A man considered to be Fort Atkinson’s own Frank Lloyd Wright has passed away.
Helmut “Mike” Ajango, whose numerous creative designs became regionally — and even internationally — known landmarks, died Friday, Nov. 15. He was 81 years old.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. .Monday, Dec. 2, at First United Methodist Church, Fort Atkinson. Visitation will take place at the church Ajango designed, Grace United Church, from 7 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1.
Born Nov. 30, 1931, in Voru, Estonia, Ajango was nine years old when he fled that country with his parents and sister in 1944. They had survived the first occupation of the Baltic nation by Josef Stalin’s brutal Russian regime, and the subsequent, but brief, German takeover.
In Germany, his parents worked as slave laborers in factories.
“When my parents were at work, it was my job to go down to the train station and collect all the coal I could find to keep us warm,” Ajango recalled in a 1980 interview. “I can remember going door to door begging for a potato or two to feed us. The Germans seemed to care about only how much we worked, but not if we went hungry.”
After the war in Europe ended, the Ajangos stayed in a divided Germany, where they lived in the French-occupied sector.
“My family soon discovered that the American sector had better advantages and would take better care of displaced persons,” Ajango said. “The Americans had the German residents leave their homes and stay with other relatives or friends so the ethnic groups could have a place to stay.”
The family immigrated to the United States after World War II in 1949, when Helmut was 18 years old. They landed in New York harbor to the sight of the Statue of Liberty, the music of a band playing and people welcoming them.
“We were treated as if we were royalty,” remembered Ajango.
The Ajangos traveled to Vermont, where they worked on a farm for a short time. Then, through various arrangements with friends they had known in Estonia, they moved to Indianapolis, Ind., where Ajango attended school and received a scholarship for the Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.
Ajango worked his way through seven years of college, graduating from Wittenberg University in 1953 with a major in art and math, and then from the University of Illinois-Urbana in 1958 in architecture.
Prior to completing his architecture degree, Ajango joined the army and served two years as a meteorologist in the artillery during the Korean War. He became a naturalized citizen upon his return home.
Ajango worked with Marlay W. Lethly, architect, Springfield, Ohio, from 1951-56, and with Eberhart and Murphy, architects and creative builders, Urbana, Ill., as head designer from 1956-58.
He came to Fort Atkinson in 1958 to join Waterman, Fuge and Associates as head designer. A few years later, he started his own firm, Ajango & Butts Designers, and in 1965, Ajango assumed ownership of the practice he continued for the next nearly half-century.
Ajango designed countless buildings that received high acclaim, but undoubtedly his most poignant achievement took place in 1989 when he won an international competition to design a monument in Tartu, Estonia, for placement over a mass grave of 192 Estonians murdered by the Russians in June 1941.
Funding became scarce after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the memorial’s construction was put on hold. A decade later, the major of Tartu resurrected the project, which was completed in 2001. The Ajango family traveled to Estonia for the monument’s dedication (see related stories on page 3).
“It’s fantastic that they allowed me to do this,” Ajango told the Daily Union prior to the trip. “For a country architect from Fort Atkinson to be allowed to dedicate something for the entire 60,000 is humbling.”
Closer to home, Ajango’s innovative, forward-thinking architectural style was well represented in two Jefferson County restaurants: The Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson and The Gobbler Supper Club and Motel in Johnson Creek.
It was in the early 1960s when Dick and Betty Klopcic went before the city council to request that the city install sewer and water lines to their proposed Fireside Restaurant because their high architect fees were keeping them from being able to afford it themselves. In the back of the room was a young Helmut Ajango, new to town, who was in attendance as a requirement for his Jaycees leadership project.
Later, city attorney Harold Smith pulled Dick Klopcic aside and told him about this architect, so Dick made a point to visit him to apologize for his offhand comment about architects and have him take a look at the plans he had to see if they could be improved upon. Ajango and Butts did, knowing they should come back with something completely different that increased the seating capacity without increasing the cost.
“Several people were quite taken aback by the new idea, including the bankers who felt it was too far ahead of its time,” Fireside Dinner Theatre director Ed Flesch said in presenting Ajango with the establishment’s Flame of Friendship Award in 1995.
Flesch reminded the audience that this was during the 1960s and a comment had been made was if you wanted a 1980s building now, Ajango is the man to see.
“He didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment, but that was exactly what Dick was looking for,” Flesch said.
Dick Klopcic, now deceased, recalled at the time that when the bids came in for building the large stone fireplace — the showpiece of the restaurant — they were far out of budget. Seeing the Klopcics’ dejection, Ajango promised to redesign the fireplace so that it would be just as aesthetically beautiful, as well as affordable. The next day he returned with a design that was just like an imported Chinese flue, only with more modest materials and a much, much more modest pricetag.
The Fireside’s unique architecture and warm atmosphere, coupled with the Klopcic family’s penchant for customer service, made the restaurant and theater a huge success and one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist destinations.
Ajango himself went on to be successful and well known throughout Southern Wisconsin, having designed more than 175 churches in the area.
“His use of a Prairie style utilizing natural materials and featuring the inherent beauty of the materials with the ‘bones’ of the building exposed, thereby displaying the work of plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen that is usually hidden is widely recognized,” Flesch said at the Flame of Friendship awards ceremony. “In fact, many ministers specifically asked for a design similar to The Fireside, appreciating its use of humble materials and practical design.”
Meanwhile, in 1966, Ajango was asked to design The Gobbler for Clarence H. Hartwig, who owned a turkey farm and large turkey-processing operation in the Johnson Creek area.
Built three years later, the circular building was known for its flambouyant style, with windows shaped like turkey eyes, custom-made turkey-design carpeting on the floor and deep lavendar shag carpeting adorning the walls, a revolving bar and an elevated dance floor called “The Roost.”
A well-known landmark and destination along Interstate 94, the Gobbler eventually closed in 2003. The hilltop motel was razed.
Of course, Ajango designed many other structures, among them Racine’s Mount Pleasant Church, which received national recognition; Evansville High School; the Watertown office building on Madison’s Monona Drive; the Manchester Building on the square in Madison; the expansion and renovation of the Hoard Historical Museum; and the renovation of the Mack and Wilson buildings and Fort Atkinson Municipal Building in downtown Fort Atkinson.
He also was responsible for the redesign of the First Federal Building into the current Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce office; the first expansion and remodeling of the Bank of Fort Atkinson, now Johnson Bank; the conversion of the Black Hawk Hotel into a senior community-based residential facility; and several additions to Nasco.
Ajango provided his architectural knowhow as a community service in many instances. Among the churches he designed and helped build was his own, Shalom Presbyterian Church, which now is Grace United Church. For 10 years, Ajango mowed its lawn, and he worked on a redesign and remodeling, doing most, if not all, of the carpentry, drywalling and roofing throughout the years. When he purchased the Faith Community Church building on Main Street and remodeled it into apartments, Ajango donated the portable classrooms to Shalom.
Earlier in his career, Ajango designed the wading pool shade cover at the original municipal pool and helped with the dome park shelter at Rock River park; instigated the chamber brochure titled “Fort Atkinson: City of Progress,” researched material and drew detailed city and county maps for use by the Fort Atkinson Fire Department, designed staging and sets for the Fort Atkinson Community Theatre, and helped write, conduct and distribute a civil defense survey ... all gratis.
But that was not all. Ajango gave of his time and talents to design the Fort Atkinson bypass, chamber of commerce and municipal building signs, restrooms in Ralph Park and a community-built house for a former chamber tourism director.
A Board of Zoning Appeals member for 20 years, Ajango physically helped with the remodeling of the Hoard Historical Museum and was a member of the chamber of commerce board of directors. In addition, he was involved in the Gifted and Talented Education Program in the School District of Fort Atkinson for several years and participated in the job shadow program, serving as a mentor for some 25 young people, advising and encouraging them to enter the field of architecture.
Back in the 1970-80s, he chaired the Miss Fort Atkinson Pageant, designed and built many floats for the Fort Fest parades, designed Fort Fest buttons and did a design and long-range plan for downtown redevelopment for the Fort Atkinson Beautification Council.
In addition, Ajango served as president of the local Jaycees in the 1960s and chairman of the chamber’s city beautification committee and the downtown improvement committee. He coached a girls’ softball team, sponsored a volleyball team and was a division chairman for what today is the United Way of Jefferson and Walworth Counties.
In his own field, Ajango was a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His architectural work received considerable acclaim, with a high school designed by Ajango being selected for display at a national convention of educators in Atlantic City in 1965.
Also in 1965, Ajango was selected by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as the “Outstanding Young Man of the Year.” He also received the 1965-66 Francis J. Plym Fellowship from the University of Illinois, consisting of a six-month fellowship to study architecture in Europe.
In 1998, Ajango was named Small Businessperson of the Year by the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Tonight’s recipient is someone who rarely has his picture in the paper, but you can find out quite a bit about him just by walking up and down Main Street ...,” then-chamber President Jon Strom said in presenting the honor. “Both his work and the donations of his time and talent to the Fort Atkinson area speak loudly of the impact he has had and is having on our community, not only now but, I am sure, well into future generations.”
He continued: “I heard recently that some people consider Helmut our local Frank Lloyd Wright. Frankly, I think we got a much better deal. Helmut, you have set an example of small business achievement and giving back to the community that we can only thank you for. Your life is an inspiration and a model for all of us. Fort Atkinson is a much better place because of you.”
In receiving the chamber honor, Ajango had said that he was truly surprised. He had been told to be sure to attend the banquet to talk about the State Highway 26 bypass signs.
“I’m truly, truly humbled,” said Ajango. “I do my talking with buildings ...”
Ajango recalled what Norm Godfrey of Fort Atkinson had said upon receiving the Fort Atkinson Lions Club’s Distinguished Community Service Award not long before.
“You shouldn’t give an award to someone who likes to do things and has fun doing it,” Ajango quoted Godfrey as saying.
Then in 1999, Ajango was named the winner of the Milwaukee Inner City North Avenue Redevelopment Project Architectural Competition, the North Central Business Association announced.
The project consisted of redesigning all buildings on one side of a city block. The NCBA is made up of local businesses in the North Central Neighborhood, bounded by Walnut Street, 20th, Locust and Interstate 43.
He was the Fort Atkinson Regional Science Fair honoree in 2002.
No matter where he worked or traveled, Helmut Ajango never regretted settling in Fort Atkinson.
“I enjoy the slow-paced life in Fort Atkinson,” he told the Daily Union two decades ago. “The people are friendly and the scenery of this community is very beautiful. I consider myself extremely lucky to have America as my homeland.”
Sadly, Ajango’s passing on Friday came fewer than two months after that of his son, Bradley, on Sept. 29, who died following a fall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Ajango and his wife, Martha, have two other grown children, Michael, of Green Bay, and Deborah Smith of Eagle River, Alaska. Memorials may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association. Dunlap Memorial Home is assisting the family.
Related stories in today's Daily Union: Designing Estonia memorial was reckoning for Ajango; Ajango at dedication of memorial to slain Estonians in 2001.