Funding boost for Wagner Performing Arts Center

Monroe Arts Council receives $10K matching grant to keep renovating historic structure

Kelly Sullivan

Piece by piece the Monroe Arts Council is bringing the Wagner Performing Arts Center back to being fully operational.

Snohomish County Councilmember Sam Low attended the organization’s monthly June meeting to offer a leg up, handing MAC Board president Lise Sexton a $10,000 matching grant from the Snohomish County Historic Preservation Commission.

“We wanted to donate this tonight to you guys to be an encouragement to help you guys keep going on,” Low said. “It’s not for the whole project — you guys still have to do your part.”

Sexton said the funds will cover about an eighth of the cost of the Wagner Performing Arts Center renovation project at 639 W. Main St.

The cavernous auditorium has become the site of many community shows and performances through an agreement MAC has with the Monroe School District, which leases the Wagner Performing Arts Center to MAC for $1 each year.

Attendees are able to use bathrooms in another part of the building not on the lease, according to MAC. The on-site facilities fell into disrepair years ago.

“School district budgetary constraints, age, weather, earthquakes, and rodents took their toll,” according to MAC. “Eventually even the restrooms stopped working. The auditorium was reduced to an almost unusable condition.”

The historic structure is distinct for its red brick facade, the Art Deco-style auditorium, and towering white pillars. MAC had the new “Wagner Performing Arts Center” name painted on the bright white portico in inky lettering two years ago, according to MAC.

The renovation is to bring the building back as the “cherished center for community events” it once was, according to MAC.

“Everyone on this board is absolutely committed to this project — this place is a gem,” Sexton said. “We don’t even know how lucky we are to have a place that holds this many people. Even the high school has been asking, ‘When are you guys going to be done, when are you guys going to be done, when are you guys going to be done?’”

Much is known about the beginning and decline of WPAC. Monroe had grown so much by 1937 that a new school was needed to house the student population, according to MAC. State and federal funds were secured for construction of a junior high school, but not enough to cover the cost.

Frank Wagner donated $30,000 for the project, according to MAC, which would be $500,000 in today’s dollars. Wagner was the son of George Wager,  co-owner of the large Wagner and Wilson Mill that operated for many years and employed hundreds of residents in the early 1900s. Frank Wagner’s  gift was in memory of his father and was specifically intended for building the auditorium.

Low said the preservation commission has recognized the importance of honoring the area’s history by supporting community projects like the WPAC renovation.

“We really wanted to put our effort and energy into helping groups like yours,” he said to MAC members.

This year more funding was set aside for that purpose than in years past, Low said. A total of $350,000 will go toward projects big and small throughout the county. A large portion has been allocated in Low’s District 5.

About $60,000 of this year’s budget was gifted to the Sky Valley Arts Council for the Startup Gym renovation. Low awarded about $12,000 to the Index Historical Society in May, to repair historical buildings and digitize the town’s printed newspaper copies.

Sexton said the goal is to start work on the WPAC bathrooms and install a new cap for the musicians pit in front of the stage by this fall. The original bathrooms were slowly dismantled by volunteers through work parties in 2015, according to MAC.

The nonprofit has started to bulk up its presence in the past year. Sexton announced ArtUpMonroe around this time last year, which is a new campaign to create more partnerships and connect the community to the arts through events, classes and projects.

WPAC was leant out for the Swift Night Out event in early September, Sexton said. For that reason, the Downtown Monroe Association is giving a replica of one of the stainless steel birds found in Sultan artist Kevin Pattelle’s “Wagner Swifts” sculpture on the corner of Lewis and Main streets.

The DMA started a program last year that allows people to buy individual swifts and fund more that will be added to the sculpture. About a dozen were to become a part of a historical walking tour.

Sexton said MAC’s movement is steady, but slow at times because it is volunteer-driven. Progress is entirely dependent on donations and extra hands, she said.

“If you guys love doing things for the community and being involved, we want you here,” she said.


Photo by Kelly Sullivan: Snohomish County Councilmember Sam Low presented a Snohomish County Historic Preservation Commission grant at the Monroe Arts Council’s monthly meeting at the Wagner Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 11.


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