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The Crystal Corner Bar at 60
The tavern's chronology opens a window on Madison history
The Crystal in 1952
The Crystal in 1952

I didn't know the history of the Crystal Corner Bar would be a window on Madison's past. I just liked hanging out there in the early '90s, back when I lived in a crummy old apartment on Spaight Street.

Then I got compulsive, starting with a question to a friend over a beer at the Crystal one night. How long do you think this place has been open?

Everyone we knew said they couldn't remember a time when the red Crystal Corner sign wasn't hanging over the sidewalk at Williamson and Baldwin.

I started looking in old city directories at the downtown library to see how far back I could find a listing for the place. Through those directories, I found names of former proprietors. Using newspaper archives, death certificates and oral histories from surviving relatives, I pieced together some facts about their lives.

As it turned out, the Crystal Corner dated back to 1947, and the people behind the bar had histories in Dane County dating back to 1863. They were some of the earliest settlers of the Williamson Street neighborhood.

Now 60 years old, it's a window on the present, too. It's an old Madison institution trying to survive the smoking-ban era.

Gone are the days when men from the Gisholt Machine Works plant drank and smoked and felt comfortable expressing their vices in the company of others. In post-condo Madison, nightlife is upscale and well ventilated, but the Crystal Corner isn't so sure it wants to be.

What follows is a chronology of the Crystal Corner's history, as well as its pre-history. And now I know. You can learn a lot about a city from the social paths that cross in a bar.

1863 Patrick H. Coughlin is born in Middleton on March 31. His parents move the family to Madison and establish a homestead in the 1200 block of Williamson Street, opposite the No. 3 fire station.

1885 German immigrant Reinhart Koellen marries Augusta Gersbach in Madison. The couple reside in a three-story, 13-room house at 314 N. Bassett St., where they board UW students.

1890 A son, Philip, is born to Patrick Coughlin and Anna Roche on Feb. 15.

1897 A daughter, Florence, is born to Reinhart Koellen and Augusta Gersbach on Oct. 20. Florence is the second of seven Koellen children.

1917 Phil Coughlin marries Florence Koellen, and the couple set up residence at 1304 Williamson Street. Phil works as a billiards salesman. Phil's parents, Patrick and Anna, reside at 1129 Williamson and are the proprietors of the Atlas Hotel.

1919 The A&P Tea Company operates out of 1302 Williamson Street, the current site of the Crystal Corner Bar.

1935 Patrick Coughlin enters the tavern business, opening Coughlin & Barber tavern at 1314 Williamson St. with Arthur I. Barber. A Thrifty Food Store opens at 1302 Williamson.

1938 Phil Coughlin dies at 48 on March 1. The causes of his death listed on his death certificate are pneumonia and alcoholism. Florence Coughlin is widowed at 41.

1939 Coughlin's Tavern moves into 1302 Williamson St. It is owned by Patrick Coughlin and co-operated by his daughter-in-law, Florence. Florence resides in the flat above the tavern.

1944 Patrick Coughlin dies at 81 on Dec. 26. Florence continues to operate Coughlin's Tavern and applies to become the holder of the liquor license. Her application is approved, making her the first woman in Madison to hold a liquor license.

1946 Florence Coughlin, 49, marries Bob Weber, 44. Weber grew up in Belleville, where his family operated Weber's Family Meat Market. Weber worked at Oscar Mayer and had five children from a previous marriage.

1947 No longer a Coughlin, Florence Weber decides to remodel her tavern. The exterior door of the tavern is redesigned to be framed by glass block, prompting Florence to rename it the Crystal Corner Bar. Her husband, Bob, works as the tavern's manager, but Florence remains the sole proprietor. Bob moves into Florence's flat above the bar.

1953 A Sept. 21 newspaper picture shows the 18 officers and directors of the Tavern League, 17 of whom are men. Florence Weber is seated far left.

Two other newspaper stories involving Florence appear around this time. One reports that she was fined $250 in Superior Court for "illegally permitting brands of whiskey to be mixed in bottles at the tavern."

The second story is part of a gossip column: "Florence Weber and I think two of her sisters have gone to Florida. Florence is behind the wheel and she's got a bunch of traveler's checks thicker than the Chicago phone book."

1955 Vohn R. Welch is bartending at the Crystal Corner. He would continue into the 1970s. He is noted as being one of the most popular personalities associated with the tavern throughout its history.

Around this time, Florence begins offering check-cashing services inside the Crystal Corner to Gisholt Machine Works employees for a surcharge. To prevent a conflict with laws prohibiting surcharges on check cashing, she gives each employee a "free" shot of liquor and associates the surcharge with the shot. Gisholt was the largest employer in the neighborhood.

1965 Florence Weber sells the Crystal Corner to Stan Hinze, owner of the Green Lantern Tavern in McFarland. The Webers move out of the flat above the Crystal, into a home along the Yahara River. Their retirement from the tavern business is noted in the local newspaper:

"The Crystal Corner bar is one of the busiest and most profitable taverns in this area. It requires the services of five bartenders and a janitor. It has one of the most modern installations, as well as a playroom with four shuffleboards. Florence and Robert are active members of the Tavern League of Madison and are faithful in attendance at all local, state and national conventions. Their departure from Madison is regretted by their many customers and friends."

1969 The Madison phone book features an ad for the Crystal Corner that includes this text: "Pizza, Complete Variety, Carry-Outs, No Delivery, Hamburgers, Your Favorite Beverages, 'See Our Go-Go Girl on Film.'"

Describing the go-go girl, Hinze said, "We had a little TV right above the front door, and the go-go girl would dance for the working man."

1974 Hinze sells the Crystal Corner to two young friends who live in the Mifflin Street area - Dave Day and Dick Story. Day and Story continue to own the tavern today.

1976 Tim Tully, a saxophone player for the Blue Light Band, convinces Day to book a show and begin hosting live music at the Crystal Corner. A makeshift stage is made by laying a piece of plywood across two pool tables in an alcove of the tavern. Over the next 25 years, the Crystal becomes a leading blues-rock venue. Acts include Buddy Guy, Timbuk 3, Leon Russell, Mitch Ryder, Spirit and Canned Heat. Local performers include Paul Black, Marques Bovre and Paul Cebar.

1980 Florence Weber dies at 83 on Jan. 5 at Madison General Hospital. She is buried at Resurrection Cemetery. Her obituary reads, "She was the former owner of the Crystal Corner Bar and a member of the St. Patrick's Catholic Church, the Moose, Elks, Eagles Lodges, the Catholic Women's Club and the St. Patrick's guild."

1984 Todd Franicevich is hired to work as the Crystal Corner doorman. In his trademark black cowboy hat, black sleeveless T-shirt and black boots, "Todd the Doorman" becomes the unofficial mascot of the Crystal for the next 11 years, until he moves to Montana in 1995.

1988 In the early morning hours of Feb. 24, two fires badly damage the apartments above the Crystal Corner. Smoke and water damage close the tavern.

The Crystal Corner reopens on July 24 after a $250,000 remodeling project, installation of a new sound system and the addition of neon lighting to the old glass block. Bill Dixon, then campaign manager for Ed Garvey's 1988 U.S. Senate campaign, is quoted in a Wisconsin State Journal story about the reopening.

"This is the best bar in Wisconsin," says Dixon. "There are government officials, there are bikers, there are neighbors, there are street people. But when you walk in the door they're all friendly."

1994 On a Halloween Monday night that includes a Bears-Packers game, 100 customers come to the Crystal Corner dressed as Todd the Doorman.

1995 Architect Kenton Peters plans the redesign of the Union Transfer building at 155 E. Wilson, converting it into more than two-dozen condominiums. His work begins a transformation of downtown nightlife and culture that takes hold on the near east side.

2000 Luther's Blues opens on University Avenue, diverting music shows away from the Crystal Corner. The Crystal Corner shifts its booking to younger, local bands, like the Junkers and NoahJohn.

The historic Crystal Corner sign is remodeled. A billboard replaces the "Package Goods" plaque below the red Crystal Corner letters. "Package Goods" was a post-abolition euphemism for alcohol.

2005 Madison institutes a ban on smoking in certain public places, including taverns. According to Dave Day, the ban substantially harms business at the Crystal Corner, forcing him to reduce his hours and lay off one full-time bartender and one cleaning person.

2007 In an interview, Day says the smoking ban has taken all the fun out of operating the Crystal. "It's completely changed the social dynamic here," he says, expressing his frustration that old customers no longer feel welcome "to be themselves."

The Crystal Corner has a site on the Web, posting a schedule that includes a weekly Monday performance by the Kissers and a weekly Tuesday show by the Hometown Sweethearts. The banner at the top of the site reads, "Everyone has a great time!!!"

Happy birthday, Crystal Corner. Your future is ours.

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