5 Big and Bygone Eau Claire Venues

Tom Giffey

Eau Claire Auditorium
Eau Claire Auditorium | Image: Chippewa Valley Museum

1. Eau Claire Auditorium (122-134 N. Barstow St.)

The Eau Claire Auditorium and Armory opened in 1919 at the corner of North Barstow and Galloway streets. It featured a large stage and could seat 2,000. It was designed by Chicago architect George Awsumb, who grew up in Eau Claire and also designed Eau Claire City Hall. When it was dedicated, the Eau Claire Leader carried the headline, “Only Regret Expressed Is That Building Is Not Large Enough.” In the 1960s, it was demolished to make way for a post office. 

2. Opera House (406 S. Barstow St.)

The Eau Claire Opera House, later the Grand Opera House, was built in 1883 at a cost of $60,000. It covered most of a city block, bordered by South Barstow Street, Main Street, and Graham Avenue (then called River Street). With a elaborate finishings – including a 14-foot chandelier – and a capacity of 1,200 to 1,500, the Opera House was touted as the best of its kind in the state. In 1897, the Opera House hosted the city's first film screening. The building was demolished in 1938.

Fournier’s | Image: Chippewa Valley Museum
Fournier’s | Image: Chippewa Valley Museum

3. Fournier’s Ballroom (658 First Ave.)

Built around 1887 as an armory, Fournier’s Dancing Academy and Ballroom opened in 1900. A formal ballroom for its first 25 years, in the 1920s Fournier’s began catering to younger audiences with newer sounds. It hosted musicians and bandleaders like Glen Miller, Lawrence Welk, and Louis Armstrong. In the ’50s and ’60s, Fournier’s was the place to hear rock ’n’ roll: Buddy Holly brought the Winter Dance Party tour there in 1959, just a few days before he died in a plane crash. Fournier’s closed in 1971, and the site is now a parking lot for the Eau Claire County Courthouse.

4. Driving Park (Third Ward)

What is now the Third Ward neighborhood – just east of the UW-Eau Claire campus – was once occupied by a Driving Park. A racetrack was built in 1874, and over the years the area was also used for baseball, circuses, and even Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The 500-seat covered grandstand was moved to the southeast corner of Garfield Avenue and State Street so a new ball field could be built in 1914. The grandstand was demolished in 1926 and the athletic facilities made way for houses. Yet some evidence of the past remains: The curve where McKinley and Roosevelt avenues connect follows the old racetrack’s path.

5. Fanny Hill (3919 Crescent Rd.)

Before it closed for good in 2015, Fanny Hill was a restaurant, a bed and breakfast, and a well-known dinner theater that drew locals and busloads of visitors. The place first opened in 1969 as a beer-only bar named The Barr after then-owner Larry Barr. In 1978, it became a dinner theater, with a bed and breakfast and Victorian garden added later. Fanny Hill played a crucial role in local music history: The Chippewa Valley’s first big music festival – Shake, Rattle, and Roll – was held in the Fanny Hill parking lot in 1987.