PRESS EDITORIAL: Act now to protect the icon that tells Port’s story

The Port Washington Common Council needs to act right now to protect a precious city possession.

That possession is the Smith Bros. FISH building on the west harbor peninsula. The city does not own the building, but it owns the history it represents, and it must not let that be put in jeopardy.

The building, unmistakable with the word FISH spanning its facade in huge painted letters, is the last of the fish shanties that crowded the harbor area in the mid-20th century. It is the only vestige of the commercial fishing culture and industry that once defined Port Washington.

The building is not in immediate danger, but it is for sale for $1.85 million, and that raises warning flags. The jaw-dropping price reflects the value of the location more than the building. The site is at the very heart of the harbor, with water on three sides and an unobstructed panoramic view of Lake Michigan. The temptation to exploit that asset could be irresistible to a buyer.

And the building is vulnerable. It has no protection other than standard city zoning. It could be reconfigured into condos, enlarged with added stories or torn down and replaced with a commercial building or a house flaunting some sort of spectacular architecture.

It is up to city officials to do what it takes to make sure none of that ever happens. Guarding it through historical designation in some form is preferable, but the means are not as important as the result, which has to be unconditional protection.

The $1.85 million price tag itself invites consideration of the FISH building’s history and speculation as to what Captain Richard Nagrocki and his crew would have thought of such an exalted value put on their humble workplace.

Nagrocki was master of the 52-foot gillnet tug named Oliver H. Smith after one of the members of the family that owned Smith Bros. Fisheries. The vessel was moored for many years beside the FISH building, where when not at sea its crew worked mending and repacking miles of gillnets.

The building was distinctive when viewed from across the harbor not only for its eponymous sign, but for the pronounced sag at its midsection, likely the result of being battered by the enormous waves that surged into the then-unprotected harbor in easterly storms.

To survive such storms, the tug was moored with massive chains spanning the harbor bottom that held it well away from the dock. To reach the vessel, a long steel arm attached to the FISH building was sometimes used to swing a crewman out over the water.

Except for so-called “blow days” when the lake was too rough to lift nets, the Oliver voyaged daily some 20 miles out on the lake to lift and set nets. The catch of chubs was cleaned on the long trip back to the harbor, with a flock of seagulls invariably following to feast on fish parts tossed overboard.

The peninsula was in effect a community, devoted entirely to fishing, packed chock-a-block with shanties, smokehouses and a couple of counters where the public could buy fresh and smoked fish.

After commercial fishing collapsed, the peninsula was gentrified with a townhouse development taking the place of the shanties, but the FISH building was preserved by the developers in recognition of its historical value.

The structure was rebuilt, but except for the straightening of THE sagging facade its exterior is virtually unchanged. It still looks like a fish shanty. Since 2006, it has served as offices for a law firm.

City officials have expressed the hope that the new buyer will honor the building’s historical importance to Port Washington.

That’s a pleasant thought, but hoping isn’t good enough. This building is not just historical, a word that is used loosely and often applied to buildings simply because they are old. The FISH building is much more than that. It is a true icon that tells Port Washington’s story, and nothing less than a legal guarantee that it will be preserved in its present state should be accepted.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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