A Brief History of the
Wagner Performing Arts Center
An Immigrant Story
The Wagner Performing Arts Center owes its name to George Wagner, who was born in Germany on May 30, 1852 in the village of Möessingen. He was the third of 13 children. In 1870 at the age of just 17, he left his village of Möessingen emigrated to America aboard the steamship Hermann. He arrived in New York, alone and with little money, four days before his 18th birthday.
Earlier the same year, another young resident of Möessingen had also sailed for America: Anna Margarete Neth. The story goes that Anna had been married to George’s older brother and was pregnant, but the brother had died. Upon her arrival in America, George and his brother’s widow were married in New York. In September, she gave birth to a son, Charles. George and Anna later had two more children, Frank (1878) and Rose (1880).
The Wagners moved to Pennsylvania, where George found work in a sawmill. Industrious and ambitious, George eventually went into partnership with prominent judge Harry Wilson and his brother Ed, a businessman. In a classic tale of immigrant success, George was then able to buy the mill where he had started his career as a laborer. The new business venture was dubbed the Wagner & Wilson Mill. It operated for decades in Marion County, Pennsylvania, and George and his partners prospered.
Frank went off to college, but then tragedy struck. For reasons that are not clear, Frank lost his vision while away and was blind for the rest of his life. Diseases that can cause blindness such as meningitis and scarlet fever were still common at that time, but we can only speculate as to what actually happened to Frank. Nonetheless, he remained extraordinarily productive, working at his father’s mill bundling shingles and learning the business.
Monroe and the Mill Years
Shortly after the turn of the century, George Wagner realized that the sawmill business in Pennsylvania was losing momentum, and that the future of the business lay in the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. In 1905 the Wagner family moved west to settle in Monroe. George and his eldest son Charles purchased the town’s already sizable milling operation from the Stevens brothers. Still in partnership with the Wilson brothers, the new operation continued the name of its predecessor, the Wagner & Wilson Mill.
The mill thrived, employing hundreds of workers over the next three decades. All the Wagner family participated in the operations and management of the business, and the family lived at the mill camp in an unassuming cottage for years. Finally, in 1926 George built the stately family home which still stands just west of the Wagner Auditorium on Main Street.
Charles later married and moved away to Oregon to raise his family, but Frank and Rose remained in Monroe for the rest of their lives in the home their father built.
An era came to an end when the venerable George Wagner passed away in April 1931 at the age of 78. The business passed to his younger son, Frank. Operations continued under Frank’s capable management, until at last the mill was closed in 1936. Frank then opened the Wagner Lumber store at the corner of Lewis and Hill streets, where it operated for many years.
Monroe was now a rapidly growing community, and the schools were inadequate. In 1937, a special election was held to seek approval for the building of a much-needed junior high school. The measure passed, and federal and state monies were allocated. However, even the substantial government funds proved insufficient to pay all the construction costs.
A Leader Steps Up
Frank Wagner personally covered the budget shortfall with a generous gift of $30,000 – an amount equivalent to about $500,000 in today’s dollars – given in his father’s name. The building was completed and named the “Wagner Memorial Auditorium” in honor of George Wagner’s contribution to the early growth of the Monroe community.
Monroe Honors Frank Wagner
After many years of community leadership, Frank Wagner passed away in March of 1957. Fittingly, his funeral service was held in the auditorium bearing his family name. Mourners filled the theater to capacity. Those who could not attend marked the occasion in other ways; downtown businesses closed for an hour during the funeral service, the Monroe School District lowered the flag to half-mast, and students observed a moment of silence during classes.
Today, the nearby Frank Wagner Elementary school commemorates Frank’s own legacy, alongside that of his father George.
The Auditorium: Decline and Restoration
For decades, the Art Deco style auditorium with its distinctive white columns served as a cherished center for community events in Monroe. But over time, the grand old building began to deteriorate. School district budgetary constraints, age, weather, earthquakes, and rodents took their toll. Even the restrooms stopped working. The auditorium was reduced to an almost unusable condition.
The Monroe Arts Council
This is where the Monroe Arts Council comes into the story. The group had been seeking, without success, a suitable facility to showcase their music and theater performances. The neglected auditorium presented both an opportunity and a challenge. The school board couldn’t afford to care for the building, and the M.A.C. needed a venue. In late 2012, the Monroe Arts Council entered into an agreement with the Monroe School District to lease the building for $1 a year; in return, the M.A.C. would care for and renovate the building.
Job #1 was the restroom situation. The original facilities were in complete disrepair and lacked wheelchair access. The M.A.C. engaged an architectural firm, and plans were drawn up for the remodel. Meanwhile, with the help of many community volunteers and sponsors, the decrepit plumbing and broken toilets were demolished to make way for renovations.
The work parties continued, with volunteers removing junk, repairing and painting walls, and more. The new bathrooms were not yet built, but the Monroe School District allowed access to adjacent school restrooms for patron use during performances. While far from perfect, this arrangement was enough to bring the building back to usable condition.
Today the auditorium is once again in use and available for rental to the public. In the autumn of 2016 the M.A.C. hired a signage company to emblazon the new name of “Wagner Performing Arts Center” across the building’s portico.
Much remains to be done.
The top priority is to complete the rebuilding of the restrooms. The renovation committee continues to work with our architects to overcome unexpected structural challenges and other issues that arise in the renovation of any old building. After many delays, the work of rebuilding is expected to begin soon.
A second priority is to upgrade the ventilation system, keeping the building comfortably cool in summer and heating it more efficiently in winter.
Ways to Help
Efforts of this magnitude are costly and time-consuming. The M.A.C., a registered 501c(3), is supported by membership dues, public donations, grants, and proceeds from fund-raising activities. Please consider supporting this renovation effort by joining the M.A.C., or making a donation of money or services.
The M.A.C. is committed to preserving the gift the Wagner family bestowed upon our community over 80 years ago. Our vision is to restore the grand old auditorium to its rightful position as a center for community events in Monroe – the town the Wagners helped to build.