Thanks for Asking | July 31, 2008

Frank Smoot

How did Demmler Park get its name?
    Thanks for asking! Demmler Park sits between Putnam (Drive, not Street or Heights) and Jefferson (Street, not Avenue or Court). On the north edge, the Demmler gardens (community garden plots) sit beside the Demmler house, a Queen Anne painted startling white, with little triangular windows on the turret.

In the 1890s, German immigrant Otto Demmler bought the land where the house and park sit from Sara Bull. He built a commercial greenhouse, covering most of the area where the park now sits. The gigantic structure looked like a backwards “S” if you saw it from the air (which you couldn’t, because airplanes hadn’t been invented yet) or if you saw it from Plank Street Hill (which you could, because the trees weren’t nearly so big then).

I think the greenhouse came down in the mid-1960s. In 1967, Otto’s daughter-in-law Vera gave the land — all except the house — to the City of Eau Claire, which gave it to the Eau Claire Area School District in 1983, which gave it back to the City in 1992. (Just a guess, but the ECASD probably thought of building there to replace the function of Park School, but in the end built Flynn School up on Lee Street.) The City opened Demmler Neighborhood Park in 1992. Demmler descendants still had an interest in the house into the mid-1990s.

Although she leaves the story pretty early, Sara Bull is worth another mention. By the time she sold the land to Demmler, she’d left the Chippewa Valley for Cambridge, Mass. Sara was not only the widow of Ole Bull, the renowned Norwegian violinist (Robert Schumann once wrote that Bull was among “the greatest of all,” on a level with Paganini; Bull was also a friend of Franz Liszt), but she also became a devoted student and friend of Swami Vivekananda, whom you might think of as the Father of Modern India. Mohandas Gandhi said that Vivekananda’s influence increased Gandhi’s “love for India a thousandfold.”

I’ve always admired that house on Bellevue that looks like a church. Can you tell me more about it?
    It opened as St. Edwards Chapel, Episcopal, in 1896. The congregation never really took off, and the structure became a private residence, say 1930? (although the church still owned it for a decade after). A lady named Inga Smith, who’d inherited it from her mother and lived in it until she was nearly 70, sold it in 1982. It has had half a dozen owners since; the longest-tenured was Matthew Playter. Playter (this is what I heard) did the remodeling inside to bring it to its current look. His dad was a realtor, developer, something like that.

The last time I was in the house (probably five years ago now), the sanctuary was still pretty much open as kind of a great-room, with a sleeping loft built in at a mezzanine level and a galley kitchen off to the side. In the basement, the baptismal font had been turned into a hot tub. In other words, greatest bachelor pad ever. It’s for sale again at the moment. Hey, wait a minute! Is that why you’re asking?! Dude.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it! Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 41 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.

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