historical look at the clubhouse and the neighborhood around it” for an eventual presentation to the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Review Board. If approved, it would put the IWC on the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places.

From there, SHPO would do more editing before sending the application to the National Park Service, which would issue a decision on National Register placement within 45 days, according to Ian Gort, a historic preservation specialist at SHPO.

“They reached out to us, and we got them in the process,” Gort said.

Gort said the National Register program looks at four criteria — architectural, archaeological, “broad patterns of history” and “significant person[s]” — for historic significance, although a building only needs to meet one. Architectural and broad patterns of history are the simpler criteria to demonstrate, Gort said — but altogether, the criteria “cover a lot of areas.”

SHPO found the IWC is potentially eligible for “broad patterns of history” for Madison’s social history and ethnic heritage, Gort said. 

“Being a workmen’s club and a social hall, it does have those key characteristics,” he added.  

Gort also said the club still being recognizable for its original intent is another helpful factor in determining significance. 

“For each building, it needs to have two things: it needs to have significance, and it needs to have integrity,” Gort said. “It can’t just be an old building, it needs to have enough of its key defining features and characteristics to represent the time in which it’s significant.” 

Triplain said national register placement would provide a “sense of accomplishment” for a location tied to an immigrant community.

“[National recognition] would be a sense of pride and a sense of recognition that this humble building club, [which] members built by hand, was really an important part of the Italian community in Madison,” Tripalin said. 

A modern university tie

Delia Langefeld, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student and president of the UW-Madison Italian Club, experienced the IWC firsthand during a visit. 

“For me, it was an incredible visit because many of our Italian Club members have Italian ancestry,” Langefeld said. “So, this visit showed us not only the struggles that our family members had faced, but also the community that they were able to form together in places like the Italian Workmen's Club.”

During the visit, she learned that many of the original Sicilian immigrants in Wisconsin were brought in to work on the masonry for the state capitol building. 


ItalianWorkmansClub.jpg

Courtesy of Delia Langefeld


“As the Capitol is such an iconic symbol of Madison, I think that’s such a special story to tell for Italian culture and history here,” Langefeld explained. “It makes me feel proud to be Italian and to see that story continue here.”

Langefeld saw the IWC’s longevity and important, continual role in Madison’s Italian community as a key factor for why it deserves National Register placement. 

“The fact that it’s still standing is so important, and it serves the same purpose today that it did when it started hundreds of years ago,” she said. “And that purpose is to form community.” 

Interpreting that long-standing history is part of why the National Register exists, said Gort.

“The National Register is a really good way of making sense of some of our material culture and understanding what’s left,” Gort explained. “How do these buildings continue to represent the past?”

Beyond the register placement, Tripalin said the IWC is currently working with developers on Regent St. to preserve the Greenbush neighborhood’s history with murals and information about the neighborhood that will “help people understand what was there in the past.” 

“From a young person’s perspective, I’m not always sure that they realize some of the history behind how their grandparents or great grandparents got here to this country, what they had to do to make it work for themselves, " Tripalin said. “It was kinda tough going — they did the best that they could, and most of them ended up to be proud Americans. And that’s kind of the story of our country.”

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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