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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse needs extreme makeover
But anonymity makes it harder to sound an alarm and raise funds
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Jim O'Donnell, by 511: 'We absolutely have to have money from the outside to make it.'
Jim O'Donnell, by 511: 'We absolutely have to have money from the outside to make it.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Just off Langdon Street, near sororities and fraternities, is a secret place. It's an ivory-colored brick house haunted by decades of shame, butfilled with countless stories of hope and redemption.

It may be the oldest continuously operating Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse in the world, and it's in big trouble.

More than a house is at risk. So is its mission. The Alano Society clubhouse, 511 N. Carroll St., needs $1.2 million for long-delayed renovation to continue providing relief to a cross-section of downtown alcoholics. Money so far has come in the same way as always, a dollar or two at a time, in baskets passed at meetings.

"They work hand to mouth," says Boris Frank, a former fundraising consultant who now heads the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society. "Each month is close to crisis. The building is in dire need of remodeling and upgrading."

Among other things, the 151-year-old building needs storm windows, heating work and repairs to flooring, plumbing and the foundation. But one factor working against it is the second half of AA's name - anonymous.

"Few people outside the recovering community are aware of 511 North Carroll," says Frank, who is providing free development assistance to the group. "We don't have the traditional mailing and prospect lists maintained by other nonprofits."

There are many AA meetings at various locations in downtown Madison, but 511, as it's called, is the only place alcoholics can drop by all day, every day, to join a meeting or hang out and socialize. As Frank puts it, "There are over 100 places in downtown Madison where you can get drunk. There's only one where you can recover."

Since it was acquired for use by AA more than six decades ago, the 511 clubhouse has helped students and professors, public and private powerbrokers, homeless drunks and addicts. All are equal there, but, says one member, its "core clientele is the neediest population." Each week, 150 to 200 people come to meetings here.

"Some very prominent people in Madison have benefited from 511," says Frank, whose second wife died of alcoholism. "They need to know that the site now needs their help in facing the future."

One of those prominent people is a man we'll call "John." He helped assemble one of the city's largest, most successful building projects. He's also an alcoholic. The 511 clubhouse played a key role in his recovery. It still does.

"That place was my salvation," says John, who went through an extensive, costly treatment program but couldn't stay sober until he found AA. "There's no doubt about it."

There are three other AA clubhouses in the Madison area, on the northeast side, in Fitchburg and Monona. The 511 clubhouse is in the Mansion Hill city and federal historic districts, and is one of the oldest buildings in Madison. It was built in 1858 by Willett Main. In 1926, the Main family sold it to Carl Fish, a UW professor. In 1948, it was sold for use by the fledgling Alcoholics Anonymous.

What became AA began in Ohio in 1935 as a series of informal meetings between a few alcoholics seeking recovery. They found sobriety in a sort of collaborative social work. Their efforts gradually crystallized as the first 12-step recovery movement, codified in 1939 in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, from which the organization then took its name. At that time, there were only 100 AA members nationwide.

That same year, Madison resident Harry Smith, an employee at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, formed the state's first AA group. By 1941, there were 30 local members. Even the locations of meetings were kept secret "as it might hamper those determined men and women of AA in their fight for themselves and those they help," The Capital Times reported in 1942.

AA quickly developed a number of governance policies. One is that AA cannot itself own "considerable property," which is considered a distraction from recovery. But parallel friends groups may, as separately managed corporations.

Thus the Alano Society was created as a Wisconsin nonprofit in 1943. A few years later, it purchased 511, hired a custodian to run it, and furnished it with beds for sick alcoholics. It was an early treatment center, with 75 members.

In recent years, the Alano Society has tried to address problems with the building, from wiring to wheelchair access and a variety of building-code violations. But before it could fundraise, the corporation first had to clean up paperwork problems that threatened its nonprofit status. Short-term renovation was performed and long-term planning was set in motion. Architectural and fundraising feasibility studies were done.

"All our ducks are in a row," says Jim O'Donnell, the Society's treasurer. Now the question is how to get the word out.

"We absolutely have to have money from the outside to make it," he says. "We really need help."

But AA's commitment to anonymity makes it harder to snare major donors, says James McKiernan, chair of the Alano Society fundraising committee. Though alcoholism has long been recognized as a disease, he notes, "People are loath to say, 'Yes, I'm one of you.'"

Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district includes the clubhouse, says it's been an excellent neighbor. In his 14 years in this role, he notes, "I can say with utmost certainty that there have been no concerns whatsoever. The services that they provide are invaluable to the community. From my time in the District Attorney's Office, I can tell you that a huge chunk of the cases that come up are related to alcohol and alcoholism. There's a crying need."

To help or be helped
Contributions for the AA clubhouse should be made out to the Alano Society Inc., 511 N. Carroll St., Madison, WI 53703. Major or corporate contributors can contact James McKiernan, 608-852-3881. For more information on resources for addicts, alcoholics and affected friends or family members in the Madison area, visit aamadisonwi.org.

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