Alderwoman Cummings hopes Common Council gives Les Paul Performance Center landmark status

Scott Ash
The Les Paul Performance Center has been recommended by the Landmarks Commission as a local landmark. It now just needs Common Council approval.
Published on: 1/21/2014

The Landmarks Commission had no problem in recommending the Les Paul Performance Center be designated as a local landmark.

But Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings knows there are no guarantees.

'It's not over,' said Cummings, as she chatted with her fellow commissioners after last week's meeting at the City Hall Council Chambers.

That's because the Common Council must still give its final approval. It is expected to render its decision at its Feb. 4 meeting at City Hall.

Cummings, the chairwoman of the Landmarks Commission, has her reservations because, she says, 'so much of our history has been lost to a bulldozer.'

With a passion for Waukesha's rich history, the alderwoman and County Board supervisor doesn't want to see this happen to the Les Paul Performance Center, formerly called the Cutler Park Band Shell.

'My main reason for having it be landmark status was to have it there for future generations,' Cummings said. 'By having it be a local landmark — and it does fit the criteria — it ensures that there is an opportunity that it will still be there and in the middle of the night something is not torn down.'

'Another reason in bringing it forward is we're approaching Les Paul's 100th birthday,' she added.

The structure, which has been used for the Waukesha Civic Band Summer Concert series for 70 years, was built in the summer of 1920; after a library expansion, it was moved slightly within Cutler Park. It was renamed the Les Paul Performance Center in 1988.

The facility is named in honor of Les Paul, the music icon who was born and is buried in Waukesha.

Sue Baker, one of Paul's closest friends, was in attendance at the Landmarks Commission meeting, and, like Cummings, is worried about the city losing its history.

'Les Paul's friends from around the United States come to Waukesha, and I give them personal tours, and it's awkward, at best, when I drive by the Walgreens on Madison Street and say to them 'this is where Les was born,' and I drive by the Golden Chicken on St. Paul (Avenue) and say 'this is where his house was,'' she said. 'Doing that is also to reduce the awkwardness that the City of Waukesha has torn down some important landmarks.'

Baker, who is also the program director of the Les Paul Foundation, said the facility is another way for Paul's memory to continue in Waukesha long after his 2009 death.

'We've lost a lot of landmarks because people didn't realize they were important,' Baker said. 'This building is important. I have been over there when there have been students from Central Middle School, and I've talked to them from time to time, and most know who Les Paul is, but when I tell them he was your age when he stood on that stage and that he went to your school, do you know the look on those kids' faces?

'That's the reason I want the Les Paul Performance Center landmarked and saved, so we know it will be there and to continue to inspire the children of this city not just (those) who are at Central this year, but in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years. I want the kids in our city to be proud of, No. 1, that Les Paul grew up in their city, but No. 2, for them to see the possibility that they can be the next Les Paul.'

Preserving this history is also important to Marilyn Hagerstrand, who gives tours of historic buildings in downtown Waukesha.

'I always get a good size crowd, and one of things I mention is the Les Paul Performance Center,' Hagerstrand said. 'We always have a lot of interest in it. I would hate to see that in the future, that when the library decides that it has to keep expanding, that the Les Paul band shelter would be taken down because of that.'

The Les Paul Performance Center is directly behind the Waukesha Public Library and sits inside Cutler Park, 321 Wisconsin Ave.

Library Director Grant Lynch was in the audience at the meeting but didn't speak during the public hearing.

Cummings, who came to Waukesha many years ago after growing up in Ohio, said she was excited to learn about the city's historical buildings and architecture when she arrived. But she has since become frustrated that some of it is going away.

'It's sad when we don't know our own history,' Cummings said.