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. As a young man, Wagner immigrated to America and lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years, where he married and had a son, Charles. The records are unclear about what became of his first wife, but we know that George was later married to Anna Mabel Wagner. The couple had two more children, Frank and Rose.
Monroe and the Mill Years
In 1905, the Wagner family moved west to settle in Monroe. In partnership with with brothers Harry and Ed Wilson, George and his eldest son Charles purchased the town’s sizable milling operation. The two Wagners, father and son, took the reins as the working partners of the Wagner and Wilson Mill.
The mill thrived, employing hundreds of workers over the next three decades. George prospered and built a stately family home which still stands just west of the Wagner Auditorium on Main Street. His eldest son, 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 1931, George Wagner passed away. Now the management of the mill was up to his younger son, Frank. Operations continued under Frank’s management until at last the mill was closed in 1936.
Monroe was now a rapidly growing community, and the schools were stretched thin. 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 over $500,000 in today’s dollars. Frank made this donation in his father George’s name, dedicating it specifically toward the construction of the auditorium. The building now bears the Wagner name as a memorial to 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 the years, the grand old building began to deteriorate. School district budgetary constraints, age, weather, earthquakes, and rodents took their toll. Eventually even the restrooms stopped working. The auditorium was reduced to an almost unusable condition.
This is where the Monroe Arts Council comes into the story. They 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, 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.