The roots of the Crystal Corner Bar date back to one of Madison’s earliest families. Patrick and Margaret Coughlin were early settlers to Middleton in the 1860’s. By the 1880’s they had come to Madison and built a homestead at 1222 Williamson Street, opposite the old Number 3 fire station. Mr. Coughlin was a teamster in an era when teamsters drove teams of horses, not trucks.
Over a period of nearly 60 years that ended in the 1940’s, members of the Coughlin family were familiar faces to the Williamson business circles. Mr. Coughlin’s oldest son, Patrick Jr., was best known as the longtime owner and operator of the Atlas Hotel, which opened at 221 South Baldwin as early as 1916. Patrick Coughlin, Jr. married the former Anna Roche of Oregon, Wisconsin in the late 1880’s. In 1890 they had a son, Phillip B Coughlin, who would later open a tavern that became the precursor of the Crystal Corner.
Phil Coughlin attended Madison Central High School, Madison Business College and at one time interned in the office of the late Robert M. LaFollete, Sr. In 1917, at the age of 27, Phil married the former Florence Koellen, 20, of Madison. Florence would become the eventual founder of the Crystal Corner Bar.
Florence was born October 20,1897 in Madison to Reiner Koellen and the former Augusta Gersbach. She was the second of seven children. Reiner was a German army deserter who came to Madison in the 1880’s via France and Canada. He married Augusta in 1885 and worked for years as a carpenter contractor for John Findorff. The Koellen family lived at 314 N. Bassett in a 3 story, 13-room house, where Augusta earned extra cash by boarding UW students.
Phil and Florence spent virtually all of their married life, which spanned more than 20 years, living in the second floor flat above the site of today’s Crystal Corner. When they first moved there in 1917, the building had just been constructed and the first floor retail space was home to an A&P grocery.
Phil worked in sales for the Fauerbach Brewing Company and was Vice-president, and eventually President, of the Heilman Baking Company. Finally, in 1935, he opened a tavern at the corner of Williamson and South Baldwin that he simply called, Coughlin’s Tavern.
Three years later Philip Coughlin was dead at the age of 48. His death certificate lists a longstanding bout with alcoholism as the cause.
At the time of his death in 1938, Florence sought to maintain Coughlin’s Tavern, since it was her only source of income. But the City of Madison would not allow a woman to hold a liquor license. Florence turned to her father-in-law, Patrick Coughlin, Jr., who agreed to hold the liquor license while Florence managed the tavern.
This arrangement lasted for six years until 1944 when Patrick Coughlin, Jr. died at the age of 81. With that, Florence confronted City Hall for the right to be called proprietor.
According to a surviving nephew, Don Koellen of Lodi, Florence’s application was unanimously approved by the Madison Common Council in 1944, making her the first woman in city history to hold a liquor license.
In 1946 Florence returned from a European cruise and announced that she had married her travel companion, Bob Weber, a Belleville native. Bob was the son of a Swiss immigrant who founded the Weber Meat Market, which still operates today out of Cuba City.
Bob worked at Oscar Mayer and was a regular customer at Coughlin’s Tavern. He was also divorced and the father of five children. Two of these, George Weber and Frances Spears, continue to live in Madison today.
With her marriage to Bob, Florence was no longer a Coughlin. So she decided it was time to remodel the tavern and give it a new name.
Under the remodel, decorative glass block was installed to frame the tavern’s front door. The appearance of light shining through the glass block “like crystal” was the inspiration for the new name. Coughlin’s Tavern officially became the Crystal Corner Bar in 1947.
The Webers owned and continued to live above the Crystal Corner until 1965. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the Crystal Corner “was one of the busiest and most profitable taverns” in Madison in the 1950’s.
At the crossroads of a manufacturing district to its north and a residential neighborhood to its south, the Crystal Corner was both a shift-ending retreat for factory workers and a place for neighbors to socialize. The largest single source of business were the workers of the Gisholt Machine Tool Manufacturing Company, located at East Washington and Baldwin. Gisholt was the fifth largest producer of machine tools in the nation and employed hundreds of workers. On Gisholt paydays, Florence set up a table at the Crystal Corner to cash worker checks and sell them a beer or a shot of whiskey.
The colorful personality of Florence Weber had much to do with the popularity of the Crystal Corner at that time. Not typical of the women of her time, she was known for playing hard and was seen dancing atop barroom tables more than once. Her shrewd business practices commanded respect in a male-dominated field, but sometimes invited trouble, like the time she was fined $250 in superior court for illegally permitting brands of whiskey to be mixed in bottles at the tavern. Her taste for fashion earned her a place on the Wisconsin State Journal’s ten best-dressed list. A local social column once told the story of her road trip to Florida “with a bunch of Traveler’s Checks thicker than the Chicago telephone book.”
By 1965, at the age of 68, Florence’s enthusiasm for managing a tavern was waning. So she sold the Crystal Corner to Stan Hinze and retired with her husband to a home on the Yahara River.
Hinze had formerly owned the Green Lantern Tavern in McFarland. He remembers the Crystal as being “a good working man’s tavern.” But in 1971, following years of downsizing, Gisholt Machine Shop closed. Customers disappeared and Hinze struggled for a new approach to win business.
He installed a film machine inside the bar. For a quarter, a 16-millimeter tape beamed the image of a young woman dancing. The “Go-Go Girl on Film” became a staple of Crystal Corner advertisements. “She wasn’t nude or anything like that,” Hinze is quick to note.
The opportunity to retire in Wisconsin Dells, where he now lives, enticed Hinze away from the uncertainties lying ahead for the Crystal Corner. In need of youthful energy and vision, the Crystal hit the mark in 1974 with a new ownership team of Dave Day and Dick Story.
Day was 24 and Story was 28. They were young entrepreneurs who met when Day rented an apartment from Story on Mifflin Street. They expanded the tavern to nearly twice its size in 1975, knocking out a wall that separated the bar from what is now the dance floor. They put in pool tables. They added a trophy case to draw in city-league sports teams.
Slowly they built a coalition of loyal patrons – government workers, students, neighborhood old timers and Willy Street individualists.
In 1976 a guitarist from a local blues group called the “Blue Light Band” convinced Day and Story to move the pool tables on the night of St. Patrick’s Day to make space for a gig. The enthusiasm of customers sparked the booking of periodic blues and rock shows.
Still the road to success was uphill. Neighborhood problems surfaced. “It reached the point where I couldn’t enter the bar without being approached by a prostitute,” says Day.
Then Day received word that a motorcycle gang from the West Coast planned to relocate to Madison to make the Crystal Corner its home. He says this was narrowly averted due to the influence of Madison’s largest biker group, the C.C. Riders.
In 1988 Day and Story’s dreams for the bar had still not been realized. “We either needed to make improvements or move on to something else,” recalls Day.
Crisis and opportunity came on February 24, 1988. In the early morning hours, the apartments above the Crystal were badly damaged by two fires, believed to be set by someone who had threatened a tenant. No one was hurt, but smoke and water damage closed the tavern.
Five months later the Crystal reopened after a $250,000 remodeling project and the installation of a sophisticated sound system. Neon lights modernized the old glass block. Contemporary wallpaper replaced wood paneling.
Today’s Crystal Corner ranks as one of the best place in Madison to see live music, though Day and Story have no plans to convert this tavern into a strictly musical club. They believe the Crystal will have lost its way if it does not remain first and foremost a neighborhood bar.