The Shape of Things That Were

bow your heads to mourn the loss of goofy local landmarks

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

Let’s clear this up right away. I like the pagoda. I like it. The fake pagoda that used to sit atop the now-destroyed Woo’s Pagoda restaurant up on Hastings? Yes, I like it. I’m so glad the Chippewa Valley Museum was able to save it, and I hope they can do something awesome with it. I grew up seeing that thing, and it’s just great.

Quick reminder: I like the pagoda.

But the pagoda was weird. Yes, it was attached to the roof of a Chinese restaurant, and that makes total sense, but our collective affection for it doesn’t really add up. We’re a mid-sized Wisconsin city started by lumber barons and eventually sustained by tire and paper factories, then hospitals and a university. Having an approximation of Eastern Asian religious architecture – lined in neon, mind you – standing smack dab alongside our city’s most active motorway is just kind of ridiculous.

Is that why we like it so much, because it was so strange? I think that’s part of it. But more likely, it was just ... there. For so long. It’s part of the cobbled-together visual foundation upon which Eau Claire is built. In the hearts and minds of people still living here, the pagoda was a solid part of the local landscape. A weird part, but a part nonetheless. (And once you factor in the restaurant’s place in the local dining scene, and the original owner’s place in our community, accepting its demise becomes even more difficult.)

Having an approximation of Eastern Asian religious architecture – lined in neon, mind you – standing smack dab alongside our city’s most active motorway is just kind of ridiculous.

And it’s not alone.

When I heard that Ship Shape Car Wash (that longstanding ocean liner-esque building over on Clairemont Avenue) had closed, and the new owners were remodeling the place into a non-ship-shaped shape, my jaw dropped. Why would they do that? How could these people, who are keeping it a car wash, just casually tear apart a thing I’ve looked at for years? I mean, I was used to seeing it a certain way.

Well, as it turns out, the shape of a ship isn’t the best shape for a car wash. The familiar hull construction that works so well for pirates and other seafarers just isn’t very efficient for the washing of cars. Any admiral worth his peg leg would agree.  And so, another piece of iconic local eye candy has (understandably) bitten the dust.

And that’s OK ... right? Because the Ship Shape Car Wash was weird. I love weird stuff, I’m not against it, but exactly what made that building so important to us? It’s not like Eau Claire once a great seaport, a saltwater hub for ocean travelers. I’m pretty sure a cruise ship factory never supported countless area families for decades. There’s nothing intrinsically Eau Claire about a boat-shaped building. So again, why the affection?

Because it was there for so long. Not near as long as Woo’s fabled pagoda, but long enough, especially for people my age who can’t remember it not being there. For me, tearing it down or changing it is like reading Green Eggs and Ham without the ham or watching Star Wars without the Millennium Falcon. It’s like watching the Flux Capacitor get tossed into a landfill. Things just aren’t as cool without it.

I liked Woo’s Pagoda and Ship Shape because they were weird. Weird is good, perhaps great. But I really liked these things because, for whatever their origin, they’re fixed in my mental picture of this place, and thus, they’re fixed in me.

Just like the beloved rocket slide which used to stand in Carson Park – patiently awaiting liftoff, a gentle metal giant befriending generations of kid-sized locals – we used it, we loved it, and now we miss it. The rocket slide was torn down for scrap almost 25 years ago. And still we immortalize it like an old family dog.

Before you hunt down my email address, yes, I know there was one over in Riverview Park, as well. Rocket slides were built all over America. And the former Soviet Union. Heck, some of them still stand – just circular jungle gyms with a pointy bit on top. Does this somehow invalidate our nostalgia? Does it lessen their importance? Or course not.

These things – these bogus rockets, phony ocean liners, and faux pagodas – their shape does not symbolize anything local. They’re not metaphors for something in our region’s history. They just are. Not were. They’re still a part of this city, and so they’ve become a weird little chunk of who we are as people. And as such, they’ve become pretty hard to demolish.

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